Close button
The Guardian
Email YouTube Facebook Instagram Twitter WhatsApp

Lost in translating


It is so easy to get into tangles of trouble from which it is embarrassing to escape. In Yoruba usage, it is easy to say without complicating ones life:”O nbu mi bo”. This can be rendered literarily as “you were abusing me as you came along.” This statement is usually made when someone arrives as you finish eating. It puts the burden of missing a meal on the visitor rather than on the host. The host ought to be always prepared because in our part of the world, nobody makes appointments before calling on his neighbour or relatives. This why an extra plate is set for unknown guest like the unknown god of the Acts of the Apostles.

Anyway Robert, the gardener, arrives after the old man had just finished his late lunch. Robert is always prompt in greeting the old man, exchanging some smart chat of no consequence with him. Of no consequence because the conversation was usually made of incomplete sentences, truncated phrases and even words, all to cover the time and spatial distance that Robert took from the gate and the garage. Robert was always the gardeners’ gardener. He didn’t look down on his African employers who were not, let’s face it, were not always as generous as the muzungus that owned the palatial building before the present occupiers. So, he was surprised, not alarmed when the old man said to Robert: “You were insulting me as you came along.” Robert spoke at least seven or eight of the twelve languages of South Africa, not to forget Sign Language. He spoke literary English without the refinement of popular sayings, idiomatic statements and ambiguities. Like many who learnt English to take orders from Master and Madam like “putting food on the table” what the word says is what the word means. It was a spoken English that did not allow the speaker the same largeness of imaginative application available to the original speakers of English.


So, “You were insulting me as you came along” was nothing else but an accusation of the greatest gravity. Robert stopped, he asked the old man, “You mean me sir?” It was a question and not a question. Asked in half curiosity, half jest Robert was looking around in case there was a third person who was being addressed.

“I mean you Robert. You were insulting me as you came along. Otherwise, why would you arrive just as I was finishing my lunch?” Now, the addition of the lunch and it’s finishing added confusion and Robert tried to understand the lunch in the light of the insult.


His first reaction is to put down the gardening tools he had burdened himself with and approach the old man formally. “I am not able, not capable ever to insult you. You can ask those who were with me in the taxi bus. I did not say a word to anybody.” Maybe in this world of corona virus finding and tracing everybody you have been with is easy to do.

Without letting the old man speak Robert went in search of Angel the housemaid. He told her what the old man had accused him of and he did not know what to do. Angel said they should go together to the old man. “Perhaps he’s joking! He’s always making up stories and making me laugh.” Robert said under his breath that nobody makes jokes of such matters as insulting elders. We don’t do it in Africa. Our elders are close to our ancestors. We venerate our elders as we worship our ancestors.


Why then would we insult our elders no matter where we were? By the time Robert and Angel go to the verandah, master and madam and the old man were waiting for them. Master told Angel it was a “linguistic misunderstanding. In Yoruba language when someone arrives after you have finished eating, you say the person was insulting you come I mean as they were coming.” Robert asked bewildered “Why?” Madam picked up the explanation: “Nobody knows. There are even stranger ones. Let Granddad tell you.” The general laughter relieved the situation somewhat and the old man told his story with everyone laughing or smiling and wondering why the world doesn’t just speak one language and spare everybody this possibility of misunderstanding and confusion.

“Tell us your story Nkhulu!” Angel encouraged. “We don’t want to forget you, story.” “Don’t worry I will tell you two stories. The first has to do with two good friends. One was returning from the farm one hot afternoon and called on his friend on the way to his own house. The home friend was busy soaking cassava with cold fridge water and groundnuts. The farm friend was of course thirsty from the farm in the afternoon. So, the invitation to come and have some gari cassava was not repeated. The farm friend held the bowl of gari in cold fridge water and upended it to his mouth. The house friend looked on in amazement wondering when he would give him the gari in cold fridge water back.


By the time the bowl came away from the face of the farm friend, there was nothing left. He gave back the bowl to the house friend who took it and whacked his farm friend on the head that the farm friend fell down never to get up again.” Nobody was sure whether to laugh or to cry. The need to look after the farm friend prevented them from hearing the second story. The end of the second story was not as bad as the first one. A visitor arrives as the head of the family is served his evening meal. The visitor was none other than his fellow church elder. They both knew that invitation to come and join me to eat my supper is never seriously meant. The visitor is supposed to decline and watch television while his friend ate his dinner to his satisfaction. That evening the visitor was hungry. He had had a small argument with his wife over a small matter of small change.

So, when his fellow elder invited him half-heartedly to wash his hands and join him, he readily accepted and went to wash his hands. He didn’t even let the wife of the house give him the water… The elder of the house held the bowl of soup and pounded yam and threw them on his elderly face.


In this article:
Kole Omotoso
Receive News Alerts on Whatsapp: +2348136370421

No comments yet