31.05.2004 Feature Article

Ghanaian Language Translation – A Powerful Cultural Enabler

Ghanaian Language Translation – A Powerful Cultural Enabler
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I will not pretend to be an expert in linguistics or translation of any Ghanaian language-to-English. However, I find it interesting how many (most?) of us feel we are literate by the white man's definition but beyond help in our culture, by way of reading/writing our language(s).

For those in the Diaspora, some may find it needful to have access to any publication for a quick reference, should it be required as was my case. This need may have been necessity for those who worked in Israel and other non-English-speaking countries. As many Ghanaians are trooping to China recently or to non-English speaking “abrokyir” lands, a Twi-Chinese translation dictionary among others may be in order. For those who may argue why we need such a book, please observe your Chinese a little. You will realize (s)he has a Chinese-English translation dictionary or workbook that helps to enhance his/her understanding of the subject on hand. If you still disagree, how about knowing a little bit more of your culture?

Quite recently, a workmate asked me which country in Africa I migrated from and what language I spoke while there. I happily answered Ghana and "I still speak my mother tongue" Akan/Twi and a couple of other local languages. After telling her Twi is pronounced "chwee", she asked me “what are Akan words for ART, ARTIST, and CARVER?”. After scratching my culture-deficiency head for awhile, I decided to seek answers from the Okyeame forum. I also added that non-Akan speakers could provide translations in their mother-tongue, if you knew. Within a day, I received the following feedback:

Response #1

There are no word-for-word translations for almost all English words … to arrive at proficiency in English:

I think Art can be translated by the phrase, ''senea yedi adwin''; but even that is imprecise and if you are talking about a specific art, you may have to add it to the phrase e.g.: ''senea yedi sika kokor ho adwin''; (how to use gold to create works of art) or otumi di dua ho adwin paa'' (he is very good at how to work on wood in an artistic manner).

In many cases, odwindifuor can stand generally for artist, but you would make better sense if you added the particular art to the single word; e.g. dua ho dwindifuor (artist in wood work, which can also do for sculptor.) In other cases, ''nwenefuor'' can come into play: the art of basket-weaving, for instance, can be expressed as ''kenten nwene'' and the weaver as ''kenten-nwenefuor''. Same goes for kente-nwene+fuor for kente weaver.

I must emphasise that those who first began putting Twi into a written form and thus created a Twi/Akan orthography, took a lot of liberties, creating new single words to coincide with single English/European words, whereas in the living, unwritten, dynamic speech of Twi/Akan, ideas continued to be expressed in a more complex speech form. For instance, if you were sending a kid t go and collect a stool from a carver, you wouldn't say ''Go and collect my stool from the odwindifuor;'' you would say, more idiomatically: ''Ko opanin no a osensen nkonnwa no ho kohwe se wawie makonnwa no a.'' Go to the gentlemen who carves stools to see whether he has finishe my stool.''

So, in this case, carver would be ''obi a osensen nkonnwa'';not dua-ho-dwindifuor, as one might expect, if one were to be literal-minded. In fact, if you looked in a Twi dictionary, you might find a word created specifically to mean carver: okonnwasenfuor comes to mind. But using okonnwasenfuor in this context would, in my view, be unidiomatic, even if it is literally acceptable. Also, it would be limiting, inasmuch as it relates only to stool or chair carver.

Response #2

Try odwumfo for an artist in a very general sense. Thus he can be a 'dua dwumfo' wood carver 'dade dwumfo' or your 'otomfo' blacksmith for your iron works which was quite common, 'sika kokoo dwumfo' then 'sika fitaa dwumfo' will be a goldsmith and silversmith. Graphic art as is done on a paper medium will be stretching it as art on a paper medium was not common. Your kente weaver is also an 'odwumfo' with 'nwene ade' (woven things). The creation is 'adwini' as the ultimate in kente creation was dubbed. 'adwini asa'

Response #3

The computer keyboard does not use our Twi alphabet, and therefore some of what we write are approximations in the English source and phonetics. We have in the twi, “o” and” “o”. The sound is different. The only difference that I can point out is that as far as I know, “gold” is “sika” or “Sika Kokoo”. The making of a noun from two nouns, like “dua dwumfo” becomes one word, “duadwumfo”. You know that the German Missionaries were the first people to write Twi. I believe that the Germans also sometimes words to make very much longer words in such combinations. The missionaries also introduced trade schools that taught, amongst other thins, Blacksmithing. Did you know that Tetteh Quarshie had learnt the trade of being a blacksmith in one of the mission schools in Akuapem? Having been educated by the above people, I wonder if it makes any business sense for linguistic people or local language writers to consider publishing of translation dictionaries. I recall searching really hard for such a book during one of my trips back home. People directed me to the Methodist Book Depot, Presbyterian Book Store, and other places. Unfortunately, I could not find such a book. I do believe that this vacuum can create business opportunities for those who can write Akan-English translation dictionary, prefaced with a guide to pronunciation (check out for unique Akan alphabets and certain 2-character or 3-character partial words. Examples are “dw”, pronounced 'J' as in Kwadwo; “ky”, pronounced “ch” as in Kwakyi or Kwakye, “tw”, pronounced as “ch” as in “Twi”; etc.

Also, clarification of different tones in a word will be most helpful. Example, the word “papa” may have 3 different semantics /meanings, depending on different use of tone – “father”, “good”, or “fan”. If someone can write such a culture/language book or dictionary with cassette tape, CD and DVD options, I am sure many in the Diaspora (myself included), local residents, and foreign people and institutions (i.e. tourist agencies, libraries, etc.) will be VERY interested in buying them. If this production is centered in Ghana, one can imagine the positive impact on local employment when collaborated with the Tourist Ministry and when multiple languages are used (e.g. Akan-English, Ga-English, Ewe-English, Hausa-English, Dagomba-English, etc.)

Having exposed Ghanaians in the Diaspora, theirs offspring and friends about our local language translation, the next step may be to market different-grade level books, pre-taped “for television” language classes and perhaps local songs/movies. Remember, there are more than 100,000 Ghanaians in Toronto, about the same number in London, Washington DC, New York, and Chicago. The buyers are plentiful if the quality of translation dictionary is superb. As in most things, quality pays! For internet use, we can create downloadable language translation versions like the Chinese Kingsoft version (

Caution: If you are not exposed to the Chinese language, you will not e able to read anything on the Kingsoft website. With proper training, however, you can.

I understand Microsoft is working on a Twi translation project to enable keyboard configuration for Twi characters. The Twi or other Ghanaian language honchos may improve on Microsoft's information to create our own book versions. Here is a list of Google URLs for research work on Twi translation - Lastly, use borrowed words with Twi spelling (e.g. 'okasa wo telefon so' meaning you are speaking on the telephone) to add a little zip to the publication. Kwaku Kwakyi Huntington Woods, Michigan USA Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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