The state of isiNdebele literature and language: lessons from the translation of Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe by - Thabisani Ndlovu.
Translating Where to Now, Short Stories from Zimbabwe (2011) to Siqondephi Manje? Indatshana ZaseZimbabwe (2014), made me realise how conservative written isiNdebele is, to a point where the written form is far from the spoken.
It cannot be otherwise given that in some cases, the most recent novel set for Ordinary and Advanced level is fifteen years old. This is not to say that the spoken variety must find its way into written form wholesale. It is to say that there are contexts that require us to use common forms of expression and not the “correct” but archaic forms. I realised that if I had insisted on such “correctness,” the translation would have been stilted and substandard, thus ruining the beautiful stories.
The translation experience made me aware that there are many words that should have found their way into the isiNdebele lexicon a long time ago, words that some purists claim are not proper isiNdebele words. In other words, part of the poverty of written isiNdebele is a limited vocabulary due to inflexibility. The Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec) is partly responsible for the rigidity by discouraging words and forms of expression the candidates are familiar with – and here, I am talking about acceptable words and forms as will be discussed below.
In its spoken form, isiNdebele language is very well, far from being sickly; in fact, it is lively – at home and abroad. The language has, just like any other, varieties, including slang. Just as obtains in the speaking of any language, there are clear instances of ungrammaticality, which of course, should be corrected. To broadly speak of isiNdebele dying is, most likely, to speak of archaisms falling out of use, as archaisms do. Otherwise, for the most part, just like most languages, isiNdebele has shown great creativity and evolved. Our greatest worry should be that we do not have as many publications of creative writing as we should, especially current and inspired publications in this language.
Indeed, one of the contributing writers, Mzana Mthimkhulu, commented at the launch that it was strange but exciting to read the translation of his story in isiNdebele for the translation read like the original. His English story had been “translated back into isiNdebele, the initial language and context of imagining it.”
NoViolet Bulawayo, renowned author of We Need New Names (2013), makes a similar observation about her story in the collection when she writes on her Facebook page, “my English has Ndebele influences so to see ‘Snapshots’ translated into Ndebele is like a translation of a translation.”
What is even more intriguing and fascinating about Siqondephi Manje? (2014) is that the authors in this compilation come from different linguistic, ‘ethnic’ and ‘racial’ backgrounds, making for a rich tapestry of subject matter, point of view and narrative technique. These are contemporary and exciting stories with many cross-cultural influences to reflect the fluidity of life within and outside the borders of Zimbabwe; a fluidity of which the Ndebele people are part of. As such, the stories are modern as are most of the experiences. For example, there are stories about migrating within Southern Africa and beyond, to England. We get a story about the xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans in South Africa, and another about undertaking care work in England.
In English, the stories in Where to Now (2011) are riveting. They take one through a journey of mixed emotions– laughter, sadness and anxiety are some of the few emotions. They all demonstrate immense creativity. Some flout rules of punctuation whereas others use various forms of narration except the linear and those that use creative ways of stitching narrative and narrative time I captured these techniques in isiNdebele as closely to the original as I could. The result points to the exciting possibilities there are in writing in isiNdebele. Another important observation to make is that much as the source language (English) and target language (isiNdebele) belong to different cultural groups, hence different norms and idioms, there is also a lot that is common. The experiences in the stories are Zimbabwean, or are inspired by different forms of Zimbabweanness. This expands our ways of thinking about Ndebeleness, language and culture.
There were a couple of charges against the very essence of translation by one of the panellists at the ZIBF workshop, Felix Moyo – a television actor, publisher and “specialist” in isiNdebele. The drift of his speech was that isiNdebele literature can only improve if Ndebele people write their own literature from scratch. In his words, the translation amounted to “borrowed robes.” He wanted the Ndebele to wear their “amabhetshu” (animal skins that were worn by men before Western clothing), even though he was wearing a jacket and tie. Indeed, he pooh-poohed the effort and likened it to child’s play – “Asizanga dlala lapha” (We are not here to play), after my paper about the translation of Siqondephi Manje (2014). I am using Moyo’s example as it encapsulates some of the very attitudes and practices by those who consider themselves the custodians of isiNdebele, that have led to the arrested development of the language and its literature.
Those who are familiar with global literature will know that part of the reason English literature became dominant is because of translating works from other languages, notably French, Russian and German. Authors such as the Dane Hans Christaian Andersen, the French men Voltaire and Albert Camus, the German Franz Kafka as well as the Russians Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov, just to name a representative sample, became inspirations to generations of writers writing in English both inside and outside the UK. In Zimbabwe, Tsanga Yembeu (1987), the translation of Ngugi waThiongo’s A Grain of Wheat (1967), stands out as one text that has positively influenced a lot of writers in chiShona, including the translator, Charles Mungoshi. Recently, Tom Matshakayile Ndlovu translated Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins (2002), and rendered it as Izintombi Zamatshe Ezimsulwa (2011).
The only worry we should have about translations is their quality. Good translations can only augment literature in the target language and, in the presence of a well-developed reading culture, also foster good writing. The insularity that is being championed by those such as Moyo can only entrench the sorry state of isiNdebele literature. In fact, realising the value of translating interesting literary texts from one language to another, Gudhlanga and Makaudze (2007: 13) write that “The quantitative and qualitative boom in Shona fiction could be promoted by the establishment of a Translation Centre, one where trained and experienced translators translate good works of art from English into Shona.” The same can be said about isiNdebele literature.
At the Zimbabwe International Book Fair workshop as well at the launch of Siqondephi Manje? (2014) I gave examples of words that were to be found in the book. Words such as “iphephabheki” (derived from paper bag) and “suphamakhethi” (supermarket). The audience’s reaction in both instances, was to say to vehemently declare that these two are not isiNdebele words. Even when I pointed to the audience at the launch that I had known “iphephabheki” for more than thirty years, and even when some of them admitted to using the word just about every day for the same length of time if not longer, there was still an insistence by others that it was not an isiNdebele word. They proffered “umgodla” instead, which is not the same thing as “iphephabheki.” When I pointed out that this word is found in the siNdebele dictionary, more than three quarters of the audience at the book launch did not believe that. Indeed, the word is entered on page 193.
It turned out that those who professed to be fundis in the language did not have isiNdebele dictionaries, a situation which obtained at three schools I visited – teachers of isiNdebele, including the Heads of that department, did not have dictionaries in the language. To their credit though, some of these educators were frustrated by the inflexibility of the marking scheme, a marking scheme that said a word like “iphephabheki,” once used in a composition, should be marked as an error. Interestingly, the definition of “iphephabheki” in the isiNdebele dictionary is, I am convinced, wrong. The entry reads: “Iphephabheki ngumgodla wephepha olengiswayo.” But this word is used by isiNdebele speakers to refer to a plastic bag used to carry one’s shopping; a plastic bag usually re-used not only for carrying purchases but just about anything – books to school, vegetables, clothes and a myriad of other things. The entry needs to be revised.
Other words that the audience at the launch were convinced were not proper isiNdebele and were not in the isiNdebele lexicon are listed below and next to them, the page number where it is entered in the siNdebele dictionary. The words are: “isuphamakhethi” (supermarket) (p.265), “iwindiskirini” (windscreen) (p.276), “ilayini” (line or queue) (p.131), “ibhimu” (refuse bin) (p. 96), “idindindi” (lively party) (104), “rusa” (rust) (p.372), “joyina” (to join) (p.286), “iphakhi” (park) (p.192). These are words that teachers would mark as incorrect the instant they appear in pupils’ compositions, irrespective of the context and words that some “masters” of the language will not touch with ten poles. This, needless to say, results in very stilted writing, making pupils think that written isiNdebele is difficult, archaic and uninteresting.
One is reminded of NAMA winning author Ignatius Mabasa at ZIBF 2013 when he pointed out that educationists are “conspiring to destroy mother languages [like chiShona] by making it difficult at school,” resulting in students shunning vernacular languages at high school, “citing them as complex subjects” (http://www.panorama.co.zw/index.php/book-review/690-zibf-heeds-writer-concerns) Accessed 24 February 2014).
There are two instructive observations one can make here. The first is that Isichazamazwi sesiNdebele (2001) or isiNdebele Dictionary is a good lexicon. But it is not used effectively. It is the storehouse for words in the language and should be referred to in order to establish the existence or non-existence of particular words as well as their usage in various contexts – just as we do with English. If educators and self-styled masters in the language determine (one has to ask from where and how they derive their standards) what is permissible in the language without referring to Isichazamazwi sesiNdebele (2001), it means that we are not tapping into already existing and systematic work in compiling and growing the vocabulary in the language. It also means that in the absence of the dictionary or ignoring the dictionary, decisions on the use of the Ndebele language are nothing more than thumb sucking exercises. More significantly, it means less words to use by the speakers and writers of the language (when ironically those words appear in their lexicon), resulting in stifled creativity.
One of the clear tasks of isiNdebele is to grow its corpus. Languages that have done this successfully, especially English, have demonstrated a “readiness to absorb words from foreign tongues, or to make new ones where existing terms are not adequate” (Rajarajeswari and Mohana, 2013:41). Indeed, as Bryson (2009) observes, about half the words in English are, etymologically speaking, not English. English and other languages like it, grow their vocabularies unapologetically, the result being that “every year new words appear, while others extend or change their meaning” (Rajarajeswari and Mohana, 2013:41).
While I acknowledge that the isiNdebele lexicon is robust, more can still be done. Note that it was compiled fifteen years ago. Clearly there are financial challenges that hamper constant updating of the siNdebele corpus. But if we are serious about developing the language, one of the key things is to invest in updating the lexicon and promoting its use through constant reference to it and by so doing turn the dictionary into the linguistic compass that it should be. When one considers that every year new words appear in the English lexicon, it does not take much imagination to see how far behind isiNdebele is.
There is a list of words I used in the translation, Siqondephi Manje? which should have found their way into the siNdebele dictionary by now. I will give a couple of examples. It is a good thing that we have in Isichazamazwi sesiNdebele (2001) words that address technological advances such as “imeyili” (e-mail) (p.140). Missing are words “imeseji” or “i-esemesi.” We also have to think of new orthographies. Whereas before we did not have nouns with two vowels following each other, now we do. I suggest a space between the two vowels. Another example of such a word would be “i-oyili” (oil). Perhaps because of a lack of such facility, Isichazamazwi sesiNdebele (2001) has the entry “oyila” (to oil) (p.348) but no entry for the noun. Similarly, there are words such as “khasitoma” (customer) (p.125) and “phasipoti” (passport) (p.193). Much as I appreciate the siNdebelerisation of these words by insisting on the initial “i”s in both words, the resultant words do not reflect how they are usually pronounced. We say “iphaspoti” and “ikhastoma.” Similarly, all speakers of isiNdebele know “ifriji” (fridge). Hardly anyone refers to it as “ifiriji” as that becomes a chiShona pronunciation once we insert an “i” after the “f.” Another similar situation obtains with the word “phethuro” (petrol) (p.192). When pronounced with a “u” the word sounds like chiShona. In any case, everyday pronunciation of this word is minus the “u” to give “phethro.” In direct speech, this is how I have written such words in Siqondephi Manje? (2014), to capture how they are pronounced.
Other words that should have gone into the lexicon by now include “irali” (a rally), given that we already have entries such as “irakhethi” (tennis racket) (p.200). Words like “shayina” (to polish or to show off), iphikhinikhi, (picnic), diza (pay a bribe), “irayothi” (riot), “i-intanethi (internet), “isikulufizi” (school fees), “idriphu” (drip) – after all we have words such as “diritsha” (move in reverse) –“glu” (glue), “ok’sijini” or “okisijini” (oxygen).
One of the charges levelled at Siqondephi Manje? (2014) at the ZIBF workshop and the launch of the book was that it was a bastardisation, dilution and corruption of isiNdebele. I am using just a few of many words that were uttered to register unhappiness, concern and in some cases, outright dismissal. Interestingly, these judgements came from people who had not read the translation.
Even if they had, it was apparent, from a show of hands that the majority did not have Isichazamazwi sesiNdebele (2001) and if they did, they were not using it at all. On what basis then, were they making their judgements and prescriptions? Who or what had empowered them to make those pronouncements? All kinds of answers explain the kind of entitlement I am describing, except scholarly argument. Here, I am reminded of a comment made by one of the participants, author Godfrey Muyambo. Talking of some of the difficulties of publishing in isiNdebele, he cited how one’s surname, and he gave his as an example, together with the fact that he is known to be of Venda origin, has always been a disadvantage. Even where he did manage to publish his works, they would get attacked at a personal level, to a point where students in the exam would attack Muyambo as a least fit person to write ‘proper’ isiNdebele because of his background.
In the end, we have exam responses that are not engaging with the text on its merits but the supposed unsuitability of the writer to write isiNdebele. Thus, we have a caucus of people who imagine they are the custodians of the language who sadly, do not do much research and are set in their ways. But a language, and I did make this point at the launch, belongs to all the people who speak it and there should be healthy and informed debates instead of “dictatorships” founded on seniority, family name and other spurious claims
Not surprisingly, Siqondephi Manje? (2014) was discussed by some purists in relation to the 2013 Zimsec isiNdebele examination. The examinations council was accused of killing isiNdebele, insulting the Ndebele people by portraying them as a people who love using vulgar or “gutter language” (Mpofu in Southern Eye, 25 October 2013). Ironically, most of those who complained about the “bad” examination paper had not seen it, let alone read it. Some went as far as signing a petition without reading the Grade 7 paper. Isaac Mpofu, veteran isiNdebele writer, registered his discontent about the Grade 7 isiNdebele paper and concluded, “Our desire is that our children learn to speak good Ndebele language within the context of our culture” (Mpofu in Southern Eye, 25 October 2013). Indeed, the Grade 7 paper works towards that end.
For the benefit of those without access to the examination paper in question, there are two situations that caused all the brouhaha. The first is a passage that captures touting for a fifteen-seater public taxi, popularly known as a kombi, as well as taking a ride in the same vehicle. The aim is clearly to alert pupils to varieties of isiNdebele, including slang. The tout asks a traveller, “Yeyi baba uyahamba ngapho?” (Yeyi there baba, are you going to town?” to which the men the question is directed at indicates that he is indeed going to town. The tout then turns the driver and says, “Misa jeki utopi uyahamaba” (Stop the car jeki, the topi is going to town.) When the tout addresses the man, he uses language that will not offend someone of the man’s age. He does show some respect. When the tout turns to talk to the driver who is his age mate, there is code-switching and slang comes in. No one can deny that this is a typical conversation between a tout and a potential passenger and then tout and kombi driver. The rest of the passage is written in beautiful siNdebele, with not one more slang word. The point was to show that Ndebele does have varieties in its spoken and written form, including slang; that the language is alive and creative. One is reminded of why languages such as English even have dictionaries of slang as well as of synonyms. What controls language use or diction is context. A puritan attitude towards certain forms of the language is tantamount to the English expression of shooting oneself in the foot. At worst, it is a display of sheer ignorance concerning principles of language and language use.
The second instance that seems to have invoked the ire of commentators like Mpofu need not have done so at all. Mpofu writes how isiNdebele is a language that shows a lot of respect. The sub-heading of that section with the word “likhikhitha” (is a prostitute/ woman of loose morals) instructs the students: “Phana ibala elihloniphayo endaweni yaleli elidwetshwe umzila” (Give a euphemistic term in place of the underlined word). That question is teaching pupils to use respectful words in place of less respectful ones. Words like “umangumba” and “yisifebe” are already euphemisms compared to the stronger form, “iwule” (slut, prostitute) which is not used in the question. To claim that twelve and thirteen year olds have never heard these words is to be dishonest, to put it mildly. With regard to Siqondephi Manje? readers will find words such as “hlanza” (vomit), “izibunu” (buttocks) and others like them. These words are not used gratuitously. Using euphemisms in their place would have distorted the tone and meaning of some stories resulting in a stilted and terrible translation.
Let us take “izibunu” (buttocks). It is common to hear people say of children with inadequate clothing, “abantwana bahamba ngezibunu egcekeni” (children wear worn-out clothes that show their buttocks). Likewise, “olezibunu ezinkulu ngolezibunu ezinkulu; ongalazo kalazo” (whoever has big buttocks is said to have such and the same for small or smaller buttocks) – that is how Ndebele people speak without any profanity implied in most contexts. I am thinking specifically about events and contexts in the stories contained here. For example, an angry character should appear as such through the language he or she uses. Needless to say the language should suit that character. As a translator, one of my key duties is to make sure that the translation is as close to the original text as possible, having of course, taken into account the cultural context of the Ndebele people. In any case, we have in our families, those with a penchant for saucy language and older persons seem to acquire a licence to utter obscenities at will. We need to be honest about what we mean by Ndebele culture; which in the first place cannot be represented by one person’s family or a clique of self-declared experts. Similarly, isiNdebele differs from region to region.
The discontent about the Grade 7 paper is instructive in the way it reveals some enduring and simmering issues in Matabeleland in general. A number of people at the launch expressed worry about the teaching of isiNdebele by chiShona speaking teachers, some of whom only have a smattering of isiNdebele. They asked what the Ministry of Education was doing about that situation. Unsurprisingly, there was insinuation, in the discussion of the Grade 7 examination, that the paper had been set by people whose first language is not isiNdebele (possibly chiShona speaking?) hence the “poor” quality of the language in the paper and also “insult” to the Mthwakazi nation. The more the discussion unfolded, the more one realised that there was a conflation of issues.
The obliquely stated issues included unhappiness that chiShona speaking people now dominate tertiary institutions (see also http://www.universityworldnews.com/article. Accessed 22 February 2014), government departments and other areas of work at the expense of the isiNdebele speaking populace. These issues are tied to slow development in the province and the memory of Gukurahundi. All these are legitimate issues. Their crystallisation results in a rather extreme form of nationalism that wants to insist on “purity” of identity, privileging amongst other things, language. To that end, Felix Moyo urged Ndebeles: “protect your language,” at the ZIBF workshop. Similarly, a young contributor passionately declared: “We are compromising too much. Mina ngifuna isiNdebele sabokhulu.” (I want the isiNdebele of my forefathers). While I understand these strong sentiments, I hope those who utter them realise that they are inimical to language growth; that in fact, they contradict the discourse of pride in one’s language. I also hope that for purposes of growing isiNdebele, we can separate issues and zero into the singular task of analysing the language and finding ways of making it more expressive in its written form.
It was thus heartening to note that Pathisa Nyathi, celebrated historian and one proud of his Ndebele heritage, stressed the need for flexibility regarding isiNdebele at the launch of Siqondephi Manje? (2014). He warned of an accelerated demise of isiNdebele in the absence of open-mindedness, adaptability and creativity. From the younger audience, some also lauded the translation as the kind of work in isiNdebele they would easily identify with and enjoy. After listening to some readings from the text, a group of pupils asked how they could write similar language as they had heard from the readings and not be penalised by teachers. In short, they were attracted to the language and style in the writings. One of the key aims in the writing of isiNdebele is exactly that – to capture and captivate a younger audience. This can be done by writing relevant stories using a mixture of “classical” isiNdebele and a contemporary version of the language. It is a commendable thing to note that the book can also be bought on line. But what will make people buy the book is not its migration to a technological space but its quality. The same applies to future texts of isiNdebele. What will recommend them is quality. At the moment, that quality is low but Siondephi Manje? (2014) is a significant effort towards improving the quality of written isiNdebele. One speaker at the ZIBF said he appreciated the effort that had gone into Siqondephi Manje (2014) but felt that Ndebeles were “not ready for this kind of writing.” Those who will read the book will find that Ndebeles have always been ready “for this kind of writing” – it is an honest linguistic and cultural interpretation; it is a mixture of the old and the new – just the way it should be.
It is clear that we need more fiction in isiNdebele and that fiction had better be of good quality – exciting and inspiring to both younger and older readers. That is also how you grow a crop of inspired writers. As things stand, there is first and foremost a dire need for a robust dialogue and debate about isiNdebele language and lexicon. What is needed is a creative standardisation process. Our university professors in this subject are quiet and have been for a long time. Equally important, we need to have at school and university levels, courses on creative writing in indigenous languages.
Times change and so do people and their languages. That is how English grew – borrowing words and quickly incorporating them into the English lexicon. Some people say isiNdebele is dying. What I agree with them is that we have a dearth of books in the language, publications of such being too few and far between. But the language itself is very much alive and vibrant. A language that grows is one that is in constant and creative use, whose lexicon evolves with time. In its written form, such a language should reveal the creativity of the people who speak it and in particular, the novel ways in which those people capture experiences. Once this is achieved, it will inspire other writers to be even more creative.+ + Thabisani Ndlovu is with the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. This is an abridged version of a paper based on Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) Workshop – 28 March 2014, and launch of Siqondephi Manje? Indatshana ZaseZimbabwe (2014), 29 March 2014. Contact: Email:Thabsndlovu@gmail.com