Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

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

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."

Archives

On Confessional Schizo-Poetry and Finding Meaning: In Conversation with JK Anowe, Winner of the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry

jk anowe - graph

JK Anowe, a Nigerian-born poet, holds a BA in French from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where he was awarded […]

Photos | Pages & Palette Hosts Reading of Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men in Abuja

Lives of Great Men - Frankie Edozien at Pages & Palette -- photo by Victor Adewale (9)

Last December, Abuja bookstore Pages & Palette hosted a reading of Chike Frankie Edozien’s memoir Lives of Great Men. Published […]

Mauritanian Blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir Has Now Been in Jail for 5 Years

mohamed mkhaitir

In December 2013, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir wrote a blogpost criticizing his country’s government for using religion to discriminate against minorities. […]

Read Chapter One of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

an orchestra of minorities - graph

Chigozie Obioma’s second novel An Orchestra of Minorities was published this January. As part of The Summer Library’s “selected extracts from […]

Laila Lalami’s Fourth Novel, The Other Americans, Is a Family Saga, a Murder Mystery, and a Love Story

laila lalami - alchetron - graph

Laila Lalami’s new novel is forthcoming on 26 March 2019 from Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The 320-page […]

Thursday’s Children: 11 Contributors to Forthcoming Anthology Discuss Experimentation and the Nature of Creative Nonfiction

thursday's children - graph

Thursday’s Children is a forthcoming anthology of personal essays. Co-edited by Adams Adeosun and Bello Damilare, it comes with an […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.