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Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati’s Double Standards

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi The controversy over General Muhammadu Buhari’s recent “ kare jini, biri jini ” [...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The controversy over General Muhammadu Buhari’s recent “kare jini, biri jini” [Hausa for “the dog and the baboon will be soaked in blood”] comment has called attention to not only the time-honored tension between idiomaticity and literalness but also to the problems of equivalence in interlingual translation, i.e., translation between two mutually unintelligible languages.

As I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, an idiom is “an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up.” A grammar reference book also defined it as “an expression which is not meant literally and whose meaning cannot be deduced from knowledge of the individual words.”

 For instance, the expressions “spill the beans” (which means to give away secret information to people who are not supposed to know it), “kick the bucket” (which means to die) are English idioms that will not convey their widely understood meanings if we merely isolate the meanings of the individual words that make them up.  

An entry in Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, underscored the tension between literalness and idiomaticity this way: “In the English expression to kick the bucket, a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression`s true meaning: to die. Although this idiomatic phrase can, in fact, actually refer to kicking a bucket, native speakers of English rarely use it so. Cases like this are ‘opaque idioms’.”

Idiomatic appreciation requires an intimate familiarity with not only the semantic conventions of a language but also with the cultural peculiarities of the speakers of the language. The expression “kare jini, biri jini,” as many commentators have pointed out, is a fossilized idiomatic expression in Hausa to denote “fierce competition.”

 If you deduce the meaning of that expression by merely looking at the meanings of “dog,” “baboon,” and “blood” in isolation, you will end up with a tragic interlingual mistranslation—sort of like an English speaker who attempts to make sense of the expression “kill two birds with one stone” by looking at the individual meanings of “kill,” “birds,” and “stone.” Of course, as even minimally proficient speakers of English know, the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” has no relationship with violence, although there is “kill” in the words that make it up; it simply means to be successful at doing two things simultaneously. 

Because of the cultural specificity of idioms, especially “opaque idioms” such as “kick the bucket,” “kill two birds with one stone,” “kare jini, biri jini,” etc., language teachers often advise learners of a new language to understand an idiom not as a group of independent words but as a vocabulary. That way, learners can avoid potentially costly cultural and semantic miscues. 

For instance, had the non-Hausa speaking spin doctors of the presidency understood “kare jini, biri jini” as the lexical substitute for “fierce competition” (the same way, for instance, that English speakers are taught to understand the expression “break the back of the beast” not as a call to violence against wild animals or humans but as the lexical substitute for “overcome a difficulty”) this pointless controversy wouldn’t have emerged.

As most linguists know only too well, translating idioms from one language to another is a notoriously risky exercise. Dr. Richard Lederer, a far-famed American grammarian and author, captured this brilliantly in an article he published in The Vocabula Review, a monthly journal about the state of the English language. He recounted the semantic disasters that United Nations translation machines caused when they tried to translate English idiomatic expressions into the Chinese language.

 He wrote that when the English idiom “out of sight, out of mind” was entered into the translation machine, it was (mis)translated into Chinese as “invisible, insane.”  (Other people reported that the idiom was mistranslated into other languages as “invisible idiot” and “blind and insane”). In everyday English, “out of sight” does indeed mean “invisible” or “blind,” and to be “out of one’s mind” means to be “insane.” Insane people can be, and often are, idiots. However, as an idiomatic expression, “out of sight, out of mind” expresses the “idea that something is easily forgotten or dismissed as unimportant if it is not in our direct view.”  That meaning was lost in translation.

 Lederer also recalled the semantic miscue that resulted from the attempt to translate the English idiom “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Chinese. The idiom was translated as “the wine is good but the meat is off” in Chinese. When it was translated into Russian, according to other sources, it came out as: “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten”! 

 Those are of course grotesque distortions of the real meaning of the expression. This English idiom, which has origins in the Bible, is used to indicate that the weakness of the body, or a lack of strong resolve, has made the best of intentions impossible to execute. 

Rueben Abati’s interpretation of General Buhari’s “kare jini, biri jini” comment as a call to violence and an animalization of the Nigerian electorate is the most bizarre example of idiomatic mistranslation I’ve read, especially coming from someone who only a few months ago defended President Jonathan’s literal (perhaps unintended) endorsement of violence as a “metaphorical” expression.

 “Finally, we wish to make it known to Buhari that given his reference to ‘dogs and baboons’, perhaps his best course of action would be to travel to the zoo of his imagination because President Goodluck Jonathan was elected by human beings to preside over human beings and it is human beings who will determine what happens in Nigeria at any material time not ‘dogs and baboons’,” Abati wrote. This mistranslation of an age-old Hausa idiom is laughable in its ignorance and cluelessness.  

Translation, especially idiomatic translation, entails more than the substitution of lexical and grammatical items between languages. To be successful, it repudiates linguistic equivalence and embraces what professional linguists call stylistic or translational equivalence in order to achieve what translation scholar Anton Popović calls “expressive identity.”

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  1. Hmmm.mahaukaci in baya duka abokin zamane mallam farooq.jazakullahu khairan you realy tried.kudos

  2. May God help and protect you for informing Nigerians.

  3. A commendable and informative article that deserves the undivided attention of Jonathans media spin doctors.

  4. An interesting piece. The description of the translation of “out of sight, out of mind” into “invisible, insane” was priceless. :)

    Translation is, indeed a complicated task.

  5. Sometimes, English idioms are not spared this butchery by Nigerian newspapers. Recall how the opposition parties distorted OBJ’s declaration that the 2003 Presidential Elections in Nigeria would be “a fight to the finish?” Media commentators interpreted this to mean that he (Obasanjo) would presumably “kill” anyone who stood in his way, rather than what it actually meant – that he was ready, willing and able “to do battle” and will “give no quarter” to his opponents in the election.


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