Lost in Translation

This is a bit about the local language, for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing.  The language is called TshiVenda, (pronounced “Chi-Ven-Da” meaning the language of Venda people.  Venda is a region in the Limpopo province of South Africa.  The place has high temperatures, beautiful mountains, delicious fruits and some interesting traditions which I’ll talk about later.  Venda people call themselves “VhaVenda” (plural) or “MuVenda” (Singular), and they call people like me “VhaKhuwa” or “MuKhuwa”.  So the word for English, or any other whitey language like German or Afrikaans is “TshiKhuwa”.  Tshivenda is a somewhat obscure and uncommonly known language.  There are many subtleties in pronunciation and every syllable ends with a vowel.  There are no gender nouns like with romantic languages, no gender specific pronouns even.  In fact, different pronouns confuse the living hell out of Venda students learning English, so they usually just pick one and go with it for everything.  Like “he”, for example: “James, my sister, he have got a problem with car.  He [the car] is not running because battery.  He [battery] is empty, so we must have cables.  Where is he? [the jumper cables].   This is typical, but if you’re laughing keep in mind that my Tshivenda must sound 100 times more messed up than that because I’m constantly missing subtle pronunciation syntax.  Now although the pronouns for “He” and “She” are the same in Tshivenda, men and women have different greetings.  When a man says hi, he says “Ndaa” when a woman says hi she says “Aa”.  There are also different ways of addressing someone, a respectful (formal) way which you should use when speaking to someone older than you, or the casual way which is used between friends of the same age.

Contrary to my severely analytical nature, I have stopped trying to translate Tshivenda literally in an attempt to understand it.  The reasons for this are as follows:  1) For me, it’s usually impossible.  2) The literal translation is usually ridiculous.  Take this basic conversation for example:  The Bold is Tshivenda, the Italics are the literal translation.  At the end I’ve recapped the conversation using non-literal, vernacular translation.

Ndaa, Ndou.

Hello, Elephant.

Ee Ndaa.

Yes hello.

Vho vuwa hani?

How are you waking up today?

Ndo vuwa zwavhudi.  Ndi vhudzisa ngeo?

I woke up nicely.  I am inquiring about you.

Na nne ndo vuwa.  Ndi khou humbela u vhudzisa?

And me I woke up.  I am politely asking to inquire.

Kha vha vhudzise.

You may inquire.

Madi ndi gaee?

Water is where?

Nga car wash [yes, they would actually say car wash with a slight accent]

At the car wash.

O Luga.  Ndo Livhuwa.

Divine.  I have thanked you.

Ndi zwone, tshimbila zwhavhudi.

You’re welcome, walk nicely.

Ndi zwone, re do vhonana.

Goodbye, we will see each other.

So that was really just: “Hello sir.” “Well hello.” “How’s it going?” “Pretty good, and yourself?” “Just fine.  Can I please ask you something?” “Sure, ask away” “Where can I find water?” “There’s some at the car wash” “Great.  Thank you.” “You’re welcome, go well.”  “OK bye, see you later”.

You may have noticed “Ndi Zwone” is a homonym, it means either “You’re welcome” or “Goodbye” depending on context.  It’s also interesting to note that although the literal translation sounds goofy, they were both using the polite and respectful form of addressing each other.  Make no mistake though, the informal is also goofy when translated literally.  And about that “Elephant” thing, men really do say that and it really does mean elephant.  The people of South Africa all have a different animal which designates their “clan” or something like that, and in the case of Venda it happens to be the elephant.  Even the big town in the Venda region, Thohoyandou, is literally Thoho (Head) ya (of) Ndou (Elephant).  So Thoho = head, which brings me to my next point: some words which are spelled the same have different meanings depending on pronunciation.  Thoho = head but if you give the “T” a little bit more of a plosive sound it becomes “monkey”.  Gezz!  Thoho ya mukhuwa hafta khou vhavha (This white man’s head/monkey hurts).


7 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. Heather bellanca Says:

    Love that “nda, ndou”! How does one pronounce? Silent or spoken final “e” for example? how bout ZWH?

    Your Blog site looks spiffy BTW!

  2. John Oakley Says:

    Fascinating blog James. Thank you. Keep ’em commin!

    My brother-in-law, William Sunderlin, is headed to South Africa to participate in UN Climate Change Talks in Durban for two weeks. I sent him a link to your blog which I know will interest him being the linguistic world traveler he is. William currently manages groups of people around the world whose purpose is to protect and expand forests that are threatened. His email address is:


    Keep up the good work!


  3. You know I realy find it a bit strange for people to compare the word “mukhuwa”/ Sotho -“Lekgowa”/ Zulu – “Umlungu” with the word “K..f..r”. In my understanding, both this words are simply used to describe a “Provider”, “Boss”, and White person. Some people belive that those words must be banned as they have some sort of discrimination. But truly speaking, there is no discrimination from any of those words. “K..f..r” was used an an insult word for black people in South Africa, that is why it has to be banned regardless of the true meaning of a word.

  4. Mpolokeng Says:

    this has been a very interesting read honestly, thank you.

  5. Its very interesting a lot of the words which are used in venda are almost pronouced like zulu and pedi words

  6. Hi im Venda and ‘Madi ndi gaee?’ does not make sense, ‘Nga Car Wash ” too lol Its ‘Maḓi a ngafhi/ a wanala ngafhi’ then the respose should be ‘A car wash/A wanala car wash’. Interesting blog nonetheless. You should join this Facebook Group i administer for lessons. https://www.facebook.com/groups/Tshivenda/

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