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By Dambudzo Mushambi

I was at a bachelor’s party recently, and for some reason we ended up talking about language and culture. One of the guys, a black South African from a particular people group, spoke about how his people roll. “My people,” he broke it down, “don’t play. If you come to where we are, they expect you to speak our language. Even if you speak to them in your language and they understand you, they’ll respond to you in theirs.”

I think I get this. Our languages carry something of ourselves deep in them. Our collective wisdom; our way of seeing and experiencing the world; a means of conveying our deepest longings, dreams, thoughts and feelings.

Have you ever tried to translate a saying or a concept from your mother tongue into another language? It’s incredibly hard, and in some cases plain impossible. How do I even begin to translate kutanda botso to a person that doesn’t speak Shona? If ska ntwaela hampe or ke tshwerwe ke di nerves or dis bo my vuurmaakplek were translated into English for me, would I really get what that actually means?

When we use a language not our own, we lose a piece of ourselves in the process. We leave behind what we can’t explain or meaningfully convey of ourselves when trying to speak in a foreign tongue. We ‘dumb ourselves down’, losing some of our own cultural complexity along the way. If this is the case, should we try to ‘translate’ ourselves into another cultural setting? Is leaving behind that piece of me worth it in my quest to be understood in spaces not my own?

There are at least two ways most people react to this loss and its accompanying pain. One way is to act as though it is not real, or not feel, viscerally, the weight of it. The other is to withdraw into a cultural ghetto, refusing to take the plunge and the risk that comes with it. Neither alternative is viable for those trying to create and participate in truly multicultural spaces.

I have often (not always) encountered a certain flippancy around the notion of using English in multicultural spaces because it is, supposedly, the lingua franca. There is serious historical freight that comes with how it became the lingua franca in the first place, and not clearly seeing this is not understanding the loss that others have incurred using a language not their own.

For many in South Africa, learning English and Afrikaans has been a matter of economic survival – how else will you get an education or a job? But it is possible to get by without learning any of the indigenous languages. This power dynamic cannot be ignored, and its influence in our public/mutual spaces is significant. Some of us can opt out of learning certain languages simply by not entering the cultural spaces of others. Others, as a matter of survival and to pursue economic opportunity, cannot.

Between the Fallist and Decolonise movements that began a few years ago, the landscape of discourse in higher education has shifted, with ripple effects on society at large. The assumption of neutrality long held about forms and sources of knowledge in academia, of the choices of languages of instruction, was challenged. Our young people highlighted, as others did in a parallel context in June 1976, that it matters what our sources of knowledge are. It matters what language we use in discourse. For every choice made *for* one thing, other options get left out.

Instead of cultural ghettoism, as a Christian, I ache for the realisation of Revelation 7:9 – a countless multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” crying out in one loud voice in worship of God.

That’s the first alternative; not feeling the weight of loss that is incurred when people leave their cultural and linguistic contexts to enter others’. The other alternative – withdrawing into a ghetto – is also flawed.

I said there is a sense of ‘loss’ when I speak a language not my own. But there is also much gain. Speaking personally, learning English, for instance, has opened up vistas of experience I could not have accessed otherwise, even though it has meant I often leave bits of myself unknown and unexplored. By not speaking seSotho, I miss out on the richness of that culture in certain ways of seeing the world through Sotho eyes.

Apartheid (yeah, Imma go there) created monotone exclusivity and hierarchy among cultures. Due to fear, arrogance and false notions of cultural purity and superiority held by a minority, the divide and conquer strategy behind the creation of Bantustans and Homelands actively encouraged cultural ghettoism. That spirit must be broken and cast out from among us. We must replace it with something more constructive. Instead of cultural ghettoism, as a Christian, I ache for the realisation of Revelation 7:9 – a countless multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” crying out in one loud voice in worship of God.

We may not get rid of cultural ghettoism or flippancy altogether, or even anytime soon. But I live in a tempered hope, a cautious optimism that ‘change is gonna come’. We have to work for it though. It’ll mean leaving our familiar spaces to enter those of others, and in so doing endure ‘loss’ of a sort. Only then will we begin to mutually understand each other beyond racial lines and create a truly multicultural South Africa.

Republished with permission from Janana. The original blog can be found here: https://www.janana.org/single-post/Lost-in-translation


Dambudzo Mushambi is a Jesus follower from Zimbabwe. He is the husband of one wife (Hilary) and has three children. He enjoys reading, writing and thinking about all things human. He is the co-founder of Janana, a Christian platform created to generate dialogue in South Africa about all of life for the common good.