Many years ago, I served, very briefly, on a SABC committee tasked with translating Afrikaans place names into English and English place names into Afrikaans. I never found out exactly what the significance of such a project was, although I had no doubt it was intended to serve some muzzy political purpose. At the very first meeting it became clear to me that, far from being a dull and boring exercise, it offered a wonderful opportunity for creativity and comedy. We began with the major names; Witwatersrand, for example, which became White Waters Ridge almost instantly. Welkom just begged to be called Welcome, despite its potential for ambiguity: “So where do you live?” “Welcome.” “Thank you, but where do you live?”
This was going to be an easy task. Springbok would become Springbuck, and Pofadder, Puff Adder. What could be simpler? Could Springfontein change to Spring Spring? Perhaps Spring Fountain sounded less surreal. Walvis Bay – the accepted English version – could be altered slightly to Whale Fish Bay, even though the whale is a mammal and not a fish. Accuracy in translation was to be the paramount criterion; accuracy in biological classification would, quite clearly, have to take second place. The importance lay, apparently, on the whale, not on what species or genus it belonged to. And the committee was convinced that the townsfolk would get used to the new name soon enough.
When it came to places ending in –burg, matters grew a little trickier, because of the various meanings of burg. Amongst other things, the word can mean castrated pig. And that threw a whole new light on the possibilities for Pietermaritzburg: Pieter Maritz’s Castrated Pig? Perhaps we should opt for another meaning such as castle, keep, or citadel. But castles and keeps, so integral to European mediaeval history, are in short supply, even in Natal. Ah, yes! Perhaps we should deal with those later. Shortly afterwards, the committee disbanded and Flower Fountain became Bloemfontein again. And we hadn’t even considered Mooirivier (Nice River) or Brakpan (Mongrel Pan). An amazing opportunity for transformation gone forever!