This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Nuts and Bolts: difficult translations

The language Tshiluba, which is spoken by the Luba people in the south eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has a simply terrific word in its vocabulary.

It's ilunga, and it means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never forget a third time.

English needs the word ilunga. Apart from saving ink, and wear on the tongue muscles, its adoption will soothe all those translators who between them voted ilunga the hardest word in the world to translate.
But why is it so difficult? 

Well, if I spoke Tshiluba (which sadly I don't) the word ilunga would mean more to me than the explanation above. It would carry in its meaning a great slice of the history of the Luba people.

Unfortunately I know almost nothing of the history of the Luba people: but I do know one other Tschiluba word, makelela.

What does makelela mean? 

Well, it means yesterday.  And also tomorrow.

And that can't be easy to translate, either.

Word To Use Today: ilunga. There must be a hundred stories behind this word. I wish I knew what they were.


  1. Ah, the Luba people were on to the three strikes and you're out business long before us!
    Great word!
    And yes, it would be wonderful to hear stories related to this.

    See you makelela!
    Wait, did I? Will I? :)

    1. I hadn't thought of that, but it is three-strikes-and-you're-out, isn't it.
      I suppose makelela must mean next-door day - but to me, not knowing which way I'm travelling in time is oddly discombobulating. Perhaps the Luba people aren't as fixated on progress and change as us.

  2. That is the most brilliant idea....they ought to incorporate it into legal systems! Love it!

    1. The USA system already has just such a thing, Adele. See here:
      I understand the results have been rather mixed.

    2. Now, I do rather try and avoid the topics of religion and politics while blogging, but the three strikes system in the USA has lead to some of the most nonsensical, ridiculous and self-defeating sentences ever handed down in the history of human idiocy. And it's not that the fundamental idea is necessarily bad - it's just that it's often applied without any parity between crimes. Thus, someone can assault someone in a nightclub (one strike), steal a car (two strikes), and then get caught littering (bam! third strike! 25 years!).

      And there's no nationalism here - sentencing in both Ireland and Britain is similarly ridiculous. It's the strangest thing, but I just don't understand why we, as humans, have such difficulty in getting appropriate punishments right.

      As for the Luba of DRC, I've never heard of them or the Tshiluba language, but I love them already.

    3. Because the rules are finite and the creative idiocy of people isn't?
      And of course I'm not just talking about the criminals, here.