Contextual meanings lost in translation

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By Simba Jama

THERE is a critical case of mistranslation that occurs whenever Western and other foreign elements of literature are interpreted to African languages.

An angel is not a baby or female with wings as is often depicted by Western artists.

The Bible, in particular, contains a lot of vocabulary and diction that redundantly led to the formation of new words in the Shona language during translation.

This would have been logically justified if the Shona language was shallow and had no words to define the contents of the Bible. 

However, this was not the case.

Shona, like other negro-Bantu languages, is deep and contains names and words for many and almost everything referred to in the Bible.

Words like angel (ngirozi), anointed (kristu), priest (pirisiti) and prophet (porofita), among others, existed prior to the coming of whites.

However, if the missionaries who introduced Christianity had used the authentic Shona translations of these words, they would have been endorsing the indigenous culture and beliefs of Zimbabweans.

This is because Zimbabwe and other places in Southern Africa have always been known for spirituality and godliness.

In the time of ancient Egypt, these lands were known as the ‘lands of the gods or spirits’ because of the large number of spirit mediums in the region.

An angel is a power of God, with the word ‘El’ meaning God in Hebrew. 

It manifests in humans through a spirit which is known as ‘ruah’ in Hebrew.

An angel is not a baby or female with wings as is often depicted by Western artists. 

It manifests in the form of a spirit in humans, particularly ordained leaders like kings.

In Shona, angel would refer to mhondoro and shavi

A host of an angel or spirit is called ‘homwe’. 

An ordained host of an angel or spirit is called ‘gombwe’, with the body being called ‘nyama’ (flesh).

To anoint was called ‘kuzodza’; a traditional formality observed during the coronation of kings. 

The anointer and anointed were called ‘muzodzi’ and ‘muzodzwa’ respectively.

Instead of using these words, the missionaries worked with Shona-speaking converts to produce previously inexistent words like ngirozi (angel) and kristu (anointed) respectively. 

That is shonarised English and Greek respectively.

Mweya holds the meaning of spirit, but is more commonly used to refer to air. 

Shavi, whether good or evil, is the Shona word that is used in exclusive reference to spirits that manifest in humans and influence their actions.

The statement below, namely: “The angel Gabriel and the Christ of God, the Lord of hosts…,’ is translated as such in the Shona Bible: “Ngirozi yaGabriel naKristu waMwari, Jehovah wehondo.”

This is totally dissociated from Shona and applies foreign words for things we already had words for prior to the coming of whites.

The proper way to translate the above is: “Mhondoro Gabriel, nemuzodzwa waMwari, Ishe wehomwe.”

The latter translation would have been more palatable with Shona speakers.

Besides masvikiro, namely homwe and gombwe, which today are called spirit-mediums, there were varungu, vanyai, n’anga, vafemberi and many other Shona titles that would have fitted words like lord, prophet and priest that were purposely not canonised into the Shona Bible. 

The word ‘murungu’ predated the coming of whites into Africa and thus did not mean whiteman as often misconstrued by many today.

It was a word derived from lord, which continues to refer to God in the form of ‘Mulungu’ in neighboring countries like Malawi.

Civilisers and noblemen were given this title and so were employers as a sign of respect. 

The Remba people who came from Sena in Yemen in search of gold reserves were called varungu long before whites entered Zimbabwe.

This was on the grounds of their craftsmanship in building, smelting, weaving and surgery, among other things. 

Earning them another title of vasoni, meaning masons and weavers.

The Remba are black and darker than the average Zimbabwean. They are living evidence of the black origins of both ancient Israelites and Arabians.

The Great Zimbabwe and Machema-Mapungubwe sites are very similar to the Thula, Kawkaban and other ancient ruins in Yemen, proving that, indeed, blacks were behind both civilisations. 

The age-old question of were the Bantu acquired the skill or even got the inspiration to advance from mud, dung and straw huts to dry stone brick laying, high walls, stairs and minarets (conical towers) can be objectively answered by archeological and genetic evidence.

The Remba only had a paternal contribution to their gene pool and did not come with women from Sena. 

Their maternal contribution remains wholly Bantu (sub-Saharid), thus proving they had always been one with the indigenous people through intermarriage.

In oral history, we find that the Remba were foreigners and traders, earning them titles like vamwenye and vashavi which meant the above respectively.

Their settlements in the hinterland were based on receiving permission from local authorities to live, trade and mine on their land.

In Mberengwa, were most of the Remba are from, the Mposi Dynasty expanded its hegemony from Dumbwi Mountain after a king of the Hove lineage gifted their king some of their land in addition to two Hove wives. 

This was after the Remba, led by King Mposi defeated their enemies — some raiders called Dumbuseya who routinely robbed them of their lives, loved ones, livestock and property.

Thus, the Bantu were indeed behind the Great Zimbabwe civilisation and the Remba, who were known as vaMwenye at the Mutapa courts, had shared with them their construction skills and symbols which were commonly found in Yemen.

This portrays ancient Zimbabwe as a maritime power closely affiliated to the Sabaean (Yemenite) civilisation which was akin to that of Axum (Ethiopia). 

This culminated in the Remba being affectionately called varungu.

After colonisation, the whites replaced the Remba as the bearers of civilising trends, thus earning them the title varungu as well. But this title in no way meant whiteman.

Clearly we can see the role that language plays in how one interprets information. 

Westerners easily replace the word spirit (mweya) with ghost (chipoko), meaning they picture a Casper-like figure. 

They do not understand the mweya or shavi concept at all, yet that is how the Israelites perceived the spirit (ruah).

Hebrew diction was based on root words that would be logically modified to mean other related things. 

Likewise, in Shona the word ‘chena’ in the same or varying forms can mean white, light, smart, poor (mu-), kind (moyo-), ashy skin (shena), holy (tsvene) or pure (dzvene). 

Once uttered or read, it has to be understood in the context intended by the writer.

The same applies to Hebrew. 

Phrases like, ‘as white as wool and as white as snow’ meant pure in the former and the colour white in the latter. 

But if translated by a European, the depth and scope of understanding Bantu or Hebrew language becomes minimal if evident at all. 

A whiteman would seek a literal translation to something that had to be put in context for the sake of correct comprehension.

The work of translating the English Bible to Bantu languages was a colonial priority and was assigned to missionaries in order to effectively evangelise the so-called natives.

Robert Moffat translated the English Bible into Tswana in Botswana with the help of local converts whom he taught English simultaneously. 

Similar tactics were used in other African countries, with the missionaries having the final say in the canonisation of Shona diction as it pertains to the Bible.

Hebrew concepts of spirits and their hosts are foreign to Europeans. 

They would have otherwise been obvious to the pre-colonial Zimbabweans whose descendants remain biblically lost in translation.

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