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Lost in translation? The role of local language in anti-racist practice

English is the common language of international development, and the discourse is littered with professionalised jargon that reinforce colonial attitudes.

Bond has led the way in the UK INGO sector in thinking about ways to use language to promote inclusive and locally led development. Bond’s anti-racist guide advises that progressive organisations should aspire to work in different languages and ensure that no advantage is given to those who are fluent in a particular language. But more consideration needs to be given to how to operationalise this aim.

In practical terms, what can Anglocentric organisations do to meaningfully engage with local languages, especially in the context of limited resources? That’s the problem that we sought to solve in The Translation Glossary Project. We think our methods could be successfully used by many development INGOs in different geographical, linguistic and cultural contexts.

Translation issues

The Translation Glossary Project stems from a research project called The Listening Zones of NGOs, led by Professor Hilary Footitt, Dr Angela Crack and Dr Wine Tesseur, and supported by INTRAC. The project conducted research in several countries and found that many NGO workers cannot speak the languages of the communities they work with. Translation problems often cause trust to break down between an NGO and a community, meaning development initiatives fail. Language barriers also stop project co-creation, collaborative decision-making, knowledge sharing and meaningful systems of accountability. Despite the centrality of communication to the INGO mission, language and translation has a low profile. Why?

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An important part of the answer lies in the racist and colonial attitudes deeply embedded in the very notion of development, where Western perspectives are considered superior, and where Anglophone countries have exerted a disproportionate amount of power in shaping the discourse. Decolonial activists have accused INGOs of only paying lip service to principles of inclusion and participation, and of being dismissive of local knowledge. Remedying these issues requires structural change and restorative justice.

More prosaically, translation problems can arise from a simple lack of language support, which can affect even the most progressive of organisations. Implementing organisations often work in highly linguistically and culturally diverse environments, with multiple dialects within even a small region, without much practical assistance. The research participants in Listening Zones said their lives could be made easier by something simple. They wanted a handy translation glossary of development terms to help NGOs and communities understand one another better, which could be shared as a common resource in the sector. Translators Without Borders provide a much-valued service in providing free support for the humanitarian sector. However, nothing similar exists for development.

Thus, the Translation Glossary Project was born. Our aim was to establish a participatory and low-cost method to share language knowledge and create a glossary of terms relevant to international development.

As part of the project we worked with communities in Malawi to co-produce a Chichewa-English translation glossary of terms that are essential to international development work. The glossary contains hundreds of translations on topics such as climate change, governance and gender-based violence, dozens of which have not existed in print before. For example, Chichewa translations for terms such as resilience, sustainability, mainstreaming, and trafficking are not available in any commercially available dictionaries, but all of these and more are included in the glossary.

The Malawi community members who took part in the project had no professional background in translation. But it was important that they were in the driver’s seat from the very start of the process, choosing the terms to be included and the simplest ways in which these could be translated. They chose to translate Chichewa terms that are central to their vision of development and commonplace English development jargon.

Becoming a language-inclusive organisation

The glossary can be downloaded for free on the project website, along with a handbook designed for practitioners that explains how it was created, step-by-step. The process is designed to be as accessible as possible for organisations with limited resources. The intent is to encourage others in different contexts to create glossaries in different languages, which is an important practical step in becoming a language-inclusive organisation.

We encourage INGOs and donors to prioritise translation as an anti-racist practice. Failing to tackle language hierarchies will replicate historic power structures. If we are serious about embracing principles of diversity and inclusion, then we must be prepared to engage with a kaleidoscopic range of languages. This needn’t be daunting. We can think creatively about how the translation process provides opportunities to stimulate mutual learning and more of an equal dialogue.

Translation could be one of the most exciting and transformative parts of the journey towards locally led development. It is through translation that we exchange deep understandings about our worldviews, and begin to shift the power in our relationships.