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8 January 2020
Astronomy In IsiXhosa: Translating And Transforming Science In South Africa

South Africa is a country of 11 national languages – but nine of these languages don’t have an advanced scientific vocabulary. That leaves many learners – and their communities – at a distinct disadvantage.

“The biggest challenge in South African science is not the inclusion of minorities: it is the inclusion of the majority,” says Prof Carolina Odman, Associate Professor at both the Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “According to the 2011 census, 80% of the population is Black, but only 4.4% of Black South Africans have English or Afrikaans as their first language. Just imagine what a barrier that represents.”

The IDIA and UWC’s Department of Xhosa have joined forces for a project that takes existing astronomy resources, written in English, and translates them into other South African languages.

“We want to bring science to the public through language they understand, thereby making it more relatable - and potentially inspiring the younger generation to study science,” says Chaka Mofokeng. “It’s also helping astronomers learn to communicate better with the public - and get across some of the amazing things they do every day.”

Mofokeng is an MSc student in Astrophysics at UWC and IDIA, one half of the team tackling the translation task – alongside fellow student Sinethemba Nobom, completing his MA at UWC’s Department of Xhosa.

Mofokeng knows the science. Nobom knows the language. Together, they’ve taken the IDIA’s Careers in Astronomy Resource, explaining (in English) what it entails to be an astronomer, and translated that into Xhosa.

“When a career resource goes to the Xhosa community in English, very few will warm up to it - it sounds foreign and exotic, and they may not be aware of many of the concepts,” says Dr Sebolelo Mokapela, Head of UWC’s Department of Xhosa. “But if it goes to them in Xhosa, then they can understand it, and understand how they can fit in the field.”

What the students do after that – well, that’s up to them.

Translating, Transforming, Teaching: Science For A Developing South Africa

“We don’t want to translate material that’s just going to lie there and not be used,” says Dr Mokapela. “We want readers to have access to that information in a language that really talks to them - because that makes the internalisation much easier and more natural.”

“Astronomy is one of the oldest of the sciences, and many of our people have had knowledge about it without really knowing it,” Mofokeng says.

“We want to highlight some of that knowledge, and remind communities that science belongs to all of us. Thus we bring an understanding of what makes astronomy so amazing – and the many possibilities that studying astronomy opens up.”

The translated resource is currently undergoing quality testing in the Xhosa Department, and once that’s accomplished, it will be used in the Molo Mhlaba school in Khayelitsha, which has a radical approach to astronomy education.

Want to help? To assist in translating the careers resource, you can go to the IDIA website or give your translation online directly.