Nordic Journal of African Studies - Abstract

Title:Chinyanja and the Language of Rights
Author:Harri Englund
Published: © Nordic Journal of African Studies Vol. 10(3) 2001, pp. 299 - 319
Language: English
Keywords: Chinyanja, human rights, democracy, proverbs


Discourses on human rights are among the most enduring consequences of the wave of democratisation that swept across sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s. The "rights-talk" is spread by, among others, non-governmental organisations that consider "civic education" on rights as one of their major tasks. This article examines the case of Chinyanja in order to highlight challenges in the attempts to translate the rights-talk into vernacular languages. In Chinyanja, "human rights" are translated as ufulu wachibadwidwe wa munthu, literally "the freedom that the person is born with". In the context of persistent poverty and insecurity among many Chinyanja-speakers, such a translation appears to feed reactionary counter-discourses that criticise democracy for bringing "too much freedom". The article discusses theoretical problems in translation, particularly the question of linguistic relativity, and argues that translation is best seen as conversation with existing notions. By exploring the notion of interdependence in Chinyanja proverbs, the article finally demonstrates how extreme individualism and conservative counter-discourses do not have to constitute the only alternatives in Chinyanja debates on rights and democracy.

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©2001, Nordic Journal of African Studies