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Du Courage: Translating a Feeling

By David Horner-Ibler | Published: February 19, 2019

The culprit: David got this tattoo in Spain
during his first year as a volunteer.

When I got the French phrase du courage tattooed on my forearm two and a half years ago, I wasn’t sure of an English translation. After spending over three years in Togo, a French-speaking West African country, I still can’t offer an adequate one. For this reason, I feel strongly that this phrase is one that we could adapt into English for its ability to acknowledge the quiet, daily courage that we all need.

I recently read Tove I. Dahl’s blogpost, Celebrating Your Courage, in which she addressed acts of personal courage that often go unseen. I was immediately onboard with her explanation of this differential, personal courage: “what may look courageous to some people may not be experienced as courageous at all by the seemingly courageous person.” The Togolese du courage is a validation of this personal courage. It is a recognition that what may not look courageous to some people may still be courageous.

Amida, a midwife, and her husband
Tankou, a primary school teacher, 
were David's best friends in Alibi 2.

Across more than 30 different languages and ethnic groups, du courage reigned supreme in Togo. Whenever something bad would happen, a du courage was quick to follow. Fall down; you get a du courage. Get sick; that’s a du courage. The weather’s a little hot; that’s a du courage too. At times, this consistent repetition of a simple phrase could get mildly annoying. Yet I found a new appreciation for this phrase on the unfortunate occasions that I received truly bad news. The death of a close friend or family member was also greeted with a du courage. It was in these moments I realized I did need courage and that hundreds of people recognized my hardship.

Du courage filled an unknown hole in my Anglophone heart. In English, we might say, “I’m sorry” in these moments. Yet, when misfortune strikes, I’ve never found “I’m sorry” to be the right thing to say. In the same way, “suck it up” can seem crass and “my condolences” carries an air of indifference. The way my friends said “du courage” united these ideas under the banner of courage. To me, the closest interpretation of du courage is something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that happened to you but I know that you’re strong enough to get through this and I’m rooting for you.” -ish.

The Togolese utilization of du courage evokes the personal courage we all have, mentioned by Professor Dahl. It’s not the American version of a grand heroic action often connected with courage. In contrast to acts that may look courageous, du courage recognizes acts that may not look courageous yet are no less important. It is a reminder that life is a series of inwardly courageous acts and hearing du courage from a friend is sometimes just the thing one needs. Saying it acknowledges that although we will never fully understand the challenges others face, we can recognize their small acts of courage. Piecing together these acts on a day-to-day basis is how we construct a lifetime of courageous action.

Even though I still don’t have a deserving translation for du courage, I’m happy with my tattoo decision. It is my reminder that each day is filled with opportunities to be personally courageous. More importantly, it reminds me to encourage others to do the same.

So, the next time you see someone having a hard time don’t be sorry, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for. Instead, be courageous, and remind them that they can be courageous too. 

About the Author

David Horner-Ibler is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Togo, West Africa from 2015 to 2018. There, he used his Spanish degree to help him learn French. Togo as a country is home to over 30 different languages, and although French is the official national language, David's community of Alibi 2 spoke Tchamba on a daily basis. He is eternally grateful to the people of Togo for their kindness and generosity during his time as a stranger in their country. Now, he works as a homelessness prevention specialist in Washington, D.C. and looks forward to using both his Spanish and French to offer the same courtesy to people who find themselves lost in the place he calls home. David is also excited to learn new interpretations of du courage from any and all French speakers who read this post. 

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