The Challenge Of Translating Afrikaans to English

The Challenge Of Translating Afrikaans to English

19/09/2003 by Irene de Bruyn

Irene posted this piece on the Home Sick South Africans Yahoo Group on 10 September 2003. She had written the article for the South African Club in Perth, Western Australia. We sought her permission to publish it here. This is her story…

Please note: This article contains some Afrikaans words and expressions that some people may find offensive.

Although I am now living in Australia, where English is the prevalent language, I still find myself using Afrikaans words and expressions, either because there are just no equivalents in English, or the Afrikaans version is so much more pithy.

Often the Australians I speak to are intrigued by the words and find them expressive, even when I give them a censored translation of their meaning.

One of these delicious words is “gril”. It almost makes you shiver to say it. There’s no concise English equivalent – “puts my teeth on edge” is about the nearest, and how cumbersome it is. And “gril” is usually used with rolling of the eyes and expressions of disgust, which just aren’t conveyed by the English phrase.

How do you explain the word “sommer” to an Australian? (Or to anyone else, for that matter). It’s not only a foreign word, it’s a foreign concept. Perhaps the English never do anything “just sommer”.

But when I’ve explained it, it’s been adopted enthusiastically here. Although there’s no Australian equivalent either, they take to the idea of it. “Why are you laughing? Just sommer.”

“Bakkie” is another one of those useful “portmanteau” words (see – English doesn’t have a word for that, either), very useful around the house, for all sizes and shapes of containers and dishes. Also used for what they call “utes” here. I find it an indispensable word.

We all know “voetstoots” of course. It’s been officially adopted into South African English. There’s no concise, one-word equivalent in English. “As is” just doesn’t hack it. And it’s such a humorous word, conjuring up images of pushing that brand new car home…

There’s no good English word for “dwaal”. It doesn’t mean dream, or daze. It’s close to absent-mindedness, but that’s not quite it. Being in one so often myself, I’m not likely to stop using it.

I think “gogga” is the most delightful word for insect I’ve ever heard. Children all over the world should use it. “Insect” just doesn’t stand a chance.

And I think “moffie” is a far better word than all those embarrassed English attempts at defining a homosexual: gay, queer, poofter, etc. aren’t half as expressive. Somehow “moffie” doesn’t sound as derogatory either.

And then there’s “g*tvol”. OK, I know it’s very rude. But it’s so expressive, ne? “Fed up” doesn’t have half the impact. It’s like blancmange in comparison. “G*tvol” is a word used more frequently than ever in the workplace these days, with increasing intensity.

While we’re on the subject,another phrase which outstrips any English attempt is “Hy sal sy g*t sien”. (Also rude). “He’ll get his come-uppance” is like milque toast in comparison. It definitely lacks the relish.

“Donder” is another very useful word, used as an all-purpose swearword, which again has no good English translation. Used as a verb, it can express any degree of roughing up. As a noun, it is a pejorative, as they politely say in dictionaries, to mean whatever you want it to mean. And there’s no good translation for “skiet-en-donder”.

It says something about the English that they have no word for “jol”. Probably the dictionary compilers regard it as slang, but it’s widely used for “Going out on the town, kicking up your heels, enjoying yourself…” (See, there’s no English translation).

Although curiously, the word “Yule” in Yuletide is related to “jol” and derived from Old English. So somewhere along the line, the English forgot how to “jol”.

I’ve yet to meet a South African over the age of two who doesn’t use the word “muti”. Translation is impossible – “witches potion” is about the nearest I can get. It needs a long cultural historical explanation ., Between “muti” and the pedantic “medication” , there’s simply no contest.

And of course, my personal favourite “K*k en betaal” , which just says it all, doesn’t it? A bland and effete English translation would be “Cough and pay”, or “Breathe and pay”. But it just doesn’t cut it, does it? Not by a long drop.


Follow up

On 21 March 2004, Irene De Bruyn posted some more musings on this topic on the Homesick South Africans Yahoo Group….and called it ‘Bilingual deficit disorder.’

Hi everyone,

Hope you all will enjoy this.


I still find myself, though surrounded by a sea of English speakers (in Australia), thinking of Afrikaans words and phrases which are just so much more pithy than comparable English ones.

Every time I switch on the radio or television I am bombarded by politicians’ speeches, trying to justify their actions, or CEOs who have spectacularly messed up, (we’ve had quite a few of those in Australia recently), I think of that wonderful Afrikaans word ‘mooipraat’. There just isn’t an English word that suggests their smarminess and glibness like this one. There’s ‘spin-doctoring’ and ‘trying to gloss over’, but these seem pale in comparison.

And often while listening to all the ‘mooipratery’ (don’t most of those politicians give you the horries?), I wish I could say “Hy’t sy mond verbygepraat’, because they so often do. But how can you explain that in English? ‘He’s put his foot in his mouth’ or ‘He’s tripped over his tongue’ aren’t as descriptive.

An absolutely indispensable word for me is ‘deurmekaar’. I often say ‘Sorry I’m so deurmekaar’, to be met by a blank stare, and then I realize I’m speaking a foreign language. But there’s no substitute English word that means ‘mixed-up, confused, disorganized, untidy’, all in one. Is there?

Talking of messing-up, ‘droogmaak’ is a word I have to use often, as I do it regularly. It’s not easy to translate though. There is of course the unprintable (well it used to be, it wasn’t even in my school dictionaries) f-word, but I think that’s suffering from overuse. ‘Mess-up’ is just a bit ordinary.

And so often I wish I could say ‘Dit skrik vir niks’ when describing something., but I wouldn’t be able to translate it adequately. ‘Fantastic’, ‘great’ just don’t hack it.

A related word, and terribly rude I know, is ‘m**rse’ which just pops up so often in my mind that I can’t censor it. And it’s untranslateable. (Thank goodness).

Another very useful phrase, completely lacking here in Australia, is that familiar ‘maak ‘n draai’ which embraces a whole variety of meanings. In South Africa it’s understood to mean ‘going to the Ladies’, making a detour, dropping in on someone, or just making a trip somewhere.

It’s so useful, I still say it, even though no-one understands me. There’s no English phrase which fulfills all these functions, perhaps the English aren’t so casual about making trips.

On the subject of going to the Ladies, does anyone know when South Africans started using the word ‘jazz’ and ‘jazz-paper’? Of course no-one here has a clue as to what I’m talking about. But it’s ingrained in me by now.
I also wish people here understood ‘nineteen voetsek’ which is the year I was born. ‘Voetsek’ is of course obscene and derogatory according to the dictionary, but it’s so much better than the f-word, which is definitely losing its muscle tone.

And when it comes down to serious gossip (as it so often does), there’s no English word at all for ‘afgevry’. This is a delicious word, it suggests all the wicked intent behind the act of seducing someone already ‘spoken for’ or indeed wed.

But is there an English equivalent? ‘To oust him/her from her/his affections’ Neewat. It’s very odd that the English don’t have a word for it – I can’t believe they don’t do it.

We all know, or have to live with (or do they have to live with us?) at least one perfectionist, and what better name for them than Mnr.or Me. Eksie-perfeksie? This doesn’t need translation, it even sounds like what it’s describing, a state of sublime and impossible perfection.

Perfectionists are of course, often ‘vol fiemies’.(I could elaborate on this, but won’t). I couldn’t translate this and do it justice to someone who asked me what it meant. ‘Fussy’ is a mild term for it, ‘idiosyncratic’ is too lugubrious. Perhaps ‘pernickety’ comes quite close.


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