Monday, July 18, 2011
Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth??
The answer to that question is almost invariably, no. Whether I am listening to someone speaking Luganda or they are listening to me speaking English, communication and comprehension is pretty low. Luganda is a rough language for the American tongue because it frequently starts words with combinations like nz-, mz-, nb-, mb-, ng-, nk- or throws a double gg followed by a k right in the middle of a word just for funzies. However, as I have found with other languages and cultures, if you can learn the greetings and smile many people are more than happy to try and teach you how to not mangle their native language. Either that or they give up hope of that option and kindly switch to English to try and help get the point across. I am sure anyone that has learned a new language can give you many examples of funny mistranslations; I’ll give you three I think are really funny
Can you help me? I’m a goat. Many people that know me and have been tortured enough to hear me sing can attest to the fact that I have absolutely no concept of tone. Due to this, speaking languages like Luganda in which intonation is important is difficult. The words mbuzi and mbuse are clearly spelled differently. Sadly these two words are pronounced exactly the same way to my inadequate ears. The first means “goat” and the second means “lost”. For the first two weeks here I walked around telling anyone who would listen that I was a goat in a doomed attempt to get directions. These statements were understandably always met with gales of laughter but no explanation as to why me not knowing where I live was so funny. Recently a very nice colleague of mine who speaks English well enough to explain the situation helped me stop making a fool of myself in that way.
Just Dance. During outreaches into the community my organization plays music to entertain the clients while they await their results. I was working in the lab tent one day when the wonderful people I work with and I spotted a little girl just lost in the music and having a great time dancing. One of the fellow testers called “zina” followed by something else I couldn’t understand or remember out to her and she stepped up her game and rocked out to the song. He explained to me that “zina” and the something else means “to dance”. Easy enough. Armed with my new knowledge I was ready to impress unsuspecting Ugandans with my mastery of their language. A little way off I saw my onsite manager, Simon, lightly bouncing to the beat. Target acquired. I yelled loudly over the music “Simon, ZINA!” This shout was met with a blanched and confused look on Simon’s face and tear-inducing rounds of laughter from my lab mates. Once they had composed themselves enough, which took quite some time, they explained my mistake. Apparently, the something else following “zina” is crucial in making the word mean “to dance”. Otherwise it is an invitation for sex. It’s an awkward thing to scream across a field to your boss :/
Lost in translation. There is a really catchy song by a local artist that plays every five seconds on the radio here. Since I have spent my fair share of time stuck in traffic listening to the radio, I’ve proudly learned all the word but none of the meaning. I work for a Catholic based organization here and one day while waiting to go into the church for prayers I started singing my new jam with enthusiasm. I was drawing some inquisitive looks but I assumed it was due to my complete lack of musical ability previously mentioned. Oh no, not so. Again a kind soul showed me the error of my ways. The song, with its catchy beat and easy chorus, is very explicitly explaining the values of prostitution. I don’t know how many Hail Mary’s are required to repent for corrupting everyone coming into the church but I am pretty confident that I’m going to be working on that for a while.
Moral of the story: Make friends with people that really speak the language you are trying to speak. They may not be able to stop you from making yourself look like an idiot but they will hopefully explain it to you when you inevitably do.