Health, Culture and Language: Translation and Untranslatability in Selected English-to-Zulu Health Communication Messages in Rural KwaZulu-Natal

Full Name: 
Dr Mongezi Andrew Sikhakhane

In theory, all of South Africa’s 11 official languages are equal. But in reality, English has consolidated its position at the expense of the other 10. It remains the only language spoken across all ethnic groups in South Africa. English’s dominance as both a source and relay language has not only underdeveloped African languages but has also facilitated the emergence of a systematic yet lopsided translation culture. Translation, for instance, is a routine and central element in the South African Government’s communication with its citizens. This study examined this “translation culture” in the context of health communication. The translation of health communication messages from English into African languages is a common and taken-for-granted practice in South African public health communication. This study critiques the use and dependence by the Department of Health, in the dissemination of health messages to the broader South African population, on specific normative modes of “translation cultures”. I investigated the interplay of health, health communication, culture and language on the production and translation of health communication messages to establish how, if at all, translation interacts with health communication and messaging. Using qualitative interviews and focus groups, the study explored how translated health communication messages disseminated by the Department of Health are received and perceived in specific contexts of use by selected target audiences. The study findings suggest that normative assumptions about translation complicate health communication in unique and interesting ways. This is the case with terms such as Igciwane, Ingculaza, Umabhebeza and Inoni, among others. The examples show that meanings that are otherwise polysemic, deeply intralingual, intersemiotic and complex; emerge as simple and static through English words. Due to the presence of “untranslatable” terminology or medical terms, there emerges a very specific politics of untranslatability, tied to culture, worldview and identity, where it appears that some things are better left untranslated, or we have to reckon with the fact that we are actually never done translating. Rather, translation is always in a process of becoming. Participants in the study focus groups expressed strong views about the way certain English medical terms are left to police themselves in translations, and that such words drive out Zulu words from the health lexicon. The study looks more to the future than the past and leans on translation studies to make an original theoretical and empirical contribution to the field of African health communication. It insists on the importance of the design of culturally appropriate, culturally friendly, and culturally sensitive public health communication strategies, particularly when these are targeted at poor, rural, under-served and illiterate citizens. The current half-hearted interventions on the local translation scene are by and large detrimental to health communication. Translation must, in the end, be a dialogue and complex give and take between equally rich and equally expressive languages. This requires a ceaseless and continuous dialogue and interaction between Zulu and English, and English and Zulu. Such a dialogue and interaction must, however, be markedly different to the unsustainable current practice of translating normatively from English.