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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Dialoguing semantics: Sharing peanuts with fellow translators

Jameson Maluleke - 2010-02-17


In his brilliantly written contribution to LitNet's online seminar on literary translation, Russell H Kaschula bemoans “the lack of appropriate terminology or cultural/linguistic equivalents in the target language”, which he rightly claims to create “cultural/semantic gaps or blanks”. Semantic gaps or voids are defined in the paper as “[t]he non-existence in one language of a one-word equivalent for a designatory term found in another”.

By way of emphasis, Kaschula quoted Mtuze (1993) who introduced ukuthwala and lobola terms as an example of “cultural/semantic voids”. I quote Kaschula:

Mtuze concludes: There are certain cultural issues that are very difficult to put across in the other language, worse still if that language is a non-African language such as English or Afrikaans. Mtuze then pursues this discussion in a legal context where translation and interpreting are involved. Arguably there are certain parallels with the translation of culturally bound izibongo here. Mtuze [1993:50] points out that because of the complexities of cross-cultural translation, earlier language practitioners, especially in the legal profession, decided to borrow terms directly from the African language, for example ukuthwala instead of abduction, or lobola instead of bride-price. Mtuze further states the cultural differences are discernible in the translations. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, abduct means “to take or lead … away unlawfully, by force or fraud” (Hornsby 1974:2). With regard to the translation of abduction it has been stated: “Unlawfulness is an essential element of abduction as evidenced by the definition, whereas ukuthwala is traditionally lawful. Sometimes the girl or a woman’s parents do give express permission that the girl be thwalaed.

Let me start by pointing out that, even though I am acquainted with Mtuze, I have never met Kaschula. For this reason, let me put it on record that I have nothing against either of them. In fact, I admire Kaschula for writing such an illuminating paper. I enjoyed reading it, and I am proud for him that he wrote it.

It has become public knowledge that there is no such thing as perfect translation. Nevertheless, translators should be on guard for their practice lest they fall into the trap of lacking linguistic and cultural knowledge. Kaschula (2009) himself has pointed out that “the challenge (to translators) is to accurately convey a message from language or literature to another.” Giving us a glimpse of what a translator’s sacred duty really is, Olayibi Yai (1989:68) states:

[T]he translator must first be immersed in the culture of the source language. No attempt to translate with the aid of special dictionaries can help in oral translation, as the “putative” translator must have “lived” oral performances in the source culture.

The translator, therefore, should be a cultural specialist and be well read to be able to understand various issues he is likely to be confronted with in the course of his duty.


I agree with Kaschula that translation is constantly challenged by cultural/semantic voids such as “a pet”. Xitsonga speakers are pet lovers, but unfortunately they have no specific word for the concept. A pet is generally classified under swifuwo, that is, domesticated animals, birds or fowls. Indigenous languages don’t have terminological or cultural/linguistic equivalents for Coca-Cola culture which is spearheaded by that soft drink, or for Christmas that is symbolised/personified by an old white man of about 70 with snow-white beards, clad in a light red suit and strutting the world with Wellington boots known as Father Christmas. Other typical examples of semantic gaps are cell phones, desktops, laptops, minitops, palmtops … The list is long.

However I tried to look at it, I see no instance of a semantic void as far as ukuthwala  is concerned, in that it has abduction as its English equivalent. Literally defined, this word simply means to “carry anything on one’s head or shoulders, to pick up or lift up a thing”. In my vernacular, which is Xitsonga, we speak of ku rhwala or ku tlhakisa, which mean the same thing.

A young man or a bridegroom who cannot meet the marital requirements (in this case lobola) of his future in-laws “forcibly or fraudulently takes or leads away” (Hornsby 1974) – shall I say steals – his fiancée to his dwelling. The abductor – for that is his true description – unashamedly commits this act without the consent of both her parents and the family gods. In traditional Africa, children don’t belong to their parents per se, for the parents act only as guardians. All children in a particular family, together with their parents, belong to the gods, hence their surnames. If the act is lawful, why does the bridegroom choose to drag his future wife to his home rather than using conventional channels?

In all my years in the Republic of South Africa, I have never heard a parent who had given express permission that the girl be thwalaed” by a rogue who would be her future husband.Junod (1927:120) calls such a young man“a transgressor, ravisher, a thief, a culprit”, for he does not deserve to be called a bridegroom or a son-in-law. If I am ever offered the opportunity to translate ukuthwala into English, I would proudly call it abduction since, like its English equivalent, ukuthwala indicates something illegal, violent and criminal and should not be encouraged in the Republic.

Ku hloma

The opposite of ukuthwala is what Xitsonga speakers refer toas ku hloma, or “departure of the bride for the conjugal dwelling” as Junod (1927:113) calls it. Once the bridegroom has met all his fiancée’s parents' requirements, the young woman’s father takes her to the family shrine and informs the gods of her hloma, or departure to her future husband’s family.

For interest's sake, here is how the bride’s father performs the customary sacramental act ku phahla before the young woman is accompanied to her new dwelling. “He stands before the wedding pair and, looking straight in front of the him towards them, speaks to the gods, that is to say to the spirits of his ancestors, and says: My fathers, my grandfathers (he calls them by their names) look! Today my child is leaving me. She enters the wedded life (bukatin). Look at her; accompany her where she will live. May she also find a village, may she have many children (mu nyiken timbeleko), may she be happy, good and just. May she be in good terms with those she will be …” (Junod 1927:111). 

Of course, the matrimonial rites differ greatly from those of the West, in that in traditional Africa, religious rites are performed by the father who is the head of the family and a link to the ancestors.


As for lobola, we should be content with the semantic equivalent “bride price”, since we have no knowledge of its etymology, let alone its history. The problem with us Africans is, we detest historical research. As a theory, historicism continues to overwhelm us as Africans. Historicism’s hopeless failure to entice us to unravel secrets and mysteries of the past is manifested in the condescending manner in which we regard history as a branch of learning. Once an event or a phenomenon is ten years old, it will battle to generate an interest to Africans at large, let alone drumming in the value of such occurrence into our psyche. Up until now, we can hardly explain the origin of the practice called lobola, except to say that it is African, and that it is definitely not “buying a wife”.

According to Junod (1927:275-9), “as far back as natives can remember, lobola has always been practiced. First it consisted of mats and baskets […] when white people had not yet made their appearance.” Yet he claims that people should “consider it as a compensation given by one group to another, in order too restore equilibrium between the various collective units composing the clan”. Again, he claims that “lobola is by no means a purchase made by the husband, and still less a present given to the wife’s parents”. Junod denies that lobola is about a sale of daughters for heads of cattle, but he constantly refers to the married woman as “the man’s property", and a “woman of my oxen”.

Like Junod, Ntsan’wisi (1968) talks about nsati wa tihomu (a wife of cattle) ie “a wife for whom lobolahas been paid, a legal wife”.

I find Junod’s treatment of the subject quite unsatisfactory. People who claim that lobola is not a bride’s price fail to tell us what it is, in that case. First of all, why is there an element of business transaction in lobola custom? To put it the other way round, why does the father fix a price for his daughter and demand to be paid in terms of cattle? Why is the lobola amount constantly on the increase (nowadays it ranges between R10 000 and R20 000)? In our area, if a male partner does not pay lobola during the initial stage of their marital relationship he would be forced to pay it if the female happens to die first.


I would like to conclude by pointing out that as an African, I am conscious of the fact that one need to respect one's elders and mentors, be patriotic, and not to wash our dirty linen in public. I remember the darkest part of our history through which our indigenous languages travelled before they reached the stage where they were all accorded national official language status. I understand that our languages are groaning under excessive pressure from English which is anxious to exterminate their will to exist. I am aware of their formidable challenge in the form of globalisation and the rapidity of change. I am also aware of the postmodern discourse called postcolonialism, which seeks to right the wrongs done by colonial linguists. However, I am convinced that authenticity and honesty should be our guiding light towards sociocultural perfection.

I do this not because I am un-African or unpatriotic. I do this not because I have no respect for my fellow translators or because I am unaware of our languages' struggles. I do it because of my obsession with discourse and because I am anxious to be part of the translation discussion forum. I repeat, no offence is intended.


Hornsby, AS. 1974. Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Quoted by Kaschula.

Junod, Henri A. 1927. The Life of South African Tribe. 1. Social Life. London: Macmillan and Co.

Kaschula, RH. 2009. Translating cultural voids: conversing cultures. LitNet.

Mtuze, P. 1993. The language practitioner in a multilingual South Africa. South African Journal of African Languages, 13(2). Quoted by Kaschula.

Ntsanwisi, HWE. 1968. Tsonga Idioms. Braamfontein: Sasavona Publishers and Booksellers.

Yai, O. 1989. Issues in oral poetry: Criticism, teaching and translation. In Barber and de Moraues (eds). Quoted by Kaschula.

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