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

#LIPFest18 | Register for Poetry Workshops with Kwame Dawes, Nick Makoha, Lebo Mashile, and Yomi Sode 

lipfest - lebo mashile

The 2018 Lagos International Poetry Festival (#LIPFest18) is offering workshops by some of the biggest names in contemporary African poetry. Much-honoured […]

The Freedom Artist, Ben Okri’s New Novel Forthcoming in January 2019, Is a Rallying Call in a Post-Truth Society

Ben Okri. Photo credit: David Levenson / Getty.

Ben Okri has a new novel forthcoming in January 2019. The Nigerian novelist-poet-essayist, who is the only black African to […]

Nuruddin Farah’s 14th Novel, North Of Dawn, Explores the Lives of Somali Immigrants in Norway and Experiences of Religion and Jihadism

nuruddin farah boundary2.org

Celebrated Somali writer Nuruddin Farah’s new novel will be out on 4 December 2018. The 384-page North of Dawn, forthcoming […]

Literary Prizes and the Decisions of Writers

Conde

Maryse Conde, the French-Guadeloupean author of I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1986), Segu (1987), A Season in Rihata (1988), […]

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Turns 15: The Best Moments of a Modern Classic

chimamanda ngozi adichie - by ecrivain

“It wasn’t the first novel I wrote,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the audience at the University of Nairobi, during her […]

Quramo Writers’ Prize 2018 Unveils Top 5 Finalists

Quramo 1

Lagos – 10/10/18: Quramo Publishing has unveiled the Top 5 finalists of the Quramo Writers’ Prize 2018, two weeks after […]

Thanks for signing up!

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

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.