Untranslatable African Words: The Case of “Ilunga”

Today’s post is about African language. I don’t know how true this is but American essayist, Pamela Haag, writes in a recent post that the Bantu word, “ilunga,” was named the most difficult word to translate in 2004. Wondering what “ilunga” means? See her attempt to translate it below. 

 

“Ilunga (Bantu): A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time.

Apparently, in 2004, this word won the award as the world’s most difficult to translate. Although at first, I thought it did have a clear phrase equivalent in English: It’s the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. But ilunga conveys a subtler concept, because the feelings are different with each “strike.” The word elegantly conveys the progression toward intolerance, and the different shades of emotion that we feel at each stop along the way.

Ilunga captures what I’ve described as the shade of gray complexity in marriages—Not abusive marriages, but marriages that involve infidelity, for example.  We’ve got tolerance, within reason, and we’ve got gradations of tolerance, and for different reasons. And then, we have our limit. The English language to describe this state of limits and tolerance flattens out the complexity into black and white, or binary code. You put up with it, or you don’t.  You “stick it out,” or not.

Ilunga restores the gray scale, where many of us at least occasionally find ourselves in relationships, trying to love imperfect people who’ve failed us and whom we ourselves have failed.”

———————————————————————————————————————————–

Read the whole of Haag’s post here. It’s a fascinating piece on relationship words that are difficult to translate.

Image Credit: Nigerian artist, Boloebi Charles

Tags: , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

Lesley Nneka Arimah Picked for the US National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” List

Lesley Nneka Arimah has been picked for the US National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list of 2017, on the […]

The Photographer as an Osprey | John “Lighthouse” Oyewale | Essay

On 30 June, we published Work Naija: The Book of Vocations, an anthology of writing and visual art that explores the […]

Zukiswa Wanner Calls Out Misogyny in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Takes on Politicians and the Media

Zukiswa Wanner has called out misogyny in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, taking on politicians and the media in the […]

Dinaw Mengestu and Nadifa Mohamed Have New Work in Freeman’s Magazine

Nadifa Mohamed

Dinaw Mengestu and Nadifa Mohammed both have new fiction forthcoming in the new fourth issue of Freeman’s magazine. Titled “The Future […]

The Brittle Paper Literary Awards: New Date for the Announcement of Winners

The announcement of the winners of the inaugural Brittle Paper Literary Awards was scheduled for 23 September 2017. However, a change […]

The Reviews Are In! | Namwali Serpell Has High Praise for Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu

Screen-Shot-2017-09-20-at-4.57.42-PM-e1505944728679 copy

Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is one of the hit novels of 2017. A historical drama, it tells the story of an 18th […]