There are only 150 words on the page this morning. It’s 7 am, and the translator for a national retail chain has let them down. The day before was a public holiday. And the day before that was Sunday. One can’t really expect someone to act like a professional over a long weekend and get a job done on schedule. That would be asking too much.

I’m given the parameters – only the brands, addresses and dates need remain. Permission to gut insipid English text and reinstall authentic idiomatic language – GRANTED.

The 150 words (reduced to 100 words and readable in 3 groups of 30 seconds each) lie in theatre for only 2 hours, with a further half an hour in recovery. Once I’m sure that they can breathe on their own, I email them off and get back to the other translation.

This one’s a different procedure – I’m assessing someone else’s work, tracing the parameters of the original English text by back-translating his (or her) isiZulu. I have never met the other translator. I will know them only through the sparse 10-pt Arial in the Excel spreadsheet. In some situations I grow to like the brain behind those words. But what I see here leaves me hoping we may never meet. I look at the mangled mewling mess of the ‘isiZulu’ in front of me and all I want to say is:

Excuse me – your English is showing.

But one must retain one’s professionalism at all times, and so I’m reduced to the repeated mantras of:

… this sentence should read “…..”

… which means “the sky-coloured sign is in the black hole”, a phrase which wouldn’t seem to have much usefulness in a test of perception and spatial working memory…


… I’m not sure why ‘isiwombe’ was used in this context, as it usually means “charge” or “surprising event”…

So I carry on, tucking in the loose fragments and traces of English in the isiZulu (while trying not to make the English too literal) and stitching them together tightly until none of the English shows.

Proud of my work, I sit back and relax for a bit.

Until I receive the reply from the advert people – “here’s the text from last month’s advert’s translation, in case you need an idea of what’s expected”.

It takes seconds to download and open. It takes me 2 minutes to stumble my way through the first paragraph, horrified and dispirited all at once. I want to scream at them, and say:

Did you seriously pay R900 for this? I know ten-year-olds who could have done better than this! I would have been extremely embarrassed to have this representing my brand! It’s not even isiZulu – someone used Google Translate or some other machine (certainly proof that Artificial Intelligence isn’t yet a thing) to turn English into Zunglish! I’m appalled!

But all I end up saying is:

Excuse me – your English is showing.