When you listen to uKhozi FM, it’s almost immediately clear which bank/business/government department/NGO is actually connecting with their audience. The ones that use idiom. The ones that account for and celebrate the variety of their audience. The ones that connect with culture and history, as well as economic indicators and market research.

Take Telkom, for instance. Their latest campaign was obviously conceived by English and Afrikaans creatives – something which isn’t automatically a fail, if there is the right kind of input from the right kind of translators, native speakers, and existing reference. The problem here was that there obviously wasn’t this kind of input – in, fact, it appears that they are simply cobbling together bits of a dictionary with direct Google Translator excerpts that only resemble isiZulu as much as alphabet soup resembles a novel.

Here’s the example (not the only one, but a shining example of what I’ve just described):

The English version obviously had ‘no Limits’, or the Afrikaans one had ‘sonder grense’ or something similar. The song even plays in the background (I apologize in advance for the automatic ear worm), with the original English words (thus confusing things but also explaining the strange use of vocabulary).

The English also has the standard parts of an advert – the pitch, the jingle, the terms and conditions. Now the last is where this issue originates – in the translation of ‘terms’. For those with a bit of knowledge of Latin and Greek, ‘terms’ derives from the root complex around ‘boundary markers’ or ‘end destination’. This could, by a stretch, be translated as ‘limits’, but is more usually seen as something to do with certain words – hence ‘Terminology’.

In the isiZulu version a little voice says ‘akukho migomo’. This means ‘there are no limits/boundary markers/goals/standards/terms’. Then another voice, the voice of the law, says ‘kunemigomo nemibandela’. This means there are ‘limits/boundary markers/goals/standards/terms’ and obligations. So the advert, on a basic level, contradicts itself. And it does so not because of lexical correctness, but because it’s out of touch. Which is ironic, given that it’s a telecommunications company.

Where Telkom fails miserably, FNB has a resounding success on many fronts. Firstly, it acknowledges that the listeners of uKhozi FM come from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of dialects – certain FNB adverts contain pieces of seSwati, isiXhosa, isiMpondo and isiHlubi, as well as ‘text-book’ or King’s isiZulu.

Secondly, the campaign focuses on giving ordinary people their own voice – through phone-in competitions on radio asking for stories of where FNB has helped, and through adverts that emphasise user experience and character (and user-oriented linguistic and cultural references, such as the use of inhlonipho and izithakazelo).

Thirdly, the adverts are simple and (quite often) humorous – when contrasted with Standard Bank’s dry didactic or masterly tone, or Telkom’s confused muddle of mistranslation and lack of attention to detail. The adverts leave you smiling or laughing, identifying with each of the ordinary people that speak in them.

So FNB wins – as do many of the KZN government departments, and some of the retail chains. And it wins because it speaks the language of the people it serves, using idiom and situations which will be familiar to them.