Are translations in music necessary?

Jonah Moyo

Jonah Moyo

Fred Zindi Music
Devera Ngwena Jazz Band, one of Zimbabwe’s most popular groups of the 1980s, left Harare for London on May 18, 1987.

Hardly stopping to breathe in the new air, the outfit were soon belting out their brand of Zimbabwean music at the Town and Country Club. The walls reverberated to the fast beat of Devera Ngwena and the heavier sounds of Johnny Clegg and Savuka with whom they were sharing the stage.

All in all, Jonah Moyo and his Devera Ngwena Jazz Band performed some 45 shows in England, Scotland and Holland and found a lot of new converts on the way.

By the end of their tour, Devera Ngwena had stolen the hearts of the critics there. When asked what made Devera Ngwena tick, this is what the quiet-spoken Jonah Moyo had to say: “The audiences said the music was danceable, easy to follow and they quickly adapted to it. Some said we were way above the standards of some bands from Africa they had seen. And some critics unashamedly told us we were better than the Bhundu Boys, right in front of Biggie Tembo!”

However, the name of the band caused a few difficulties out in Europe. Iain MacIntosh who had organised the European tour, thought it wise to translate the name “Devera Ngwena” into English and started to call the group “Follow The Crocodile”. Somehow, reports filtered back home that they were trying to change their name to the literal meaning “Follow the Crocodile”. Jonah later defended this by saying “Someone was being naughty. People were asking us what the name meant and we would explain that “devera” means “follow” and “ngwena” is a crocodile but we never meant to change the name”.

Although the group Devera Ngwena is no more, Jonah is currently based in South Africa where he and some musicians frequently perform in night clubs.

Devera Ngwena are not the only group caught up in this translations trap. Many Shona bands who travel to other countries think that it is always necessary to translate the meanings of their songs for foreign audiences. One Zimdancehall artiste who had travelled to the UK introduced his Shona songs by translating them to English. When it came to one song entitled “Chiwoko Muhomwe”, he said, “This song is called ‘Your Hand in Your Pocket’. Thus the meaning was completely lost as the song, when sung in Shona, actually refers to bribery.

We had a problem years ago with the Frontline Kids when they introduced a song to audiences in Scotland whose theme was “Ndobvisa Here?” In Shona that was meant to ask if the singer should remove his clothes, but when it was translated into English the singer went, “Shall I take off?” to which the audience responded, “Yes take off” thinking he meant “Shall I fly away?” It did not go down well as the audience was confused about what he meant.

A few years ago I was part of the audience at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London, when Thomas Mapfumo toured the UK His band, The Blacks Unlimited, consisted of Chartwell Dutiro a mbira player, Sebastian Mbata, the drummer, Jonah Sithole, on lead guitar, Everson Chibamu on alto saxophone, Willard Kalanga on trombone, Leonard “Picket” Chiyangwa on rhythm guitar and Charles Makokowa on bass. After they finished playing their set, one English journalist from Melody Maker, David Harewood, asked Sebastian for the band’s playlist and he took one of the players aside to help him translate some of the songs the band had played. He showed me the translations later. Here is how the translations on the list went:

“Shungu Dzinondibaya” was translated to “Anger Shoots me”,

“Ngoma Yarira” was given an English version of “The drum is ringing”

“Pidigori Waenda” (“The Man who jumps up and down is gone”),

“Murombo Haarovi Chinenguwo” became “A poor man does not hit something with a skin”.

Another song, “Sadza Wadya Here Nemusoro WeMbeva”, was translated to,“Have You Eaten Sadza with a Mouse’s Head?”.

David said he still did not get the deep meaning behind these songs and asked me to explain what the band meant. I did not want to embarrass my fellow Zimbabweans and I simply said that I was not sure.

It made me wonder whether it was necessary for Zimbabwean musicians to explain the meanings of their songs by literally translating them from Shona to English.

Some may argue that music transcends cultures and it carries a universal message across. It should not matter what language one sings in. An appreciative audience will always accept what is coming out of a talented singer. Yet we all know that we have special affinities with the musical pieces that we have been steeped in since childhood and that we need to be introduced to others in order to appreciate them. The way some of these songs are introduced to the world does not bear any useful meaning at all as can be seen from how the above songs were translated.

Music by itself, is a universal language. This is why the people in Holland could dance to Devera Ngwena’s “Solo naMutsai” or “Anoshaina nema Babe Ake” without bothering to understand what the band was singing about. We too, in Zimbabwe, have embraced a lot of songs from the likes of Psy’s Hip Hop song entitled “Gangnam Style”, rhumba fromAwilo or “Hinde Moni” from Kanda Bongo Man without bothering to find out what they are singing about.

There are some musicians who find it necessary to introduce every song they sing in their language to foreign audiences. I would not recommend it unless it is absolutely necessary. If the audience is curious, let them find out like I did with the song “Malaika Nakupenda Malaika” which means Malaika, I love you, Malaika’

However, there are some translations which may be necessary. For instance, Munyaradzi Mataruse did his own rendition of John Legend’s “All of Me” in Shona when he sang, ‘Ndokupa Inini Wese, Wondipa iwewe wese’.

What is more important though is our ability to concentrate on how to improve access of music to those who have impairments and miss it, because they have lost their hearing, for example, instead of bothering with translations.

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