Decoding Swahili: Common Challenges in English to Swahili Translation

August 26, 2023 No Comments

Translating from one language to another is quite an art and it requires not only skill but also intimate knowledge of each language. English to Swahili translation is not without its challenges and, today, we want to explore it and compare it to English to understand what the common issues are.

As you may already know based on our many other posts, Swahili is culturally significant and it’s full of history. This is a Bantu language and it’s the official language of Kenya, Uganda, Congo, and Tanzania. It’s very unique, so there are many major differences between Swahili and English. Let’s start exploring them!

Differences Between Swahili and English

Every language is unique in its way, which is why learning new ones is always such an interesting experience. Let’s explore some of the biggest differences between Swahili and English to get more insight into these two beautiful languages.  

Typology Differences

While Swahili is a polysynthetic language, English is inflectional. What does this mean? Well, inflectional languages modify words to express grammatical functions. On the other hand, polysynthetic language uses single words to express complex sentences. Additionally, Swahili is a position language where the structure is Subject-Verb-Object. Here are a few examples:

  • Ninapenda kula chakula. (I like to eat food.)
  • Mtoto anacheza mpira. (The child is playing soccer.)
  • Watu wanazungumza Kiswahili. (People are speaking Swahili.)

In this type of language, the grammatical relations such as subject and object are defined by the position they’re in. Now, a position language is very different from a case language, which is where the form of the noun or pronoun changes to express the grammatical relation.

Another thing about Swahili is that words don’t change when they’re put into object form. This is why “mimi” in English can be both “me” and “I”. There are also no genitives, ablatives, or datives in Swahili.

As a note, genitives are used to express grammatical relationships like possession, material, kind, origin, and more. For example, “the boy’s books.” Ablatives express grammatical relationships such as place, time, manner, means, separation, and more. For example, “I walk the road.” Lastly, datives express indirect objects, beneficiaries, and other grammatical relationships. For example, “I learn about the person.”  

Noun, Verb, and Morpheme Differences

In Swahili, nouns, verbs, and morphemes are quite different from English. When it comes to nouns, they’re not inflected for number or case. This means that we use the same form of the noun for singular and plural, and also for the subject, object, and indirect object of a sentence.

For example, the noun “mtoto” means “child” in both the singular and plural forms, and it can be used as the subject, object, or indirect object of a sentence. In English, the nouns do change based on number (singular and plural) and case (subject, object, possessive, and indirect object). For example, “child” is singular, and “children” is plural.

Moving onto verbs, Swahili doesn’t inflect them based on mood, tense, or aspect. This means that one form of the verb is used for all moods, tenses, and aspects. For example, we have the verb “kula” which means “to eat” in every tense, mood, and aspect. In English, verbs are inflected. So, for example, we have the past tense “ate” for the verb “to eat”.

Morphemes in Swahili can be roots, affixes, or clitics. Roots are the basic units of meaning, affixes are added to the root to change meanings, and clitics are the words we attach to other words. For instance, the word “kunywa” consists of the root “nyw” (“to drink”), the prefix “ku” (which is an infinitive marker), and the suffix “a” (which is a subject marker).

English morphemes are not as regular as their Swahili counterparts. So, for example, the word “to drink” consists of the root “drink” and the suffix “-ing”, but this suffix can be added to many other roots, such as “sing”, “think”, “walk” and more.

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Pronoun Differences

In Swahili, pronouns don’t have genders like they do in English to refer to men and women. Swahili uses just one pronoun to refer to anyone, no matter what gender they are. The pronoun is “yeye” for “he” or “she” in the third person, for example. Another thing about Swahili pronouns is that they have different forms for the singular and plural.

In English, pronouns have only one form to refer to one person or many people. Additionally, Swahili pronouns have different forms depending on the role they have in a sentence. English is different because there’s only one form for most pronouns regardless of whether they’re acting as a subject, object, or indirect object.

Another pronoun difference between Swahili and English is that possessive pronouns in Swahili are formed by adding a suffix to the stem of the pronoun. The suffix added will depend on the person, gender, and number. In English, there are separate words for possessive pronouns, namely “my”, “your”, “his”, etc. In Swahili, the first person singular possessor is formed with the suffix “-angu”, so “my friend” is “rafiki yangu.”

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Unique Characteristics of Swahili

Many different things make Swahili a unique language, including the ones discussed above. However, we want to share a few other distinctive characteristics of the Swahili language. For example, Swahili is a tonal language. In other words, the meaning of a word can change depending on the tone you use. There are five different tones in Swahili: low, high, rising, falling, and falling-rising.

Swahili is also an agglutinative language, which means that words are formed by combining root words with prefixes and suffixes. For example, the word “mwanafunzi” (“student”) consists of the prefix “-m” added to the root word “wanafunzi”, which means “to learn.” Additionally, Swahili has complex noun classes and each class will determine how the noun is used in a sentence. To be exact, there are 18 different noun classes and each of them has its own prefix.

When it comes to vocabulary, Swahili has a rich variety of words. This language has borrowed from many others, including Arabic, English, French, and Portuguese. As a result, Swahili vocabulary has a great range, making it an incredibly expressive language. Moreover, the grammar is quite simple and Swahili pronunciation is not too challenging, making it easy for students to learn this beautiful African language.  

The Main Challenges of English to Swahili Translation

As mentioned before, translating from English to Swahili can be challenging due to the many differences between the languages. For starters, the Swahili sentence structure is different. In this language, the verb is placed at the start of the sentence and it’s followed by the subject and the object. As such, it can be difficult to translate from English to Swahili, and vice versa.

There are also many dialect variations in Swahili, depending on the region where it’s spoken. As such, finding a common language that can be understood by every Swahili speaker can be a challenge. The Swahili language also has many different idiomatic expressions that are very difficult to translate or even convey the meaning behind them in English. The same issue exists when translating English idiomatic expressions to Swahili.  

Strategies to Translate English to Swahili More Effectively

While the challenge of translating English to Swahili or vice versa is undeniable, some strategies can make the task easier. For one, it’s important to understand the context and audience. Swahili is spoken by millions of people and there are different linguistic contexts to consider. That’s important because it will allow you to translate to Swahili using the right dialects and language for the intended Swahili audience.

Of course, enlisting the help of native Swahili speakers is always encouraged. Especially if you want your translations to be as accurate as possible. It’s also a good idea to rely on glossaries to maintain accuracy and consistency in your translations. Take the time to find the correct translations for specific words or phrases, and remember to adapt them to the context of what’s being translated and who will be reading it.

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How English to Swahili Translation Can Help the Preservation of Cultural Identity

English to Swahili translation is very worthwhile because it plays a major role in preserving the cultural identity of East and Central Africa. Swahili is closely linked to its culture and it’s a reflection of history and traditions. So, translation is important to pass all these things down to future generations.

English to Swahili translation and vice versa promotes education, development, cross-cultural understanding, cultural diversity, and so much more. It benefits young minds and the African community at large who need high-quality educational materials and general access to valuable information.

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Final Words

However challenging English to Swahili translation may be, it’s an essential part of promoting diversity, preserving the African cultural identity, and supporting education. Translation is an art and we hope today’s article could help you understand a bit of the magic behind it. As well as help you appreciate the work of the many talented Swahili translators out there!

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I'm an elementary school teacher who loves what she does! I enjoy creating resources in my Native language "kiswahili". My goal is to spread the beautiful language of "Kiswahili" inside and outside the classroom. Thanks for stopping by! Read More

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