Justice for all? Accountable translations of texts on indigenous law

04 Jul 2016

This article addresses challenges arising from the guarantee in South Africa’s Constitution (1996) of continued use of indigenous law. This law has been handed down in oral form, but increasingly, written sources are needed when cases relating to indigenous law are heard in South Africa’s higher courts. Although access to this kind of information is vital to empowerment and justice in Africa, wider access is hampered by different literacy levels and language differences. This article examines accountable translation into English of legal anthropological texts, referring to a case study on law practised among the Nkuna of Ritavi to demonstrate some of the complexities. The article considers the Anglo-American translation tradition’s preference for idiomatic translation (paraphrasis) rather than word-for-word faithfulness (metaphrasis). It advocates focusing on the Skopos (purpose) of texts negotiated with the author. It also proposes foregrounding the hermeneutic engagement of translators as readers. For the text in the case study, it suggests two translations, for two audiences: one into an academic register (for academics, legal experts, and educated members of the Nkuna community), and one into Plain English (mainly for members of the Nkuna community for whom English is a second language). To address political dimensions of responsible translation, metatextual strategies espoused by feminist translators to increase translators’ visibility and accountability can be used, and postcolonial translation theory should be considered.