Friday, April 3, 2020

Translation in coronavirus, elections trial shows danger of neglecting Setswana

The extent to which the Administration of Justice (AoJ) is under-investing in consecutive translation services became starkly evident a fortnight ago when a High Court judge did a job that falls 2 kilometres outside his income bracket.

Justice Itumeleng Segopolo came to the rescue of the court interpreters when an exchange between the Independent Electoral Commission lawyer and a witness got lost in translation. To be clear, the court interpreters are doing a terrific job of working with a language (Setswana) that some Batswana are making disappear in public life. AoJ hires university graduates with academic background in Botswana’s official languages but it is clear that it doesn’t provide extensive and additional training in consecutive translation – which is a highly specialised field. Such training is necessary because what interpreters say or don’t say directly affects the outcome of a case and quality of justice.

To give just one example of a persistent deficiency, a fair bit of the interpreting seeks to establish a straightforward correspondence between individual words. In one instance, when a lawyer said “Let us assume that”, the Setswana translation was clearly source language-bound: “A re akanyetse gore …” It is reasonable to assume that a non-English speaker at a kgotla would likelier have rendered the unit of translation as “A re re …” in the target language. Then again, there is having to accept the fact that consecutive translation is extremely difficult and requires having to think on one’s feet within an unusually short period of time.

Various media organisations are live-streaming the trial on Facebook – which necessarily means that that platform’s peanut gallery was never going to pass up the opportunity to make snarky comments about the quality of the translation. It would be interesting to allow people making the snarkiest comments amateur hour at the interpreters’ table and hear what Setswana words they can cobble together, seconds after Advocate Duma Boko’s Xhosa (“ex abundati cautela”) has been defanged to the less gladiatorial “out of an abundance of caution.”

In addition to AoJ under-investing in the training of court interpreters, there is also having to appreciate the fact that the latter have to work with a language whose speech community is fast shrinking. The latter affects the development of the language because there are fewer and fewer people who are actively involved in the process of enriching Setswana. Sadder still, some of what passes for the language’s development is actually a cultural crime: one Btv reporter has been heard to repeatedly say “jaaka o ka re go ne go sa lekana.” That is direct translation for “as if that wasn’t enough” and the Setswana doesn’t make sense to a native speaker.

However, as the current global public health emergency shows, translation is important in relaying life-and-death messages. As Botswana recorded five suspected cases of the coronavirus last week, the Ministry of Health and Wellness sent an SMS alert to some Mascom subscribers. The English urging people to observe good personal hygiene was rendered as “ela tlhoko bophepha” – which is not what the English actually meant in the first place and doesn’t make sense in Setswana. A more appropriate translation would have been “tlhomamisa gore o phepha ka nako tsotlhe.” This is one of those instances when it is absolutely necessary to break the formal correspondence between surface structures functioning in the source language and target language in order to convey clear, unambiguous meaning.

Despite the fact that failing to communicate vital public health messages meaningfully can mean the difference between life and death, there is historical evidence of sloppy translation on the part of the ministry. When the National AIDS Coordinating Agency was established at the turn of the century, the head of public relations unit was a Shona man from Zimbabwe. The result was that he approved Setswana HIV/AIDS messages that were wide of the mark in terms of translation.

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