In Chapter Five of King Solomon's Mines the narrator, Allan Quatermain, acts as a translator during a conversation between Sir Henry and Umbopa:

Sir Henry nodded. "I was sure of it," he said. "If George set his mind upon a thing he generally did it. It was always so from his boyhood. If he meant to cross the Suliman Berg he has crossed it, unless some accident overtook him, and we must look for him on the other side."

Umbopa understood English, though he rarely spoke it.

"It is a far journey, Incubu," he put in, and I translated his remark.

"Yes," answered Sir Henry, "it is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven may order."

I translated.

(My emphasis)

It is understandable that Quatermain needs to translate Umbopa's remarks into English so that sir Henry can understand them, but why does he need to translate Sir Henry's English remarks if Umbopa already understands English? Indeed, he does not translate what Sir Henry says in the first paragraph, so why does he then translate Sir Henry's next statement?

  • 2
    That's a pretty long sentence there. I can imagine that being difficult to understand for someone who's not used to English. I can understand a fair bit of Japanese, but if someone said a similarly long sentence in Japanese to me (even if only using words I know), I'd have difficulty keeping track after a few clauses.
    – muru
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 16:28
  • 1
    There's at least one other place in the text where Quatermain translates an English sentence for Umbopa, at the end of chapter 10. In that case, Good used an indirect turn of phrase ("skin came near to having an air-hole made in it") which might, like Sir Henry's rather philosophical eloquy in your passage, have passed by a non-fluent speaker.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 16:34
  • Looks like the two of you between you have enough for an answer.
    – A. B.
    Commented May 15, 2021 at 6:11
  • 1
    @A.B. And done.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 17:44

1 Answer 1


"Understanding English" doesn't necessitate being fluent to the level necessary to understand long philosophical speeches in English.

One natural option might be an inconsistency in the text, if Haggard had written in one passage that Umbopa understands English and then had Quatermain translate for him elsewhere in the book. But that doesn't seem likely when both are included in the very same passage, as shown in your question.

In fact, the apparent inconsistency that you've highlighted isn't necessarily an inconsistency. When Sir Henry waxes lyrical in a 63-word sentence, using poetical turns of phrase even if all the words used are relatively simple and common, it's not unsurprising that a non-native English speaker might not be able to follow all the twists and turns of his sentence and catch the exact meaning.

I found another instance later in the text (end of Chapter 10) which explicitly mentions Quatermain translating from English for Umbopa:

“If I had any doubts about helping Umbopa to rebel against that infernal blackguard,” put in Good, “they are gone now. It was as much as I could do to sit still while that slaughter was going on. I tried to keep my eyes shut, but they would open just at the wrong time. I wonder where Infadoos is. Umbopa, my friend, you ought to be grateful to us; your skin came near to having an air-hole made in it.”

“I am grateful, Bougwan,” was Umbopa’s answer, when I had translated, “and I shall not forget. As for Infadoos, he will be here by-and-by. We must wait.”

Here, Good's sentence is not so long and flowery, but he still uses an indirect wording ("skin came near to having an air-hole made in it") whose meaning might not be immediately clear to a non-native speaker. If he had said simply "they almost killed you", perhaps Umbopa would have understood more easily.

We're nearing the point here of over-analysing a text, perhaps putting more thought into the exact placing of words and phrases than the author himself did. However, it's certainly an occurrence often seen in real life: that people may need translation for metaphors and flowery prose even if they understand a language to a good enough level for basic conversation, and that native speakers of a language (especially people from countries like England, who might have grown up without ever needing another language or meeting anyone who didn't speak their own) may use metaphors and flowery prose naturally, forgetting that their listener may not understand them. So Umbopa needing translation for these sentences does make sentence within the story.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.