General Buhari, the challenge of translation and political vocabulary, By Muhammad Jameel Yusha'u

Since it became clear that General Muhammadu Buhari might contest the next presidential election in 2015, every word he utters will be put under serious scrutiny. This time around, as it was before he joined partisan politics in 2002, it was about misrepresentation in accurately translating his expression from Hausa to English language.

Translation from one language to another is a very tricky business, and in this piece I will draw examples from my previous employer, the BBC Hausa Service, arguably, the capital of Hausa translation, even if a little bit exaggerated. One of the interesting things about working at the BBC Hausa Service is the debate that takes place almost daily on how to ensure that stories are translated accurately. A single word can generate a hot debate, dictionaries and thesauruses will be consulted, colleagues will put head together, more experienced staff conferred with, and still, sometimes, you may struggle to get an accurate representation of the story.

Here is an example about a story on the Big Bang theory. Sometime in September 2008, a test was conducted in Europe trying to trace the origin of the universe from secular scientific point of view. Part of the story stated that “they have now fired two beams of particles called protons around the 27km-long tunnel which houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).” The question is how do you translate this scientific expression to the Hausa or the Fulani man herding his cows in the village who has never been taught a single letter in the roman script, let alone heard about a field of study called chemistry. In other words how do you domesticate or Hausanise the story to make sense to your grandmother who listens to the radio daily.

After consulting all the dictionaries and the thesauruses, we also need some expertise, and unlike yours sincerely who has to make a complete U-turn from being a science student in secondary school to a social science student at tertiary level, we had in our midst Dr Mansur Liman, a doctorate degree holder  in Chemistry who  has to bring his knowledge of the field in order to make sense of this story. And finally, a translation was arrived at, and if I can recall vividly the portion was translated as “masana kimiyya a Nahiyar Turai sun yi wani gwaji inda suka harba hasken dai-daikun kwayoyin- kwayar zarra guda biyu cikin  wani bututu mai tsawon kilomita ashrin da bakwai, wanda ke dauke da na’ura mafi girma ta harba makamashi a duniya’ .  You can also test your translation ability by looking at the full story which is still available on BBC news website with the title “’Big Bang’ experiment starts well”.

Before coming to General Buhari’s use of the Hausa metaphorical expression “Kare jini Biri Jini”, there are some lessons we can learn from here which might help explain why among other reasons, the story was misrepresented. First of all in making translations, as Malam Suleiman Ibrahim Katsina will always tell us, you first of all pay attention to the meaning rather than the literal translation. Secondly you must have an in-depth understanding of both languages, thirdly you should look for words that will domesticate the story without distorting the real meaning, but can at the same time make sense to the average reader or listener. Fourthly, in translating certain words you may need people with specialised knowledge and ask for their opinion as they will have a better grasp of the issue than somebody who is simply interested in the linguistic application of the word, and then, there is need for honesty in the translation as the bias of the translator can distort the intended meaning and create chaos as we are now seeing with Buhari’s “Kare Jini Biri Jini”.

I don’t think I need to spend time explaining the meaning of “Kare Jini Biri Jini”, as I believe Mallam Mahmud Jega of the Daily Trust newspaper and Dr Aliyu Tilde have done a better job at explaining the cultural, contextual and political application of the term.

What however is clear from this is that language is at the heart of politics. This could explain why some scholars of language like Norman Fairclough, Teun Van Dijk and Ruth Wodak focus their attention on the social analysis of language rather than its grammatical application. Unfortunately for General Buhari, he has already been stereotyped by a section of the Nigerian media and their collaborators among the political class. But General Buhari also needs to help himself under the current political climate. Whenever he is going to speak in public, his media team should vet every word he is going to utter, moreso when it is going to be in Hausa so that the table should not always be turned against him.

As for the meaning of “Kare jini biri Jini” which some Nigerian newspapers wrongly translated as “the dog and baboon will be soaked in blood”, if I were to be asked to translate it for the comprehension of my Geordie neighbours in Newcastle using another English expression, I will simply call it “fierce battle”.



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  • Mohammed Bello

    Translating the Big Bang Theory experiment is not only challenging when you have to convert it to Hausa, it is also challenging to explain it to a relatively uneducated farmer in England. It is not a language issue but an educational one. All uneducated people will find it hard to grasp it. Regarding Buhari, I must say that the problem with his remarks do not end even if “kare jini biri jini” is correctly translated as “fierce battle”. The question is, what would fierce battle mean in the context of the 2015 post-election period? There are 3 possible scenarios to which you can apply the expression “fierce battle”: a fierce pre-election campaign, a fierce legal battle in the courts after the election or if all fails, a fierce series of protest demonstrations. Since Buhari was referring to the post-election period, the first one is off. This leaves us with the last two. It is unlikely Buhari was referring to a fierce legal battle because he seemed to be promising something new that he hasn’t done before and he has been to court in previous elections. In my understanding therefore, Buhari was promising fierce demonstrations and protests if there is rigging in 2015. The problem is, if Buhari tells his followers to turn out for a demonstration that will amount to a “fierce battle”, a demonstration that will result in “kare jini biri jini”, it is very likely that the less educated protesters may turn up with their clubs and machetes. This is the problem.

    • Abdulkareem Jibia

      It seems you are a professional politician, but my question goes: If PDP is not planning to rig 2015 general election, then why cry foul? We the masses are and will never be fools, if elections are not rigged and Buhari Lost then we simply tell him Mr. step aside but we know that he did not loose. Every sincere Nigerian knows this. Let me be very clear, i support who ever wins election legitimately who ever he is and where ever he come from, That is Democracy. But why rigging? Look at Senegal 95% are Muslims but on democratic process they volitionally elected a christian. So if you are not trying to rig the election why bothered? I beg you in the name of peace do not RIG the election we want PEACE and only PEACE, then progress and at last enjoyment. A word is enough for a wise.

  • Baba Buhari remains authentic to us Mr & Mrs Ordinary because he speaks honestly and from the heart. We know when the media try to twist words. Nigerians are no longer fools. We’d rather hear from an honest person like him than from mealy mouth politicians who can’t even explain something clearly because they’re constantly hedging their bets.
    You have a good point though about him being constantly on guard against people muddling the debate when he speaks.

    • Realyassar

      Nice thought Anne

  • Bajorduh

    Mr. Jameel, no matter your narrowed translation, there is no way you launch a ‘fierce battle” without spilling blood. Can you also translate this “fierce battle” to us? Most know Buhari as an irrational man right from his military dictatorship era till he destroyed theANPP, a party that once controlled more than seven states in the north. We hear he is going to join his lepros CPC with ACN and which ever party he goes to, it is going to be an obituary to that party.Buhari can not play national politics as the Asiwaju does.Mr. Jameel, what is the translation of “SAI MAI SALLA”?

    • Realyassar

      Did buhari ever mention the word sai mai sallah? Say mai sallah means we want a person that pray. Buhari did not instigate that. Mr Bajorduh rise above your sentiments buhari never said he is going to split blood. We can say chelsea VS beryern bunich match is a fierce battle. Please tell me whose blood was splitted.

    • Nonyerem

      Really, general Buhari an irrational man? Because he is echoing the sentiment of a lot of right thinking and patroitic nigerians. Whatever the case may be, you are not not disputing the facts that the past presidential election was rigged, are you? Rigging of election is like an arm robbery, if an arm robber is caught, and I don’t care where in nigeria, we all know the resulter consequences. Let us call a spade a spade my brother. Buhari is forewarning PDP, president Jonathan and INEC to do the right thing that’s all.

  • Alkamawa

    My own translation within the context of the speech will simply be “to stand your ground” and confront the issues at stake. If the dog runs after you barking the normal thing to do is to stand down and change your route

  • Gizaki

    As a former Military Leader, Buhari should know that he is an elder statesman and such slippery utterances shouldn’t have came out of his mouth. He should know that he intends ruling Nigeria and not a particular section of the country. He should know that democracy is not a military dictatorship that you can unleash terror on people at any time you want. What Nigerians need from him are elderly words and consolation from him not echos of bloodshed. Enough blood has been shed in Nigeria be it religious, tribal or political. What we need in Nigeria now is peace and not war songs.

    • Ibafij


  • One nigeria

    Man, after only 20 months at the helm of this nation, Buhari was side stepped by his closest allies and coup plotters in 1995, Babangida and Abacha. Why? Because of his autocratic rule. Who knew him better then than his best friends.And those friends ended up running the nation aground to this day.The north has really lost its credible leaders. So please let us all concentrate on solving the problems of the nation rather than bickering on 2015. Besides for over 40 years the leadership of this nation have all originated from the north, why then could they not have used that opportunity to alleviate their populace out of poverty, what makes them think that they now can. Wake up Arewa and let others try.

  • placcas

    See how parochial some of you could be. You talk like a cromagnon in the cave. Tell us other things this campaign of calumny against the people’s General has become a cliché.

  • placcas

    Bajorduh, see how parochial some of you could be. You talk like a cromagnon in the cave. Tell us other things this campaign of calumny against the people’s General has become a cliché

  • placcas

    What happened afterwards? How did IBB govern Nigeria? And why was Abacha begging Buhari to accept PTF? My brother let’s drop sentiment, Buhari is the best.