Google Translate last year added Kinyarwanda as one of the five new languages onto its offering, breaking a four-year deadlock of no language added.
Rwandans had waited with bated breath since a big segment of the population relies on Kinyarwanda to communicate, yet they wish to communicate in other languages.
Since then, social media has been awash with hilarious English translations, which people get when they type in certain words or phrases in the Google Translate bar, revealing an even bigger dilemma.
When one types in ‘Nagushatse ndakubura’, a legitimate Kinyarwanda phrase meaning, 'I looked for you and I couldn’t find you', the English translation in Google is ‘I married you, I missed you’. Which is also somewhat accurate.
That one phrase can mean different things, exposes how narrow Kinyarwanda is. But that is just part of the problem.
Jean Bosco Iradukunda, a linguist and translator, said it is true Kinyarwanda is limited in richness, but that the biggest challenge is that Kinyarwanda has very limited digital footprint on the Internet.
“Kinyarwanda lacks wider usage on the internet, making it disadvantaged. We have to digitise our culture, publish in Kinyarwanda, poetry, folklore, blogs."
The "social coup" by the millennial generation in Rwanda has come with an explosion of colloquial Kinyarwanda, increasingly used in different circles. It has morphed into a sub-culture, embossed with its own fashion and music genre to go with it, with Kinyatrap-inspired by the American genre of Trap music.
A year in, Google Translate is still being stretched to find English translations for slang Kinyarwanda, with some rather comical responses.
Slang has been blamed for distorting Kinyarwanda, but this is debunked by the notion that language, like any component of culture, evolves to survive. Every culture has its slang, but Google easily translates some because a lot of internet content has been created using this lingo and Google’s algorithms have a larger playing field when looking for translations. Kinyarwanda slang is getting little digital footprint because users are not creating content with these words on the internet.