Words have multiple senses!


Oxford Languages dictionary defines a Word as, “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.”

We all read and use words every day.

I recall the first time I came across a computer, was in 1993 when I had begun my career as a translator. Prior to this great change in technology, my colleague and I would write the translation on paper and get the same sent to Nairobi for typing on the few computers available then. The typed translation would then be sent back to the project for review.

When we acquired a computer for the project, we had to undergo some training so that we could be able to use it. To help us to learn, was an expatriate from England who had been seconded to our project.

We sat on two chairs with the new computer on the table. The facilitator began by saying, “The computer will only do what you command it to do.” My colleague seated next to me exclaimed with a beautiful smile on his face, “Wow, so all we need to do, is just speak and ask it to do what we want it to do, and it will do it!” The expatriate laughed and explained that what he meant was that you need to type the instruction for the computer to work and that he did not mean issuing verbal commands to the computer. That is the time we learnt that computer commands included CUT, PASTE, DELETE, COPY, ENTER, ESCAPE, SHIFT.

Funny as this story may sound, we all misunderstand words many times. Meanings of words depend on the contexts in which they appear. The Swahili and Giryama word MBUZI can mean both goat and coconut grater. When one asks someone to bring them MBUZI, the context will determine what type of MBUZI the speakers is asking for.

A translator therefore should be careful to study the meaning of a word before translating it. Just like my colleague misunderstood the meaning of COMMAND in the context of computers, so it is easy to misunderstand words without determining their context. The translator’s role is to dig out the meaning. He or she should know that English words like GRIND, GROUND, GROUNDED, FIND, FOUND, FOUNDED represent various semantic domains depending on their context and tense.

Enjoy studying words!

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