Participants arrive at a night vigil during a commemoration ceremony marking the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali, Rwanda. Picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER
Participants arrive at a night vigil during a commemoration ceremony marking the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali, Rwanda. Picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

Kigali — Most of today’s generation is not familiar with the Walkman, an item that was trendy with the youth three decades ago.

Up to then music players were bulky items that most times served as furniture. So Sony came up with a miniature cassette player with earphones that people could strap to their belts and listen to music on the go. It was the ancestor of the iPod.

The Walkman took the world by storm, and the French were not happy. The Académie Française is the guardian of the French language and its biggest fear is the language being anglicised. Its paranoid defence of the language has even taken on Covid-19 which, in a language that affixes gender to everything, became livid when the disease caused by the virus was referred to in masculine terms (le), so it ordered it changed to female (la).

The academie had grudgingly accepted the use of “weekend” in its vocabulary, but enough was enough. So Walkman was replaced with “balladeer”, from the word ballad or taking a stroll. Those were just semantics, and changing the name of the item did not change what it was.

That is exactly what has been taking place in the last few days over the Rwandan genocide, an instance that was triggered when the US suggested a rephrasing of the term “genocide against the Tutsi”. It argued — with reason, of course — that some Hutus who opposed the genocide were also killed but were not being given credit by the terminology.

That argument is sensible, but there is also something known as “lost in translation”. During World War 2 some Germans were killed for hiding Jews or helping them escape. That did not justify the changing the name of the Holocaust, or what it stood for, a “genocide against the Jews”.

Whoever came up with that idea chose the wrong moment. Credit should be given where it is due, but playing around with words is playing around with people’s sensibilities.

The New Times

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