Geological Sciences in Cape Town to Translate Terms

A project at the University of Cape Town has begun to translate geological terms into the country’s official languages. The team hopes future scientific discourse will better represent the country’s rich linguistic diversity.

Speakers of South Africa’s 11 official languages may soon be able to hold academic discourse in geological sciences exclusively in their own language for the first time. A project called “Reclaiming the Rocks: Ukuthetha ngezifundo zomhlaba ngesiXhosa” began this year at the University of Cape Town (UCT), as part of the Geological Sciences Department’s effort to better represent the languages spoken in South Africa. The department hopes the project will help connect people who have historically been excluded from academic discourse about their geological heritage.

Early in 2020, UCT lecturer Dr. Rosalie Tostevin conducted a survey of the Geological Sciences Department, which found a wide diversity of languages spoken among students and staff. It also indicated strong interest among students to participate in translation projects. Recruiting a team of researchers and student translators, Tostevin hopes to transform geology departments, museums, and public outreach events.

“Despite English being a first language for under 10% of the population, it dominates scientific discourse, alienating huge sections of the population. People engage more and understand better when the conversation is in their native tongue,” said Tostevin.

Led by UCT master’s student Batande Getyenga, the team of translators will begin producing a geological dictionary in isiXhosa, a language spoken by over 8 million native speakers and over 19 million total speakers. If the project becomes a success, the team plans to expand translations into other South African Languages.

Although Tostevin will write up summarized versions of the country’s geological record for the team to translate, the team will have to work together to develop translations for technical terms where none exist. Currently, terms like “fossil” or “dinosaur” have no equivalents in isiXhosa, so Tostevin sees this process as an opportunity to generate new, more intuitive and accessible vocabulary.

The project has already gained international recognition, receiving the European Geosciences Union’s public engagement grant—a grant awarded to outreach projects that aim to raise awareness of geosciences outside the scientific community. The team plans to use the grant money to launch a new website and to compensate the geology students involved in the high-skilled translation work.

“South Africa’s geological record is exceptional and relevant to our daily lives,” Tostevin Said. “Millions of tourists are drawn to Table Mountain every year; vineyards depend on the fertile soils of the Bokkeveld shales; and the economy is built on gold, mineral and diamond deposits. The rocks also hold the story of life on Earth – from the first traces of life to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.”


Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.

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