Of Idioms, Metaphors and Translations

By Dr Eunice Otuko Apio

As new concepts emerge on the international scene, researchers and practitioners have to think of decoding and encoding them to be of use in any context. During our scoping visit to northern Uganda in March and April 2018, we found that we could not only rely on ‘word-for-word’ and ‘sense-for-sense’ principles in translation because it would ‘neglect the practical effects for communication and the culture basis of the target text as well as the source text’ (Lili Ni, 2009: 79-80). For example, there is no word-for-word translation for the term ‘transitional justice’ in the Luo dialects of Acholi and Lango. The same applies to the terms ‘victim’, ‘survivor’, ‘security’ and ‘resilience’ – all of which are important concepts in transitional justice. 

Often, our brief experiences among these language groups benefited from Lili Ni’s (2009) assertion that language is ‘initially created as its cultural tradition or experience’, meaning that we perpetually sought to adapt any CSRS project ideas to the prevailing local cultures. In most cases, we found ourselves immersed in a vast wealth of idioms, metaphors and gestures that local people used to express their ideas, beliefs and experiences. Of course, the use of metaphors and idioms introduced nuances in meanings and attendant translations, and we realised that we had to pay attention to them as situations often evolve. It seemed that they were the very essence of Acholiness and Langoness.

The use of metaphors, idioms and gestures in languages like lebLango and lebAcholi is common place and cannot be ignored in the CSRS study. It appears that each presents a trove of important meanings that can be very useful for any study. For example, we found that there was no single native word to refer to ‘security’ in lebLango, introducing the problematic of what Crystal (2003) refers to as ‘lexical hole, gap, or lacuna’ – where translating a word into another language requires the use of a phrase. 

Both the CSRS team and the participants in the piloting process frequently relied on metaphors to communicate, so that those who referred to themselves as ‘victims’ were said to still be ‘encased’, ‘wrapped’ or ‘intertwined’ within their traumatic experiences. 

Like most African languages, Luo speakers in northern Uganda often used idioms to communicate meanings. In Lira, some survivors of sexual violence used the phrase ‘cimo toka’ (literary, ‘people pointing at the back of her/his head’) to state that people in the community were stigmatising them. 

In Gulu, Mr. Emmanuel Lagedo, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, emphasised the need to pay attention to local realities – the reality that certain important local concepts have been mistranslated in the English language, and that such could create misconceptions that have implications for users. The Ker Kwaro Acholi Deputy Prime Minister believes that there is no equivalent for some Acholi words in English. The ‘rwot’, a term used to refer to Acholi ‘chiefs’, he explained, was one of them. ‘Mato oput’ (literary, ‘drinking the bitter root of the oput tree’), he further emphasised, is not the equivalent of ‘restorative justice’ but is just one of several steps that define Acholi mechanisms for forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Researchers must therefore be wary of the problematics of translation when working in communities that speak a different language. In northern Uganda, we encountered the problematics of translation – which some local experts attributed to the ‘limitation of local vocabulary’. But it should be noted that the Luo dialects are a beautiful work of metaphors and idioms, and these never came short during the period that we were in northern Uganda for our scoping visit. We confronted linguistic nuances that made us rethink the use of concepts in transitional justice. Both Acholi and Lango dialects have no word-for-word translation for transitional justice, and we had to make use of lexical gaps to communicate the term. Similarly, resilience could only be clearly translated using local idioms of wellness after adversity. For example, Emmanuel Lagedo of the Ker Kwaro Acholi referred to a local saying that ‘latin kic pwonye ki bad dero’ (literary, ‘an orphan learns the lessons of life from the fringes of a granary’) to explain the local understanding of ‘resilience’. In many instances, therefore, we had to ‘localise’ by adapting previously translated words/concepts to fit the local context as it evolved.  

References:

Crystal, David (2003). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-6312-2664-8.

Lili Ni, 2009. ‘For Translations and Throeries’. In English Language Teaching, 2009. Available from: www.ccsenet.org/journal.html. Vol. 2. No. 2. Pp. 78-83. [Access: 11 April 2018].