It is not enough that we have words like peruse which mean what they mean and the exact opposite of it, or homophones which can get writers into trouble, like that one time I said, ‘the First Lady looks nice, I would like to meat her’ when I meant meet, (or did I?), mankind just had to have more languages than the tone of their skins and sometimes that really causes a problem, especially when words mean one thing here and another elsewhere.
I wonder how many wars have been started by mistranslation of words or phrases. The other day I read a Facebook status which said, ‘ngiyakurata’. In my vernacular that simply meant ‘I’ll fuck you up’ and if that was an inbox the weight of my testicles demanded I showed up to the sender’s doorstep and beat a black man black and blue. Then I considered that the author might be South African, and putting on my Sherlock hat, deduced that since they can’t decide which of eleven languages they want to speak he had formed a Zulu-Tswana compound which means ‘I love you’. So much for being a global citizen.
In Shona the word simba means strength, it’s also a very common and powerful (haha) name. Microsoft Word believes it should be capitalised because it’s the name of Disney’s favourite lion. And thus the myth sprung that it is what they call a lion in African. In some parts of the West that’s a real language by the way.
It’s actually Swahili, But in Ndebele the name Masimba means something completely different. A rough translation from Shona is ‘Powers’ (don’t ask, it’s a Zimbabwean name, we will deal with them thoroughly soon), but before my Shona improved I went hysterical when I heard that my neighbour was called ‘rat-shit’. At least that is what I had gathered; you can’t exactly ask your elders what swear-words mean, like the one that took me twenty-one years to translate, the most popular Ndebele insult: msunu-ka-nyoko. For much of my life, before the revelation, it was simply ‘an-offensive-statement-about-something-in-your-mother’s-gearbox’. Then it turned out a msunu is a clitoris and I thought, ‘that’s very elaborate; why couldn’t we keep it simple, like, I don’t know, your mother’s c***?’ But hey, Ndebele is poetic like that, so poetic in fact in some rural parts you can get your ass kicked for asking for matches (in our universe, it’s universally agreed ‘I have come to ask for fire’ means you or someone you represent is very interested in one of the daughters in the homestead. While you may be asking for a cigarette light, the statement, along with your casual demeanour could be terribly misconstrued).
But the word botched obviously comes from Ndebele. ‘Botsha’ means ‘take a shit’, clearly some white man rocked up in Mthwakazi and heard that cacophonic combination of morphemes and decided to conscript it into the English language. Scrape off the icing, a botched deal is basically a shat-on deal, hence I stand vindicated.
How do languages come to have the same words while they mean something different? Maybe different people associate the same sounds with different things. Curiously, as (somewhat) demonstrated above, words can mean the same thing throughout the world and still be indigenous to each culture. Take mama for instance, in any language (as far as I am ignorant) it’s mother. Someone tried to explain it by saying ‘ma’ is the first sound a baby makes. I think the first sound a baby makes is Wah! (to the power of the lazy eight). Maybe mankind has some innate language we know when we are babies, the language of innocence spoken before the proverbial fall and we lose it when we grow older and ‘ma’ is one we salvaged from our pure untainted form. Yeah right.
In English, this syphilis ridden whore of a language… Oh wait, to ‘mama’ in Shona is to take a shit!
How about the Muslim name Fakhar?!
Once again: In English, this syphilis ridden whore of a language God-knows how, baba is ‘a small cake leavened with yeast’. I have no idea what baba means in Hindi but each time I read a Rushdie it’s there and in the context it works perfectly with the Ndebele meaning, which is ‘father’. In the colloquial sense ‘baba’ is used as an exclamation, like ‘dude!’, and I feel Rushdie uses it the same way. Here I stand to be corrected, but still, I wonder what that guy who said what he said about ‘mama’ would say to that.
Then there are some words that could really start a war in the wrong ear. For example, a Shona and American man would react differently to the phrase ‘eating mazama’. Under the good old stars and stripes and the rockets’ red glare, Saddam dangling in air, of Hussein Obama while Osama swims with the fishes, mazama means…oh wait I just looked it up again, mazama is from the other America, the continent to the South of North America. Let’s start again. Mazama, according to my dictionary is brockets, which is a male red deer in its second year, or a small South American deer with unbranched antlers. Perfectly edible. You can walk around screaming about eating mazama in…I don’t know, Bolivia, and no one would give a hoot. Do that in Kwazvimba Maramba Pfungwa and you will be mistaken for either a foul-mouth or a cannibal, strutting about talking about eating women’s breasts.
Martyr is another, although in Shona it’s spelt mhata with the ‘h’ more stressed, it’s essentially the same word. So if you are ever officiating at a Shona funeral, and wish to express how devout the deceased was in their faith, embracing it to the bitter end, martyr might not be a great choice of wording, someone might hear ‘cunt’.
Weird world we live in, and I have to spend the night troubled in thought by why the Ndebele for the phrase ‘should rule’ is spelt ‘A-B-U-S-E’.