!Xun Bible translation: an interview with Masenyani Baloyi

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Menán van Heerden chats to Masenyani Baloyi, head of translation for the Bible Society of South Africa (BSSA), about their initiative to translate the Bible into !Xun.

Masenyani Baloyi (Photo: supplied)

Masenyani, this is a great initiative. Who is part of this project, and how long will it take?

At this stage, only the Bible Society of South Africa, 19 people from Platfontein and some donors are part of this initiative. The Bible Society would like anybody who feels he or she can make a contribution of whatever kind to partner with the Bible Society. We would welcome any further financial contribution towards this initiative. We would also like the three government departments to get involved, namely the department of basic education, the department of higher education – so that they can help us with some orthographical issues, etc – and the department of arts and culture, for their mandate to conserve culture (eg language). We invited PANSALB to partner with us in line with their constitutional mandate in terms of section 6(5) of the Constitution, but they have not yet come on board.

Tell us more about this indigenous language:

 - Who speaks it?

The indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoisan people.

- Where is it spoken?

!Xun is spoken in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. There are around 4 000 speakers of this language only at Platfontein in Kimberley, while there are other speakers all over South Africa (eg in the Eastern Cape) and the African continent.

- How old is this language? 

I do not know. But written pieces of grammar of !Xun that I could lay my hands on date back to 1860. They were done by a certain Wilhelm Bleek, who is buried at the Mowbray cemetery in Cape Town.

- What are the differences between Nama, !Xun, !Khwe and Ju|'hoansi, for example? Is !Xun, therefore, a San language family, a language or a dialect? (People who do not speak these languages may have a general idea of a “San language” and a “Khoekhoe language”.)

!Xun probably belongs to a San language family, because some of the people who speak !Xun agree to be called San people or Basaru. Since I am not well versed in Nama, !Xun and Khwe, I am not able to explain the differences between these languages. But when you listen to !Xun and Khwedam speakers at Platfontein, you are able to hear the differences, because they do not sound the same. I have realised that some !Xun speakers do not understand the Khwedam speakers at Platfontein. For example, !Xun has clicks such as /, //, ǂ and !.

Tell us more about the early efforts to translate the Bible into this indigenous language. Why was !Xun specifically chosen? Are other indigenous languages in the pipeline?

The Bible Society has already published Book A and Book B in !Xun, and some other biblical materials, with the help of the late affectionately named Oom Ferdi Weich and the native speakers of !Xun. At Platfontein, there are two indigenous languages spoken: !Xun and Khwedam. Both the !Xun and Khwe speakers requested the Bible Society to help them with a print Bible in their own languages. After consultation with the Bible Society of Namibia and the Bible Society of Botswana, it was agreed that the Bible Society of South Africa would do the !Xun Bible, while the Bible Society of Botswana would do the Khwedam Bible. That is why the Bible Society of South Africa is doing the !Xun but not the Khwedam. But, of late, the Khwedam speakers approached the Bible Society of South Africa to do the Khwedam Bible, also. The CEO of the Bible Society of South Africa responded to the latest request of the Khwe community as follows: “However, it’s only fair that I make it very clear that I will only consider the possibility of committing to a Khwe translation on the following grounds:

  1. A guarantee for the full funding for the project is obtained up front, or a partial guarantee is obtained with a reasonable plan for the balance. No translation project, in any language, will from this point of time on be begun by BSSA without such a guarantee.
  1. Valid reasons, in detail, are given as to why a BSB translation would not meet the needs of the Khwe community in southern Africa (not just South Africa).
  1. There is full consensus between BSB and BSSA that BSSA should undertake the translation.”

Is !Xun primarily a spoken language, or is it also used as a written language? 

!Xun is both a spoken and a written language, because there are publications already in !Xun, and !Xun is spoken in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

What is your opinion about the general development of indigenous languages in South Africa?

My opinion about the general development of indigenous languages in South Africa is that each and every one of us – and every organisation – must promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of all official languages: the Khoi, Nama and San languages; sign language; and all other languages commonly used by communities (see section/article 6(5)(a) and (b) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa).

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