It surprises me how much can be lost in translation. The other day, I was making the survey for our stakeholders’ meeting and I wanted to ask the stakeholders to prioritize their favorite activities. I had come up with lists of art and media activities, income-generating activities, and life and employment skills. A colleague of mine helped to translate the list to Kinyarwandan. We then conducted the surveys in Kinyarwandan and recorded the responses given. When we translated the responses back to English, I realized that the activities I thought I was asking about were not actually the activities I was asking about. Somewhere, what I was trying to say got lost in the complexities of two languages trying to match up meanings. For example, when I thought I was asking about their interest in puppet shows, the translation ended up referring to dolls and obviously, no male youth was going to show the slightest big of interest in dolls. Sigh. It is really not a big deal, but the translation must be taken into consideration when planning the activities of the youth center. I must ask myself, “Are youth really repulsed by the thought of putting on puppet shows, or is their lack of interest because the word for puppets in Kinyarwandan refers to a baby’s snuggle toy?”
The other day, my colleague took me on a motorbike to a rural village in my sector to meet a couple of the youth village savings and loans associations they are working with. I managed to introduce myself to the group, but once their questions ranged beyond the questions of normal conversation and into the realm of the unknown, I was no longer able to understand. In terms of language ability, I am beginning to be able to pick up the main idea of a conversation I am listening to, but it still takes me time to process the missing gaps and formulate a response. I am that cool kid in a conversation who blurts out something not at all related to the conversation taking place, but in fact relating to a previous conversation or idea. Uh, that conversation ended long ago and we already reached a conclusion. Move on! So, in the essence of time and facility, I allowed my colleague to translate their questions and my more complicated responses. As he spoke to the crowd and I sat there smiling, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what is being said on my behalf. He could be telling them that I am an alien from a far off planet who speaks strange alien languages and has come to teach weird things. Oh wait, that’s already me. Or he could be telling them that I can pull rabbits out of hats when I can’t. And I would still be sitting next to him and smiling. I know that the misunderstanding is not something intentional, but a single sentence goes on a long journey from my mouth to the ears of the listener during which many changes can occur. It’s like that game we used to play as children called telephone, when we would sit in a circle and one person would whisper something to their neighbor who would then pass the message to the next person all the way around the circle. When the message reached the last person, he or she would say the message out loud and the group would compare the result to the original. In most cases, the message was modified to a jumble of gibberish, but at that point in our lives, we found pleasure in the misunderstanding (at that point in our lives, none of us had lived in Africa). Everyday, I play a real life game of telephone. I try to understand a question that has been translated from Kinyarwandan into broken English with an occasional French word thrown in, attempt to answer in the simplest language I can the gist of the question I didn’t understand to begin with, and watch and smile at whatever is being said on my behalf through the telephone line. The question may be, “What did you eat for breakfast?” I understand the translation to be asking, “What did you do yesterday afternoon?” I answer, “I rode my bike.” And the translation is, “I ate my bike for breakfast.” No one would think to question the muzungo and so they just accept my response. And of course I am smiling while this is being said, adding to the overall humor of the situation.
There is not much to be done about the situation other than work hard to learn the language as quickly as possible. But even that is not a guaranteed prescription. Once you have a basic understanding of the language and are able to formulate your own responses and sentences, you move into the realm of language faux pas. For example, the word for ‘to visit’ is the same as ‘to fart’ in Kinyarwandan, ‘gusura.’ The only difference is in pronunciation; one has a long ‘u’ sound, while the other is short. I am still not sure which is which. So, basically the moral of the story is that once I am able to understand the language, I am subjected to a whole two years of farting every time I visit someone. Joy.