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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