Thinking in English, Expressing in another Language

Yesterday morning, as I was preparing to leave for work, I listened to VOA Hausa’s health program Lahiya Uwar Jiki.

Na taho –

In gaisheki, lahiya uwar jiki

Babu mai fushi dake

It was a reproductive health topic focusing on highly technical stuff like in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and hormonal therapy. The doctor started with a minimum of English words, careful to use the Hausa equivalent of technical words. Little by little, medical jargon kept creeping in as she used words and phrases like ‘high levels na hormones’, ‘grading’, ‘parameters’, ‘producing’. She went on to use not-so-technical English words like ‘severe’, ‘critical’, ‘avoiding’, ‘producing’, ‘mild’, ‘severe’, ‘process’, ‘mentally’. Then the absolutely avoidable plain words like ‘baby’, ‘discomfort’, and phrases like ‘most of the time’, ‘not anything special’, ‘is one of the’, ‘zama affected’. Towards the end of the talk, a complete English sentence jumped out when she said, ‘hydration is very important’. The code-mixing had reached the scale of full-blown Ingausa. What happened? She didn’t sound anxious. She knew her stuff. I think she became less careful and simply spoke as she would have done outside the studio. Usually, when a Hausa-speaking doctor discusses medical stuff with other Hausa-speaking doctors, she does a lot of code-mixing and code-switching without thinking about it. It is the natural mode. But when she speaks to a lay audience, she becomes conscious of the words she uses. The doctor in that interview started that conscious way but, without realizing it, lapsed into the jargon-filled code-switching mode. When your thought proceeds in English words but you are speaking another language, it is a constant process of translation. Sometimes the translation does not happen quickly enough. Sometimes, it simply fails. What has been very common with educated Yoruba, Igbo and other Nigerians is gradually happening to Hausa people. Explaining medical science in Hausa is artificial. But the doctor didn’t realize that she must have lost hundreds of thousands of listeners across West Africa who barely understand a word of English, let alone medical English. On BBC Hausa, the anchor would have offered quick Hausa translations of English words and expressions that pop up when guests are explaining technical stuff. BBC Hausa has often led the way in popularizing, even inventing, catchy, idiomatic and often colourful Hausa alternatives to contemporary English expressions: ‘yan sama jannati (astronauts), kunar bakin wake (suicide bombing), yakin sunkuru (guerilla warfare), ‘yan ba ruwanmu (non-aligned movement). But somebody should please tell them to stop saying yanar gizo (spider web, cobweb) for internet. It doesn’t make sense. They should just borrow directly and say ‘intanet’. Just like mota (motor car), rediyo (radio), otal (hotel), sinima (cinema), and tebur (table) were borrowed in the past.

The challenge of thinking in one language and speaking in another is considerable. Worse if the other language you are translating into is not even your first language. Like when I have to be interviewed in Hausa.

A couple of years ago when I got a phone call from a BBC Hausa staff who wanted to have a chat with me on Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). There was an outbreak of MERS and Nigerian pilgrims were preparing to travel for the Hajj. I was at work at the teaching hospital in Zaria, so I asked him to call back later in the day for the interview. The task was daunting. In the meantime, I prepared. I quickly updated my knowledge on MERS, focusing on the most likely questions: nature of the disease, route of transmission, clinical manifestation, prognosis, prevention and control. I translated the answers to ready-made sound bites in Hausa. When the call came in from London, I was sitting at my dining table with my notes. The interview ran so quickly. No unanticipated questions were asked, and the notes were not consulted. Without the time to prepare and translate the answers into Hausa, it would have been less smooth, probably even awkward. We learnt medicine in English and still think it in English. Later when the program was aired, it sounded almost surreal to hear myself talking epidemiology and medicine in unadulterated Hausa. The same segment that day also aired an interview conducted with my friend and brother Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad. I could feel the medical jargon trying to bubble up to the surface. I nearly laughed.

I fondly remember when we were in the medical school and used to playfully ‘move stuff’ in Hausa, describing human anatomy in the vernacular. It was often hilarious. Consider this: da jijiyar sciatic ta sauko daga kashin baya, tabi ta karkashin tsokar naman nan da ake cema piriformis, sai ta futo daga kugu, ta gangaro ta bayan cinya; tana kaiwa dai-dai kwari nan na bayan gwiwa da ake cema popliteal fossa, sai ta bada tagwayen rassa – tibial da commom peroneal … Imagine! We needed such diversions to cool off.

What is your experience trying to explain science and technology in your native tongue or a local language?

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