Media SkepticismTeen Skepchick's Reality Checks

Translating Badly for Profit and Publicity

I speak Kiswahili (a result of Peace Corps Tanzania) well enough to notice that Kiswahili, or Swahili if you prefer, often appears in odd places, usually in poorly translated ways. One zoo named a baby giraffe Kiko, claiming it meant Autumn Sunset, which is not only inaccurate, it is puzzling in that I’m not sure Kiswahili even has a word for Autumn, since it is spoken in the tropics.  You could say awkwardly and with many words that it is the season of falling leaves, but there isn’t a single word you can stuff that into. There was one hotel room I stayed at in which the cheap hotel brand coffee claimed “tamu” means the sweetest imaginable thing.  Tamu can indeed mean sweet, but since you can also have sweeter things with a tamu sana, it’s certainly not the sweetest imaginable.  My favorite tv show, Rupaul’s Drag Race, cast a queen pseudonymed Shea who said her name meant beautiful boy in Swahili (it doesn’t).  Recently I’ve seen a meme going around facebook recounting a story in which some guy criticizes black women for carrying babies in their stomachs (and I also criticize cannibalism, for the record) and then naming babies Lakisha. The response to this is to claim lakisha means favorite in Swahili, which it does not, though the ever so not credible baby names websites claim it does. And sure it’s super racist to criticize naming of African-American babies and imply they should have the names of conventional US white folk, but I wish we could do that with actual and not alternative facts.  There are many beautiful names, Lakisha included, that don’t need to be justified by making up dubious connections to other languages, and many actual beautiful names that really are words in those other languages. Some diamond company claims that their safi kilima brand means pure mountain.  You could I guess use safi like that but kilima is hill or mound, mlima is mountain.  I get that mlima is really hard for native English speakers to say, but still.  If you are going to make money off a brand name, make an effort and have some respect for the source material.

In addition to the fact that I just like things to be generally accurate, mistranslating Kiswahili for ads or publicity sort of makes me wince because it kind of comes across as using another language, one traditionally oppressed by us white folk of the US, in order to sound sort of exotically Africanish without making an effort to actually understand the language.  It’s not like it is a dead language.  Lots of people speak it.  Until just recently the Red Cross accepted it as one of the languages you could know to fulfill their language requirements. There are dictionaries available from major US retailers and the language is offered at some colleges.

It’s a fairly minor problem, as problems go, but it should be fairly easy to correct with a minimum of effort and expense. Particularly for companies with advertising budgets.

Featured image via Caleb Roegnik 

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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