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«Aspects of Mistranslation from English into Ibibio: The Case of Aids and the Ibibio Language Equivalent EFFIONG EKPENYONG Department of Foreign ...»

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3L : Language, Linguistics, Literature - Volume 14

Aspects of Mistranslation from English into

Ibibio: The Case of Aids and the Ibibio

Language Equivalent


Department of Foreign Languages

Faculty of Arts

University of Uyo (Town Campus)

PMB 1017, 520001, Uyo

Akwa Ibom State




This paper examines the semantics of AIDS in Ibibio, one of Africa’s languages

spoken in the Southern part of Nigeria. It asserts that “Udoño itiaita”, literally “Eight diseases”, which the Ibibio-speaking people adopted as AIDS equivalent in the language, is a mistranslation and semantically inaccurate.

The findings show a phonological mix-up over AIDS and the number “eight” due to the accidental resemblance between them. The paper posits that when Ibibio native-speakers first heard about AIDS, they assumed it had to do with the number “eight”. This was the beginning of the problem, as AIDS and “eight” sound alike phonologically. An attempt is made to compare the Ibibio equivalent of AIDS with those of French, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The result is that of Ibibio falling short semantically and failing the back-translation test.

The paper avers that it is worrisome that “Udoño itiaita” is still retained as AIDS equivalent in Ibibio decades after it was wrongly adopted, making it to look as if the word was untranslatable in that language. The paper argues that AIDS is translatable in Ibibio. It proposes “Idiok udoño anana nsuuk,” i.e., a pandemic that defies a cure and “Udoño éd”, i.e., AIDS disease, as alternatives. It concludes that “Udoño itiaita” is misleading because it was based on a wrong assumption and has failed to portray AIDS as a killer disease to the target audience.

3L : Language, Linguistics, Literature 76 / Introduction Language is the indisputable tool for communication among humans without which there would be no meaningful interaction of any kind. The use of language for the purpose of documentation and communication knows no bounds and covers all areas of human activities. For example, we use language to teach a subject e.g. a science subject (Maduka-Durunze, 1997:12); to promote culture (Anyaehie, 1997:41);

to search for equivalents between languages (Okeke, 1997:80); to relate specific registers that can be suitable for a classroom situation, and other areas such as law, worship, medicine, etc. (Eka, 2000: 41,42).

Similarly, Maduka and Eyoh (2000: 1) view language as a medium of communicating poetry, a form of word game which abounds in the various languages, while Udoh (2002: 141) considers language as a tool that can beused to promote national development.

The communicative nature of language, which can be oral or written (Udoakah, 1993: 33), is evident in all the languages of the world whether they are spoken by a majority of the people or by a minority.

Contributing further to the attribute of language, Eka and Udofot (2001:

3) argue:

Language is the most brilliant of human inventions. It is also about the most useful. By means of language people who live together are able to interact and express their thoughts and feelings. Language is first perceived as a string of noises organised into a meaningful pattern for the purpose of communication … It can as well be seen as graphic symbols also organized into meaningful patterns, the organized patterns being meaningful particularly to the people of the speech community where the language is used.

As a vehicle of communication, the forms of each language, namely, the actual words, phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs, etc. (Larson, 1998:3), are always pregnant with meanings both within the particular language itself (intralingual) and between it and other languages (interlingual). As a tool of human communication (Ashong, / 77 Aspects of Mistranslation from English into Ibibio 1999: 3, 4) language is said to be dynamic in nature as well as a system of signs that is based on specific rules such as the lexis and the syntax peculiar to the language being considered. In that capacity the words of a language do not have inherent meanings. On the contrary, we assign meanings to words, meanings which we derive from our experience (Adedeji, 2005: 15, 17). This is the context within which this paper is discussed, i.e., the meaning assigned to AIDS, which is often read on the bill board, heard on the radio and television jingles, and in discussions among individuals in Ibibio. When AIDS was first reported in English, the Ibibio adopted “Udoño itiaita” meaning “eight diseases” as the equivalent of the disease in that language.1 Meanwhile, what was begun informally has remained until now, and “Udoño itiaita” or “eight diseases” continues to be used as if it was an accurate meaning of the killer disease in Ibibio, yet it was not. But what is Ibibio and who are the Ibibio?

Ibibio – A language* and a people

By way of classification Ibibio refers to the language of a people of the Southern part of Nigeria who are also known as Ibibio. In other words, Ibibio stands for a people as well as their language at the same time.

Deliberating on the classification, Okon and Ekpenyong (2002:13)

further indicate:

Ibibio is one of the languages of Nigeria spoken by a people who constitute the fourth largest ethnic group of the country and are also known as Ibibio. Ibibio is therefore ethnoglossonym, the name by which both the people and their language are known.

Greenberg (1963), cited in Essien (1990: ix), makes further

clarification on Ibibio as a language:

–  –  –

Still under this genetic classification, Ibibio belongs to the Lower Cross group, a group of closely related languages to which Efik and Annang, with which Ibibio forms a cluster of dialects, also belong … Essen (1982) also gives insight into the identity of the Ibibio in terms of their language, traditional religion, world view, society, family, and economic life, etc. In this paper however, prominence is on Ibibio as a language vis-à-vis AIDS, with reference to the Ibibio as those that make use of the language to communicate with meaning in view.


The methodology adopted is translational as it focuses on the translation of AIDS into Ibibio and examines the strategies involved. Although the source language text (SLT) consists of just one term, it constitutes a text all the same and calls for an operational methodology which we describe as translational in scope due to the contact between two

languages (Fagborun, 1993:65). In the words of Newmark (1981:

ix) concerning translation, “Those who can, write; those who cannot, translate; those who cannot translate, write about translation.” Here we have not written to translate but have translated a word from a source language (SL) into a target language (TL).

This we would achieve on the basis of a loan translation or borrowing, a strategy proposed by Vinay et al. (1958: 47), the semantic approach proposed by Taber et al. (1971: 55), and the communicative translation proposed by Newmark (1981: 38). Clearly then, the translator is a strategist who applies different strategies while translating (Munday, 2001: 20), negotiating the meaning of texts in different ways (Candkin, 1991: xiii). To arrive at the desired solution to the problem spelt out in the paper, we have taken a look at a number of equivalents for AIDS in use in some Nigerian languages through interviews (Cf. NOTES) for comparison, analysis and conclusion, French inclusive.

/ 79 Aspects of Mistranslation from English into Ibibio

Semantics – Making sense out of words

Semantics, the term for meaning, and the process of making sense out of words; indeed out of a given text, must be relevant here because according to Catford (1978: 35), meaning is a property of language.

Also contributing to the important question of semantics or meaning, Ndimele (1999: 1) raises the question: “What is semantics?” He goes

on to provide the answer:

Semantics is an area of linguistics, which studies the meaning of words and sentences in language. Although the term ‘Semantics’ came into popular use about the first half of the 20th Century, it does not suggest that the study of meaning is as recent as that. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, scholars have been interested in investigating the nature of meaning. Scholars from philosophy, logic, psychology, anthropology, and recently linguistics have paid great attention to the study of meaning.

Meaning is imperative in all aspects of communication where language is the vehicle for interaction. Many a times, however, getting the required meaning from lexical items becomes difficult due to certain factors which can also be resolved only semantically, i.e., by exploring every possible means of arriving at the desired meaning.

AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrom, (Ebisike, 2004: 34), fits into this description given its present equivalent in Ibibio which this paper finds to be unacceptable on grounds of semantic shortcomings.

The shortcomings are glaring given Nida and Taber’s (1971: 206) semantic approach to translation, which places a contrast between the denotative and connotative meaning of the word. The approach also prescribes analysis, aimed at discovering the kernels underlying the source text and the clearest understanding of the meaning in preparation for the transfer, i.e., translation. Going by this, there is time to assign a concrete meaning to a word, and there is time to assign it a connotative meaning. This is why the translation of AIDS from English into Ibibio as “udoño itiaita” (eight diseases), and many a times simply as “itiaita”, which is the Ibibio word for the number “eight” (Kaufman, 1985: 208), 3L : Language, Linguistics, Literature 80 / is incorrect. This is because according to Nida and Taber it has failed to relate AIDS to what it actually symbolizes in the nonlinguistic world.

As we go in-depth in discussion, we consider it necessary to provide the equivalents for AIDS in some other languages before considering that of Ibibio. The aim is to help the reader to have a better understanding of the argument.

Aids equivalent in other languages

Ever since AIDS was traced as a disease in 1982 (Parry et al., 2004: 200), and the word came into the vocabulary of the English language, other languages around the world have assigned equivalents or meanings to it in different ways. A look at some of these languages can explain the way the word is perceived by speakers of those languages. For example, in French the word for AIDS is (le) “sida”, an acronym or abbreviation of “syndrome d’ immunodéficience acquise”.2 In Yoruba, the word is “Aarun ko gboogun”.3 In Igbo, the word is “Oria obiri najocha”.4 In Hausa, the word is “Chuta mai karya garkuwanjiki”.5 In Ibibio, it is “Udoño itiata”.6 These examples are given to readers to be guided by with regard to the equivalents for AIDS in these languages, including Ibibio, and to form their opinion on that of AIDS in Ibibio7.

As the reader will see, there is a very wide semantic gap between the equivalents for AIDS in French, Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, which apparently means the same thing, and that of Ibibio, which is saying quite a different thing from the translation point of view.

Aids equivalent in Ibibio

As mentioned earlier, and just as it is done in the other languages, such as those discussed above, “udoño itiaita” are the two words used by the Ibibio speakers as the equivalent for AIDS in their language. But this came as a mistranslation even though the people have continued to retain it until now as if it was an accurate translation of the deadly disease (Sanu et al., 2004: 11). There is, therefore, an inaccuracy in the meaning of AIDS in Ibibio. As mentioned above, “udoño itiaita”, which has been used over the years to mean AIDS, literally means “Eight diseases,” and this has nothing to do with the HIV epidemic (Stiles, 1998: 15,58).

/ 81 Aspects of Mistranslation from English into Ibibio The consequences are that until this time many Ibibio-speaking persons have continued to have a wrong notion about AIDS in terms of number rather than that of a killer disease, and this has not preserved the message of the SL text. The problem then is simply that of assigning a wrong meaning to the scourge and that makes it sound as if there is no way of generating a semantically acceptable equivalent for the pandemic in Ibibio. Now the wrong view of AIDS in terms of number came through an inappropriate arbitrary meaning given to the word by the people from its inception and this needs to be corrected through proper and acceptable means and translation plays an important role here.

The attempt of the discussion henceforth is to give an acceptable translation of AIDS in Ibibio that is based on meaning, not on the form of the word (Larson, 1998: 3). It is a fact that the present meaning of AIDS in Ibibio is not translationally arrived at but phonologically derived.

Those who assigned it took the form of the English word “eight” which sounded like AIDS and transferred the form, hence the mistranslation.

But according to Larson (3), “it is meaning which is being transferred and must be held constant.” Furthermore, the mistranslation had to stay unnoticed this long because translation was not yet popular in this part of the world, and people paid little or no attention to what was going on in that regard.

With the introduction of translation now at various levels, interest in issues such as the one under consideration here is beginning to take place and many are becoming better informed than before.

Consequently, apart from this author8, many Ibibio scholars and intellectuals9 are objecting to “udono itiaita” as the meaning of AIDS.

They are beginning to look for a meaning that portrays the realities of AIDS which translation has the answer.

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