Published on 10 April 2005
Translations available in: français (original) . Español .

Translating the Charter of Human Responsibilities from French to Wolof (Senegal), or the difficulty of translating the concept of responsibility into Wolof

by Sidiki Abdoul DAFF
Associated Central Topics: Cross-culturalism, dialog and multilingualism .
Associated General Topics: Cross-cultural .

The job of translating the Charter was given to a group of Senegalese linguists who are national language specialists and/or promoters. Socially speaking, this group is made up of religious people (imams), national language reading and writing teachers and campaigners fighting for the use of national languages in the education system. They all master both forms of Wolof transcription: that with Latin lettering (recognised by the Senegalese state) and that with Arabic lettering. A lot of peasants master the latter, which, as attached to Islam, is the older of the two. We wanted this choice of two different approaches as it was a way of bringing together people with a common cultural background (Wolof culture) but with a different cultural influence (French and Arab).

The work coordinator (myself) talked with the group about how to approach the translation and how emphasis should be put on the text’s meaning while drawing on the Senegalese cultural imagination. From the outset they were faced with the hurdle of translating the concept “responsibility”, which doesn’t exist as an isolated concept in Wolof, that is, as a word that means something on its own. This prompted a long debate (more than 10 days) over the best way to convey the meaning of “responsibility”. The principle of responsibility and its practise is deeply rooted in the different Senegalese cultures but its meaning is tied to several different concepts which are all complementary. Several concepts were sounded out but none of them render the concept of responsibility when used on their own. For instance:
 “Warugal” is a widely-used concept in Senegal and comes from the Wolof word “war”, which means that which “rides” you or weighs on your shoulders. It denotes notions of both duty and responsibility. The act takes on both a dimension of individual commitment but also quite a bit of social constraint as this is a context where the community weighs heavily on the individual who is only valued when integrated in a group.
 “Sas” means that which one forces on oneself or what is forced upon one; it carries a strong connotation of burden.

Other terms were looked into but the two mentioned above come closest to the concept of “responsibility”, particularly the term “warugal, which conveys both “duty” and “responsibility”. They agreed that a new concept needed to be created to get the meaning of “responsibility” across. This is a relatively common practice as linguists often make up terms for concepts that our languages don’t have a single term for. But so as not to end up with a reductive contraction, several concepts need to be combined in order to get one that accurately reflects the concept, while still maintaining its richness. This resulted in the concept “wareef” which conveys the idea of obligation, duty and responsibility.

But it’s one thing to create a concept and another to have it accepted. The concept of responsibility is, in fact, not the only one they made up. They created others such as environment, essence, etc., which meant they had to draw up a glossary explaining the various new concepts. Such an approach means other linguists can intervene and discuss the content with them.

The second challenge was to send the first version of the translation to certain social groups to ensure that the terms used were relevant. Thus the translation was sent to Wolof-literate women and peasants (illiterate in French, so little influenced by its culture). We were amazed to see that the translation system (translating using the Wolof imagination, i.e. with parables, proverbs etc.) made it easier to get both the meaning of the text and the concept of responsibility across.

Translating the Charter of Human Responsibilities was seen as an opportunity to both enrich our national language and discuss the Charter’s content. The Charter’s universal calling was not sacrificed in the translation; rather in conveying its meaning a stamp of local culture (Wolof) was left on it. The group of linguists formed to work on the Charter continue their prospecting work on other issues concerning humanity (environment, peace, religion, etc.) doing the same sort of thing they have done with the Charter. In addition, this group, which is now a part of the Charter process, is helping us to popularise it through the media, particularly on private and community radio stations.

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