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A conversation to expand mother-tongue thought horizons

Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi is igniting the minds of teenagers and contributing to the advancement of South African indigenous languages through his translation of scientific books. In this process he has invented almost 500 new isiZulu words. Mbuyazi spoke to us about the importance of nurturing mother-tongue languages in the educational and academic world:


Of all the creatures in the animal kingdom we, the humans, are the only ones who engage in full-blown conversations not only with one another, but with ourselves.

Conversation with one’s self goes by various names, including thought, reflection and cogitation. “I think, therefore I am” is the eminently recognisable conclusion of René Descartes’ labour of thought, which connected our act of thinking with the certainty of our own existence. And, because of our ability to consider our existence in this way, we are able to innovate and improve our standard of living.

But, if we pause for a moment and reflect, we will discover that “I think, therefore I am” began its own life as: “Cogito ergo sum”, its Latin equivalent. Somewhere along the line someone took Descartes’ thoughts in Latin and translated them into English

Come to think of it, millions of thoughts by other individuals have shared the same experience. Philosophers of old, mathematicians and scientists from various ages as well as writers and composers have all had their work translated for the benefit of other-language speakers.

Recently, I came across this fact about Stephen Hawking: ‘His adult book A Brief History of Time was a huge bestseller …and is now available in more than 30 languages.’ Just what was I doing when I came across this fact? Well, I was busy with the awesome challenge of translating Lucy and Stephen Hawkings’ book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe into isiZulu, my mother tongue. Why ‘awesome’? Because thoughts about ‘…lots of fascinating scientific facts about our Universe and the planets, including the latest ideas about black holes’ will now be available to 10-year-old Zulu speaking children in the language they are already fluent in.

And why ‘a challenge’? Because, for South African indiginous languages, this is pioneering work insofar as scientific writings are concerned. Pioneers, just like the Latin-English translators of yesteryear, often come across frontiers characterised by hostilities. And, for where isiZulu and my pen are right now, black holeslightmasscometsasteroids, and the Solar System, all of which are fundamental to the plot, look very hostile indeed!

However, translations between different languages have happened since antiquity, and those languages that take their survival seriously never cease assimilating newly translated material from other languages. There is no better way to empower us to participate in the conversation that expands the thought horizons of our own mother tongues.

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