Lost in translation
Did King Goodwill Zwelithini call gay people "rotten"?
The controversy that has arisen since this newspaper, and at least one other publication, in KwaZulu-Natal, reported that the Zulu monarch had spoken out against same-sex relationships has helped draw attention to an issue that I think is of the utmost importance if our young democracy is to have an intelligent dialogue with itself: how statements made in indigenous South African languages, by politicians and other public figures, are translated into English by journalists.
It would be a big understatement to say that King Goodwill, like many other traditionalists, is no fan of homosexual relationships.
Still, when I read on Monday that Isilo had said that "traditionally" there "were no people" who engaged in same-sex relationships and "that if you do it you must know you are rotten", I was outraged.
How could he be so irresponsible, especially in the face of recent barbaric attacks on lesbians on Gauteng's East Rand and elsewhere in the country?
But my anger turned into doubt when I read a statement from the Zulu royal household denouncing the stories as a "reckless translation" of what the king had said in Zulu.
Too often, politicians and other public figures wrongly cry: "I was misquoted" or "quoted out of context" when their utterances spark public outrage.
The experience of the past few years, however, has taught me not to dismiss these as obfuscations without first getting an independent account of what the person actually said - especially if such a person had spoken in a language other than English.
There have been too many occasions on which the message has been lost in translation, often creating controversy where there was none.
The most recent example of this happened a few days before the ANC's 100th birthday bash in Mangaung, Free State, when a newspaper reported that ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema had called party leaders baboons.
As it later transpired, from Sotho speakers who were present when Malema spoke, he was referring to a particular councillor who was at odds with the community the league leader was addressing.
The journalist who wrote this story was failed by whoever translated Malema's speech for her.
But it is not only journalists who don't speak any of the indigenous languages who get their translations mixed up.
President Jacob Zuma will go down in history as having once called former president Thabo Mbeki a "dead snake".
This was after The Times, of which this columnist was one of the editors at the time, published a story saying as much in 2008.
But while it was true that Zuma did say the words "inyoka efile" (dead snake), he was using a common Zulu idiom whose most accurate equivalent would have been "flogging a dead horse".
Had he spoken in English, we would not be saying today that Zuma called Mbeki a "dead horse", would we?
With all of this in mind, I decided to find out for myself what Isilo actually said when he spoke at the Battle of Isandlwana celebrations in Nquthu, Zululand, on Sunday.
Fortunately, Pietermaritzburg's The Witness newspaper has an audio clip of the speech.
Here is my translation of what the king said: "If you are one of the people I am talking about, a man who [sexually] abuses another man, a woman who [sexually] abuses another woman, you are rotten.
"Warriors would go to many wars forsaking their women. Zulu men would be gone for days .
"We never heard that there were warriors who [sexually] abused their fellow warriors," King Goodwill said.
Suspicious as I am of the king's intentions in uttering these words, we should be careful about the inferences we draw and translations we make.
As we move closer to the ANC's Mangaung conference later this year, as well as the 2014 elections, newsrooms would do great justice to our democracy by ensuring that those they send to cover the campaign speeches not only understand the languages used but also give the English-reading public an accurate translation of what is said.