Some of you know that my grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him “boy” for much of his life.
—Barack Obama, president of the United States, speaking to the Parliament of Ghana, Accra, 11 July 2009
How do you say khaki in fourteen languages? assuming that the answer is, in most cases, more or less khaki, what might that word mean? This question occurred to me three years ago as I was sitting in my Minnesota office with a student—a brilliant sophomore economics major from Hanoi—trying to understand a thorny text from Cameroon. The text before us was the Vietnamese translation of Ferdinand Oyono's landmark 1956 francophone anticolonial novel Une vie de boy, which I had been pondering for years. A central figure in the novel, the village's French commandant, was often depicted in “son short kaki” (“his khaki shorts”). Though I don't speak Vietnamese, I could make out enough of its modified Latin alphabet to recognize kaki several times in the 1997 translation. In seeking its Vietnamese meaning, I knew that at least six languages were already in play: kaki came to Oyono's French from English, which got the word in the mid-nineteenth century from Hindi-Urdu (where it means dust-colored), which got it from the Persian (transliterated “khakeh”), meaning dust (“Khaki”). What is more, Oyono's novel purports to be translated from the Ewondo, where kaki certainly meant something too. But in Vietnamese? My instinct was that khaki, at least in Vietnam, would signify what it did in Cameroon: the iconic colonial oppressor's fabric. But when my student, Phuong Vu, saw the word in Vietnamese, she immediately searched for an image on her laptop, then showed me a photo of the great anticolonial leader of Vietnam: the khaki-wearing Ho Chi Minh. Seeking a further data point, I asked my dean, the Somali scholar Ahmed Samatar, what khaki meant in his mother tongue. His reaction, too, was instant: “my grandfather was the first man in our village to wear khaki: it signifies modernity!” Khaki: one word, worldwide. But clearly not a monosignifying word, since it means, at minimum, dust, dust-colored, modernity, colonization, and anticolonial resistance. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, what kind of a translation can you make out of that?