Early start: Preschoolers Sibabalwe, Lisakhanya, Linamandla and Sibusisiwe at the KwaMagxaki library in Port Elizabeth. Once at school, most children in SA do not receive mother tongue education. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN
Early start: Preschoolers Sibabalwe, Lisakhanya, Linamandla and Sibusisiwe at the KwaMagxaki library in Port Elizabeth. Once at school, most children in SA do not receive mother tongue education. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN

It is not possible to exactly translate a science article from English to isiZulu, Sibusiso Biyela told an audience at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco in 2017.

Instead of writing one article and translating it, he writes two different versions.

Biyela is one of SA’s very few science writers who publishes articles in isiZulu. "I did not realise that science is different in different languages," he says. "My mother language seemed inadequate as a language of science — at least that is what I was told as a child."

SA has 11 official languages, but some languages — such as English and Afrikaans — have received more resources and attention than others.

Statistics SA estimates fewer than 10% of the population speaks English at home, but this is often their children’s medium of education. Although the Bill of Rights protects individuals’ right to use the language of their choice, English is often cast as the language of education and science. The supremacy of English has been highlighted as a reason for SA’s dismal maths and science performance.

With isiZulu, like many other languages in SA, "the language has been left behind and has not been considered a language of science, and this leaves out a whole culture from being able to learn, and engage with, the tenets of science", says Biyela.

"Translating English text to Zulu is not neat; it can be so sloppy … and questions more than it answers."

He cites an example of a major 2017 science story in which the collision of two neutron stars allowed astronomers to detect gravitational waves. "In English, I could say, ‘Two neutron stars collided recently, and the explosion from that released gravity waves that astronomers detected’. Saying this in Zulu would amount to me making words up and taking too long to explain what neutron stars are, and even having to make clear what I mean by gravity waves.

"It is doable, but it ends up being sloppy."

This boils down to terminology — the labels given to objects and concepts. Devising agreed-on terminology costs money.

"No language was born with terminology," says Elsabé Taljard, a professor in the department of African languages at the University of Pretoria.

"Afrikaans … needed academic and political will to develop terminology."

There also needs to be agreement on the definitions behind the terms. "Terminology is only half of it. What you need is a definition which explains the concept. If you can have that definition in all the languages, that’s the first prize," she says.

Taljard uses the example of a triangle, broken down to mean "three angles". You can show a Grade 1 pupil a picture of a triangle, and then offer the label of "triangle".

"But he does not understand why it is called that. In Sepedi, the word is ‘khutlotharo’, which means ‘it has three angles’. Now the learner knows why it is called that. The importance isn’t knowing the word but the concept that lies behind the term.

"If you already have the concept and you understand what it means, it is easier to transfer that to another language."

Marietta Alberts began her career as a terminologist in 1971. "In those days, we compiled English-Afrikaans dictionaries. English was the source language [used as the basis to translate to other languages] and you worked with subject committees and subject specialists."

She received specific assignments, which included creating terminology for veterinary science, municipal sewerage, the dairy industry and butterfly lists, and she would visit a group of specialists, such as Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, ask them for their core terms and develop words in conjunction with the specialists who speak the language in which she was trying to develop terms.

There are very few trained terminologists in SA, and the country offers no complete academic course to become one, say Alberts and Taljard.

I need the buy-in of subject field experts to check the content for correctness. That works on a freelance basis, but who is willing to do it for free? And then they say, ‘Why bother? We just use English’
Elsabé Taljard

"You can’t become a terminologist in SA," says Taljard. "Some universities have a module or two in terminology, but you can’t really produce terminologists with that.

"In Europe you need to study for five years, have an internship and then you go and work for a company as a terminologist."

The authentication of terms falls under the Pan South African Language Board. The Department of Arts and Culture’s National Language Service is tasked with creating terminology and promoting the use of all official languages.

However, repeated attempts to contact the National Language Service and responsible individuals at the Department of Arts and Culture failed. Several reports indicate the board is underresourced and struggles to perform its functions.

Pan South African Language Board CEO Rakwena Monareng says: "The problem is not with the African languages. The problem is the attitude we have towards them and the refusal to invest in them. They will tell you English is the only language that can take you to heaven. We even pray in English. English is the international language of business, they say.

"We feel inferior. We think that the only way to advance is to forget our language."

Taljard says to create true multilingualism in SA, with the vocabulary to develop all official languages, "you need people": terminologists, lexicographers and subject specialists.

"I need the buy-in of subject field experts to check the content for correctness. That works on a freelance basis, but who is willing to do it for free? And then they say, ‘Why bother? We just use English’."

Biyela writes about science in isiZulu even if it takes longer than writing in English and is difficult. "Science is different in different languages. You need to be aware of the bias of the language you’re using," he says.