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Lost in Translation
18 November 2020
Papa: Baby girl, why aren’t you taking your tea?
Baby girl: The sugar hasn’t punctured.
Papa: Umm, what is that?
Baby girl: I need more sugar.
Sound’s weird, right? Of course it does. That is what a directly translated conversation from my mother-tongue into Kiswahili and into English sounds like. It is a well-known fact that direct translation does not always work and therefore many people avoid that kind of pitfall. Yet there are other kinds of communication glitches that communicators keep an eye on. As a communication professional, I have had numerous communication hiccups, some with disastrous results, others just simply hilarious.
But there are some other communication stumbling blocks that are not so obvious. While language matters a lot, it’s not all there is in communication. There are many nuanced things that make communication work smoothly. When these things are missed, there can be serious consequences in the worst-case scenario. Take for instance, taking down of content on social media. Facebook has of late been using artificial intelligence (AI) to take down content deemed harmful, violate community standards or to be disinformation. While it is easy for AI to identify nudity in a picture, there are things AI cannot do or can misconstrue and mistakenly take down. For example, AI cannot discern the non-verbal cues or even cultural context in which texts appear or much less deal with difficult to discern issues like hate speech which need human judgement and it is therefore vital that there be human touch with cultural context considerations when an incident occurs that might require a takedown.
Words with multiple meanings are a common feature in many languages, as are words that sound the same but mean totally different things. It can be complicated, though this is also fairly understandable. A funny phenomenon is when words that sound the same mean different things in different languages, where in one language it is a harmless word while in another, the same sounding word could be frowned upon or outrightly offensive. For example, the word 'taboo', is English for something that is forbidden or unthinkable. An infraction could lead to society frowning at you at the very least, but in some highly superstitious communities might mean a matter of death. ‘Tabu’ is a Swahili word that sounds the same, with a somewhat different spelling and pronunciation. Tabu means problems or misery. Those at least are well understandable, and one can least expect any problems.
The plot gets thicker when it comes to dialects of the same language. Here is where there can be pitfalls. A dialect is basically a variation in terminologies of one basic language. Often this variation is influenced by locality. Out of dialects some communities developed their languages which have grown into distinct languages. In English for instance, there is the American English, British English, Australian English, New Zealander English, Indian English, South African English and several other regional versions of English. I dare say there is an African English even though Africa is not monolithic. Certain terminologies that some Africans may use may not be found anywhere else. For example- referring to a male cousin as cousin-brother. Or my father's brother (if elder) is big dad, if younger is small dad. But they are all my fathers. People from other cultures do not understand this concept. In America for example, the person I would call my second cousin is actually called my first cousin twice removed. Very confusing indeed!
Now, things get really thick of translating into a language that has many dialects. One word with the same spelling means totally different things. And sometimes something that is innocent in one dialect can be very vulgar and insulting in a different dialect of the same language. It is this kind of pitfall can sink your communication. In your communications, you must do a thorough field test to ensure you do not find yourself in a situation where your communication materials are dead on arrival because of meanings lost in translation.
At times, one may have the leeway, especially if translating materials such as web content or a book. There give you opportunities to be clear on the language and even dialect you're using. For instance, you could be translating into Arabic. In Eastern Africa, there is Arabic (spoken mainly in Sudan) but South Sudan also has a dialect of Arabic called Juba Arabic which is slightly different from Arabic. On a book or website, you have the luxury of stating with Arabic you're using, unlike a message on a promotional material like a t-shirt.
Sometimes the pitfalls are not just linguistics, your good communication idea may be killed simple because you are working with a team that has no clue about the local context that you are working in and totally miss opportunities.