Advertising agencies in Nigeria, mother tongue and the challenge of translation

  • By Ikem Okuhu

It is almost 20 years gone by but I haven’t been able to forget listening to the then Secretary to the Catholic Diocese of the Metropolitan See of Lagos, Rev Fr Matthew Hassan Kukah on the Nigerian Television Authority Morning Ride programme. Fr. Kukah was analyzing some national issues as has been characteristic of him then and still not that he has risen to become the Catholic Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese.

What I may be able to remember was the exact question he was asked but I recall him answering in these words: “The problem with us here in Nigeria is that we think in vernacular and try to speak in English.”

I was unemployed with no experience and never even knew I would end up in journalism. But I concluded his statement was so true of us it made me never to forget.

Over the years, I have quoted this statement in articles and “beer palour” discussions and it has remained timeless.

Today, I am digging up this statement again from the recesses of my memory in relation with what has been happening in the Nigerian advertising landscape as it relates to not just thinking in vernacular and trying to speak in English but the now very rampant dissonance blunders that happen when our creative people try to do the revers by attempting to translate what they had written in English to vernacular.

And most of them have been doing very poor jobs of it it requires pointing out here,

When an advertiser creates a national campaign, he also works extra hard to connect with the tribo-linguistic divides that make up the country. The fact that most people being targeted may not understand English is one good reason. The understanding that using imageries of the first languages of the target will certainly create proximal bonding also forms another vital reason.

So advertising agencies employ the services of language experts and translators to ensure their message not just gets to, but strongly connects to the target using familiar ethnic and cultural imageries.

Those imageries are found in the way we speak, the frames that convey our thoughts and the settings that reinforce the weight of what we have to say.

As a Literature stident in secondary school, one of the books we had to read for our Senior School Certificate (SSC) exams was So Long A Letter, written by Senegalese award winning author, Mariama Ba.

As great as most of us thought the book was, those who reviewed the book, especially those who read the original French version, were of the view that even the great job done by those that translated the book to English was unable to do justice to the strength and message Madame Ba conveyed.

But they admitted they came very close.

Now what do you make of advertising campaign translations that not only do NOT come close but deliver copy and content that may convey a different meaning altogether? And this is rampant in the market today.

I may not understand many of Nigeria’s other languages, but if my knowledge of the Igbo Language should be enough grounds, then it will be enough for me to conclude that same mistakes made by those who translate advert copies from English to Igbo are doing as much injustice as those doing for other Nigerian languages.

Three case studies will be discussed below to buttress my points:

Life Lager Beer: I am for Progress

The Nigerian beer industry is bristling with multiple brands seeking spaces to anchor in consumers’ minds. Ever since Heineken was nicknamed “Chairman” other brands have taken up many other titles such as Honourable and many other such like.

Life Billboard at Onitsha: Bad ingterpretation of the payoff", "I am for Progress

Life Billboard at Onitsha: Bad ingterpretation of the payoff”, “I am for Progress

And in came Life Beer. In fairness, Life has been able to save other Nigerian Breweries brands from the brutal attack from Hero Beer in the South East. So when Life began to find its feet, it took up the pay-off, “I am for Progress,” an attempt to connect with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo man.

To link up with the Igbo people in his cultural elements, an attempt was made to translate this pay-off in Igbo and what the agency was able to come up with was, “A bu m onye oganiru.”

If no one has told Nigerian Breweries that this is not a translation but a transliteration and that it does not convey the same meaning as “I am for Progress,” then they have not asked the people who are genuinely and truly Igbo.

When you say, “A bu m onye oganiru”, you are somehow suggesting there is a town or community in Igboland called Oganiru. And I am certain there is none. And even if there was, what the message was trying to convey has nothing to do with nativity.

There are better frames to capture this and I will help here for free because I still see those boards littering everywhere from the Asaba Niger Bridge head to Enugu and other parts of Igboland.

It is either you say, “A bu m onye oganiru na-adi mma” or something close to it.

DSTV: Ebona kpotu

I am sure many of us saw this when Multichoice introduced the Africa Magic Igbo Channel.

This is not a case of attempting to translate but a clear case of not knowing how to write the Igbo Language. I heard it was veteran broadcaster and actor, Pete Edochie that gave them that pay-off. It therefore makes me wonder why they did not consult him when they were writing the line down. Pete, I am convinced knows very well how to write the Igbo Language.

Ebe ona kpotu: Wrong way to write this in Igbo

Ebe ona kpotu: Wrong way to write this in Igbo

I remember trying to reach those who knew them at Multichoice for the misrepresentation to be corrected. I remember there were efforts to correct this and from “Ebona kpotu”, it changed to something like Ebe ona kpotu.”

But still that is not correct. That thought is conveyed this way: Ebe o na-akpotu which means, WHERE (GREAT) THINGS HAPPEN.

Titus Sardine: Ndu ka mma, ya na Titus.

This is another clear case of transliteration and those who did not see the English version of this advert flighted by Ekulo Group for its Titus Sardines, will certainly wonder what the message was all about.

I was at the press briefing where this ad was “previewed” a few years ago and I also made my thoughts known to the promoters.

Titus also got it wrong

Titus also got it wrong

Titus Sardine came into the market with the quite exciting pay-off, “Life is Better with Titus.” I kinda liked the payoff although even at the time, I knew the quality of the TVC production was both cheap and ugly.

I wondered at the time and even asked the owners of the brand whatever happened to the rich Igbo proverbs and idioms that make the language rich and deeply philosophical?

When you say, “Ndu ka mma, ya na Titus” what you are telling the Igbo man is that “Life is better, and Titus

And when you turn it this way in your very Igbo mind, it just does not mean anything. Just jibberish.

And I wonder again where our proverbs and idioms that the Late Chinua Achebe tells us in his books, are the “palm oil that Igbos use ‘eating’ discussions?”

Do you know the impact this otherwise not-very-creative TVC would have had if the translator had taken time to think in Igbo and written “Ndu ka mma ma ewere Titus tuo ya mmanu.”? In straight in English, this says, “Life is better when you oil it with Titus” and because Igbos generally think in proverbs and idioms, this more properly conveys the message Titus was trying to send across.

I have heard a few friends, especially from the South West also murmur against the way English ads are translated to Yoruba and I just want to say this: Let us be a bit more thorough in our research and copywriting.

We will not only be helping our ads sell better, we will also be ensuring our language continues to develop rather than slide.


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