Untranslatable heritage can be communicated

Nothing is untranslatable, and formal education systems have a huge role to play in preserving cultural heritage. These were the overarching conclusions at the third in a series of all-African workshops on the preservation and transmission of linguistic heritage.

The venue was the University of Botswana. The first series was held in Paris in 2011 and the second in Dakar last year.

This year’s topic, “Untranslatable Heritage”, was discussed by 30 delegates from Botswana, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, and a dozen papers – on the main and the sub-theme, which was “Language as a Means of Uncovering Cultural History” – were presented and discussed

Last year’s Dakar workshop explored impediments in translating heritage terms.

Each African language “has a unique way of visualising and categorising the elements and phenomena of the universe”, delegates to this year's workshop said, adding that heritage should be preserved in the original language, and support given to its conservation and documentation.

The conclusion was that nothing was untranslatable, “as any language can render all notions as long as one is competent enough to find the right equivalent or use the right strategies”.

At the debut Paris workshop, with the theme “Untranslatable Heritage Words”, delegates discussed how to move people’s perceptions of what constituted heritage beyond artifacts, monuments and traditions, and debated the significance of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

At this year’s seminars, there was concern about how cultural heritage terms were translated into other languages and the confusion caused by the use of borrowed terms from French and English.

Julia Ethe from Douala, Cameroon, said formal education meant students lacked comprehension and knowledge of their languages and cultures, and ways needed to be found to further integrate African languages into schooling.

Leon de Stadler from Stellenbosch University in South Africa called for language planning and for steps to protect the rich linguistic heritage of Africa. From Senegal, Adjaratou Oumar Sall said it was necessary to recognise the multilingual and multicultural nature of Senegal and not rely only on French.

Samuel Kidiba from Brazzaville presented a paper on the Royal Kingdom of Mbé and a sacred forest to illustrate humans' relationships between intangible and tangible heritage. Asante L Mtenje of Malawi presented a paper on how youth created new proverbs from old Chichewa proverbs.

The pan-African and international workshops are a collaboration between the French embassy, the University of Botswana’s department of African languages, Alliance Française, the French Institute of Research in South Africa, ACLAN – Academe Africaine des Langues – and the Botswana government. In Botswana participation was spearheaded by Professor Herman M Batibo of the department of African languages.

The workshops were first conceived by the Directorate of Cultural Diversity and World Heritage in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Cooperation in 2011.

Delegates concluded that multilingualism and multiculturalism should be seen as a way to preserve cultural heritage, as language was its custodian.

More research on the structure of languages was required to “maximise our knowledge of cultural and linguistic heritage”. In particular, there is a need for comparative instead of one-language and one-culture studies.

Considerable work lies ahead if these objectives are to be achieved. Every language has strategic resources; every culture a heritage that needs to be preserved and transmitted to the next generation.

Languages are dynamic and in evolution, so new strategies are needed to ensure the transmission of cultural heritage; national identity, traditional beliefs and heritage are all intertwined. The future, delegates agreed, lies in multilingualism and multiculturalism.