Recently I was engaged in a brief translation task aimed, in part, at promoting multilingualism in our society. On the surface—despite the embedded politics, which I shall attempt to avoid—the task seemed easy. There was but a single expression to translate: “a proud service co-creator”!
The expression in question is the new tag line for the project I research under: Siyakhula Living Lab project. Living Labs operate under the philosophy that to create (or build) meaningful services or products, end-users have to be involved actively as innovators together with those who will provide or develop the services or products. To highlight this partnership between users and providers, words like “co-creator” and “co-innovator” are typically used.
Using the above as context for translating the tag-line into Sesotho, I crossly underestimated the dynamics of the language. I attempted to create a more or less direct translation: “moetsi-mmoho ea motlotlo oa lits’ebeletso”. This translation is not flawed, but from what I gathered, “moetsi” as a representative word for creator, brought a degree of confusion. Of course, I found this a bit surprising given we do have idioms in the day-to-day Sesotho that suggest “moetsi” is a familiar word that can be understood in context; the most popular idiom being “moetsuoa ha a lebale” (the victim never forgets) and by implication “moetsi oa lebala” (the perpetrator forgets).
As always, I took the criticism in my stride. And through the help of those who speak the language, I began to interrogate how the simple idea of working in partnership is communicated in Sesotho, particularly in a context of trying to emphasise the individual. As I re-engaged myself to the task, one thing was clear: anything with “ts’oarana ka matsoho” (holding hands) would be a lazy translation—precisely because the expression is popularly used and I didn’t want to take part in reinforcing a prevailing and very misguided idea that our African languages lack the capacity to serve the knowledge society.
Driven by my ‘politics’ and, of course, the desire to see the task to completion, I generated a number of translations. Ironically, many of these translations stemmed from attempting to run away from the holding hands metaphor. Some were literally centred on how the word ‘hold’ is used to convey different kinds of participation in collaborative work.
As an individual, I can communicate, in at least three ways, my role in collaborative work: 1) “ke a ts’oarisa”, 2) “ke a ts’oarisana” or 3) “ke a ts’oarisoa”. The first two expressions are similar in that I would (supposedly) be defining my role as one of helping (lending a hand), but in a manner that may suggest differing levels of commitment. In the third expression while the idea of teamwork is not lost, I am not necessarily being coy about my role and that of others in performing the task at hand: I am the lead and others are the supporting act. If you detect a hint of militancy, then it means you grasp the depth of the language; you appreciate that such an assertion is occasioned by circumstances that deviate from the norm—circumstances that warrant clarity on whether we are all in this (work) together as equals—“re Makaota, mmoho ts’ebetsong na?”
Again, I should stress that Living Labs operate under the ethos of ‘perfect’ partnership. That some animals may be more equal than others is a taboo.
With the above in mind, the following translation won hands down (or should I say hands out of the picture): “Tjaka ea tlama-thata kahong ea lits’ebeletso”!
In my (not very humble) opinion, this translation brings some oomph to the tag-line. “Tjaka” (used often as a synonym for “seithati”) embeds pride at a level that is dependent on how one chooses to interpret the word: epitome, role model, heroine or hero are a few possible candidates. The translation then becomes: A role model for building services in tight-unison!