The Swahili-Chinese Dictionary Project

Shen Yuning is a lexicographer working on a Swahili-Chinese dictionary.  He is currently studying African languages and cultures at the University of Hamburg and lives in Tanzania.  Completing a comprehensive dictionary can be a tedious task, but Shen sees it as “a small personal initiative for translating knowledge.”  Below he answers questions from Danwei on his project:

 Can you tell us your education history?

After completing high school education at Nanjing Foreign Languages School I enrolled for the BA Program “German language and literature” at the Sun Yat-Sen University. After I graduated in 2008, I joined University of Hamburg where I currently study my second BA degree in “African languages and Cultures”.

Where has your journey in Africa taken you, where have you been?

I have been in Kenya and Tanzania.

 The Swahili language expands over which countries in Africa?

Swahili is the official language in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda and one of the national languages of DR Congo. Its dialect serves as the official language of Comoro Islands. Swahili is the most important vehicle language in East Africa. In Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Zambia and Somalia we also can find more or less Swahili speakers. Swahili is also one of the working languages of AU.

When did you decide you wanted to take on the task of writing a Swahili-Chinese dictionary?

Mid-December the Year 2011, as I was in my hostel at Kenyatta University waiting for my academic transcripts of the previous semester, the idea initially in mind, however, was hiking across East Africa and interacting with the locals in the Year 2012. Then, I found out that Swahili – the major language in East Africa – has no comprehensive dictionary for Chinese readers, so I decided to write it myself.

 What is the importance of making this dictionary?

I hope this dictionary will be useful to the Chinese university students who are learning Swahili and all the people who are interested to work or travel in East Africa.

How will this dictionary strengthen the relationship between China and Africa?

I hope this dictionary will make communication between Chinese and Swahili speakers much easier. Definitely, it will accelerate the information exchange in every field if the dictionary is promoted well.

How receptive are the locals with helping you?

A lot of Tanzanian and Kenyan students have helped me much to make this project a reality. Almost everyone I meet on streets, in shops, in markets etc., is very supportive. They are patient to my curiosity and my “awful” questions. My special thanks go to Zanzibar state university and Zanzibar College of journalism and mass media.

Walk us through the process of writing a comprehensive dictionary

  • First, we go through a list of basic vocabularies, which probably can be found in every Swahili teaching book. The list that we use is from Kiswahili kwa Kitendo “(learning) Swahili by doing” by Sharifa Zawawi.
  • In the second step, we collect new words from newspapers, journals and magazines, which weren’t captured in the list of basic vocabularies. We do this work continuously. Every day we spend about two hours reading newspaper to search new words.
  • Analyzing classic Swahili novels is the subject to our third step. Here we can find sophisticated words, which are occasionally used by ordinary Swahili speakers. Nevertheless, the long-scaled texts will enlarge our databank. We use a computer program for locating words as used in the context thus enabling us to fix the meaning of specific expressions.

Due to limitation of technology and lack of necessary devices, we have to type the novel by ourselves. Till now we have only imported 10 novels into our databank. The work was tedious. I hope that some publishers can help us to access digitalized books to address monotonous typing task. We face the same problem when selecting texts in mass media. However, we’ve planned to get some manuscripts of radio and television programs if possible.

 What phase are you on now in your writing?

We’ve just finished the novel part and we are preparing an expedition to Mombasa. Currently we are busy organizing the fish taxonomy and the other words relating to costal region. It is not very easy to estimate the stage of the whole compiling work, but we have already covered more than 13,000 words.

Have there been other attempts to compose a Chinese-Swahili dictionary? If so, what will your dictionary contain that the others are lacking?

While I was in Tanzania early this year, I was informed by some Chinese Swahili-Teachers that a Swahili-Chinese dictionary was already compiled in 1971, but they encouraged me to compile an updated one. Apart from the up-to-datedness, I tied in these dictionary sample sentences, which can be used directly in daily talks.

What do you find the most difficult about writing the dictionary?

The most difficult part is to combining different Swahili dialects in a single dictionary. As far as pronunciation difference, we refer largely from well-published dictionaries made by Africans themselves. However, we do collect some crystallized words from slang, which has been used by generations.

How long do you expect it will take you to complete this dictionary?

I hope the collection part will be complete by mid-August. Later this year I will be engaged in editing the dictionary followed by debugging work. By early 2013 the draft will be ready for publishing.

 I read that you spend 15 hours a day on working on the dictionary. That’s impressive.

Thank you. Could you make a HUGE banner to advertise my dictionary after it gets published? Hey, we actually squeezed time to answer your questions!

Do you wish to have your dictionary published by a Chinese or African publisher?

I would like my dictionary to be published by a Chinese publisher owing the fact that the potential readers are majorly Chinese speakers.

What comes next after you finish this dictionary?

I am not sure about the exact location and activities. My life is full of dynamics. I am looking forward to working with other like-minded authors or lexicographers.


If you’re interested in contributing to Shen Yuning’s dictionary project, please contact him via his blog or Weibo account linked below.

Links and sources
China Daily: In Swahili, they call it… (about Shen Yuning’s dictionary)
Shen Yuning’s personal blog: Yelling Stone (see also his Weibo and Twitter)
Weibo: Yellingstone
CCTV:Tanzania-Swahili-Chinese Dictionary (about Shen Yuning’s dictionary)

Comments are closed.

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲