As graduate students, many of us are studying African languages in order to facilitate our research in communities across the continent. Command of local languages will help us translate our research interests and questions into the appropriate vernacular and to take care of basic, day-to-day tasks. Yet it is often in those words, phrases and grammatical constructions that have no direct translation in English and that are unique to a particular cultural context from which we, as researchers, can gain the greatest insight. In this chapter, I have drawn some examples from the two languages that I am studying in this seminar, Acholi and Ngakarimojong, to demonstrate how certain linguistic concepts can get lost in translation.
Acholi: The “Double Just” Construction
I refer to this grammatical construction as “double just,” because it requires the duplication of the verb stem and is usually used to refer to a subject who is engaging in an activity in an unremarkable, aimless, carefree, or irrational fashion. Usually, when this construction is translated into English by Acholi speakers, the word “just” precedes the conjugated verb.
1. Woto (to travel/move) becomes wota-wota (to move around aimlessly)
- I Cuk Owino, tye ki dano mapol atta ma giwota-wota iye: At Owino Market, there are a lot of people just milling about.
- This usage implies aimless behavior.
2. Medde (to continue) becomes medde-amedda (to go on as usual)
- Kwidi me korona tye ka nyayo i kabedo weng, ento kwo tye ka medde-amedda: The coronavirus is spreading everywhere, but life just goes on.
- This usage implies unremarkable behavior.
3. Lwenyo (to fight) becomes lwenya-lwenya (to fight unreasonably/to bicker)
- Aol tutwal! Lutino aryo egoni gitye ka lwenya-lwenya ikingi ikare weng!: I’m so tired! Those two kids are just fighting amongst themselves constantly!
- This usage implies irrational behavior.
4. Myelo (to dance) becomes myela-myela (to dance with abandon)
- Laworo i dyewor, Ocan ki lureme gucito i baa ki gumyela-myela naka rupiny: Last night, Ocan and his friends went to the bar and they just danced until sunrise.
- This usage implies carefree behavior.
Ngakarimojong: Age Roles
The majority of the Ngakarimojong-speaking societies in Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia adhere to gerontocratic age set systems. In a previous website update, I briefly outlined the age set system of the Jie people of Uganda, according to information provided by Jie elders. Typically, these age set systems impose certain social roles on members of Jie society, and the terms used to refer to these social roles and those who carry them out often lose much of their nuance when translated to English.
Here are some examples:
Ekaracunait (pl. Ngikaracuna): This term is often simply translated as “warrior.” However, this is an oversimplification, and ngikaracuna actually refers to young men who have not yet been initiated into an age set. Ngikaracuna are responsible for defending their communities and raiding the livestock of rival communities, but they have numerous other social roles that accompany their standing in the Jie age hierarchy.
Ekatukon (pl. Ngikatukok): Ekatukon is usually translated as “kraal leader,” implying that ngikatukok are solely responsible for the management of livestock. But the role of an ekatukon is more complex, involving numerous social, military and economic responsibilities.
Ekasikout (pl. Ngikasikou): Ekasikout is often assumed to mean “elder,” which is correct insofar as it refers to an elderly man. However, in the Jie cultural context, elders have many social and ritual roles and a great deal of spiritual significance, and those who occupy the social role of elderhood are referred to as papa (father) or papaa (grandfather/ancestor). Ekasikout can be more accurately translated as “old man,” and sometimes even has derogatory connotations.