The world’s most difficult word to translate loses much in translation
In an article published by the BBC on June 22, 2004, “ilunga” was deemed the world’s most difficult word to translate. According to the article by Oliver Conway, “ilunga” topped a list compiled by 1,000 linguists as the “hardest word to translate.” It was reported that “ilunga,” which comes from the Tshiluba language, spoken in south-eastern Congo, means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.
The survey was conducted by Today Translations, which emphasized, while the ilunga’s definition can be found in the dictionary, the difficulty in translation comes from its cultural connotations and usage.
BUT WAIT, there is a problem.
According to an article in Wikipedia: There is no independent evidence supporting Today Translations’ claim that “ilunga” is in fact the world’s most difficult word to translate. In fact ilunga is apparently a reasonably common family name in the DR Congo, and it has nothing to do with a conditionally forgiving person. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, the translation company failed to respond to inquiries regarding the survey, made by the same reporter. Also, according to an entry in Nation Master Encyclopedia, not all of the words on Today Translations’ list were even legitimate. Some of them turned out to be mistakes and hoaxes.
In my opinion, the category the “most untranslatable word” is on its face problematic to begin with. It appears the article infers that these words are the hardest to translate into English, but there is no specific mention of this. Despite the 226,000 hits for “ilunga” from my July 19, 2008, Google search (many of which represent blogs recycling the original BBC article), it seems Today Translations’ linguistics need better translators. It also appears the BBC could have done a better job deciphering fact from fiction.
Even so, the list “The ten foreign words voted hardest to translate,” is fun to consider, so here it is:
1. Ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]
2. Shlimazl [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]
3. Radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]
4. Naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone]
5. Altahmam [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]
6. Gezellig [Dutch for cosy]
7. Saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]
8. Selathirupavar [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]
9. Pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]
Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.