It would be nothing less than economic ineptitude to not mine the rich deposits of comedic gold that run through the body of a coronavirus public health alert that says people should clean their hands with alcohol-based sanitiser, at the precise time that alcohol sale has been banned.Coronavirus is no laughing matter but that little mining activity is important for the task of stripping the language bare. When Ministry of Health and Wellness officials on Btv say “alcohol-based sanitiser” during an English language presentation, a good many speakers of that language understand the context in which “alcohol” is used.
However, that is not the case when that term occurs in the middle of a Setswana presentation. With parties from organisations to individuals hoeing their own row in the dissemination of coronavirus health alerts, the use of “alcohol-based sanitiser” is more widespread than ever before. Most individuals use their own local languages and a pattern is emerging: “alcohol-based sanitiser” resists translation and that could be problematic.There is a cultural context to language use and there is a lot of it in this particular case. Across Botswana’s indigenous cultures, “alcohol” is understood within a particular context and it so happens that such understanding doesn’t comport with “alcohol-based sanitiser.”“Alcohol” refers to a broad range of organic compounds containing one or more hydroxyl – hydrogen and oxygen – groups.
In western science, there are three main types of alcohol: isopropyl, methyl and ethyl. Produced by combining water and propylene, isopropyl alcohol (or rubbing alcohol) has both disinfecting properties and a high evaporation rate and is used for sterilization. Its solutions are used as preservatives, antiseptics and medications. Methyl alcohol, which is also called methanol or wood alcohol, is primarily used as an industrial solvent. Ethanol (or ethyl alcohol) is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars and starches and before coronavirus restrictions, was used by over two billion people every day across the globe as a recreational drug.As used in an English-Setswana translative context, “alcohol” means ethanol and that is what registers in most minds when speakers of those languages hear that word. That is also the case in all other indigenous languages and could spell trouble in certain respects. This might seem far-fetched but one thinks of a situation in which, on hearing “alcohol-based sanitiser” occurring in the middle of a Setswana/isiXhosa/Wayeyi/Thimbukushu/ikalanga/Shekgalagari, an old woman asks her grandchild, whose own knowledge of alcohol is limited to ethanol, for an explanation. The answer would be an obvious one and it is possible that such explanation has been dangerously disseminated in some pockets of society.
Those with a knowledge of both indigenous knowledge and western science would be able to name the equivalent of isopropyl and methyl in indigenous cultures. The only difference is that isopropyl and methyl are not called alcohol in those cultures. That explains, in part, why “alcohol-based sanitiser” has been so difficult to tame translatively.The other difficulty appears to be a translative approach that is overly concerned with the semantic meaning of individual words than of the meaning they convey.The writer takes the view that on account of not being the recreational drug everybody is familiar with, “alcohol” in “alcohol-based sanitiser” cannot retain its literality because it doesn’t have a literal meaning in local languages. While the word cannot reincarnate itself in the target languages, it is still useful for purposes of conveying meaning – that it is an isopropyl and the translation should focus on what an isopropyl does. The final result would be a unit of translation that doesn’t mention “alcohol” at all (because otherwise it would be referring to a recreational drug) but deploys an appropriate set of words from the target language to convey full meaning about isopropyl.
Such reasoning yields “motswako o o bolayang megare.”Mokwadi Kelapile, a Setswana lecturer at the Tlokweng College of Education who has done English-Setswana translation professionally, takes a different view. He feels that it is important to retain “alcohol” in the Setswana translation because its semantic equivalent doesn’t occur in Setswana.“Even in our local normal settings, we hardly make reference to alcohol plainly as a mixture in beverages,” says Kelapile. “Neither do we ever want to know which type we are consuming.Here again we are looking at how the sanitiser acts (rubbed and/or applied on hands) and not what it does. As such, it would it be right to translate it as “setlolo se se nang le motswako wa alcohol.”The third translation is from Kellen Seretse, a published Setswana writer who has more than 10 books to his name. His most recent book project was a comprehensive ethnographic project called “Setswana Sotlhe.” Seretse does English-Setswana translation professionally and while he first indicates extreme difficulty in taming the term, he is nonetheless able to come up with “molora wa sebolaya megare sa diatla.”
While the translations may not be the same, the most important thing they do is convey meaning with cultural relevance and in itself, the spotlighting of “alcohol” brings awareness to its peculiar meaning in not just Setswana but all the other indigenous languages through which the coronavirus messages is being communicated.As the science and figures from around the world show, coronavirus is literally a life-and-death issue. For that reason, there is desperate need for the public health messaging to help effort to save lives.
Hopefully, mistakes that occurred in the initial stages of the public health education campaign will not be repeated. Sunday Standard has reported about one such mistake.When Botswana recorded five suspected cases of the coronavirus in February, the Ministry of Health and Wellness sent an SMS alert to some Mascom subscribers. The Setswana 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. The translation, which reflected formal correspondence between surface structures functioning in the source language and target language, doesn’t make sense because one never hears anybody say “ela tlhoko bophepha” in any kind of real-life speech between Setswana speakers. A more appropriate translation would have been “tlhomamisa gore o phepha ka nako tsotlhe” which breaks such correspondence in order to convey clear, unambiguous meaning. There are now government-issued posters with “ela tlhoko bophepha.”