Webinar – Translation as empowerment: Language, sustainable development and academic-NGO collaboration

You can watch the recording of this session here.

The first in our series of webinars on ‘language and sustainable development’ took place last week. Dr Wine Tesseur and Dr Enida Friel talked about the central role translation can play in sustainable and equitable development work.

Translation is often overlooked in development – both in terms of project management and dissemination. It was suggested that this may reflect a lack of awareness that the impact of poorly translated (or untranslated) information can have. And perhaps also a lack of real understanding about multilingual practices and multilingual language ecologies. But this can also be compounded by structural barriers. For example, translation costs are often classified as ‘administrative costs’ and as such may not be eligible for funding. When translation does take place, it may then have to be carried out informally, meaning that this important work is under-valued, and its contribution is overlooked.

We were reminded of the importance of translation, especially when it pertains to legislation and treaties. But also, the role that community-based discussions around translation can play in fostering a sense of ownership and agency in plans and actions.

Wine and Enida talked about the collaborative research project looking at the role of translation in establishing equal, two-way dialogue between NGOs based in the Global North and the communities they work with in the Global South – Translation as Empowerment. The project looks at translation as both a tool that provides access to information, and as tool that enables voices to be heard.

We heard about some examples of good practice and instance of change. This included within GOAL global – a humanitarian aid agency which is involved in the project.

If you would like to find out more about the project have a look at the project webpage Translation as Empowerment and follow Wine and Enida on Twitter:



Extra Q&A

Wine and Enida kindly provided answers to some of the questions we didn’t manage to cover during the session

You mentioned translation of legal material from Amnesty International. Could you elaborate on the content of material being translated?

Translation of Amnesty material: reports produced by Amnesty on human rights abuses often contain a lot of legal human rights terminology. Amnesty has built its own terminology database to ensure consistency and accurateness of such terms. You can read a bit more about translation in Amnesty here: https://slator.com/features/words-peaceful-weapons-says-amnesty-internationals-head-translation/

Do you have examples of translation done from local languages to English i.e., on project that communities are trying to run?

Translation from local languages into English: a lot of translation will take place for donor reports, e.g. when NGO staff collect evidence of the progress they have made in their projects. Such reports will for example include quotes from community members, which tend to be translated by NGO workers (or their local partner organisations) from the local language into English when they are preparing their report. Much of this type of translation is ‘donor-led’: the donor decides what information they want to hear and in what format. It is less common to find translations of work done in/by local communities as a way to share knowledge and good practice (when it is not requested by the donor), but examples do exist. I remember when I was in Kyrgyzstan, I was told about a project in which an NGO had produced guidelines for local carpenters in Kyrgyz, and these were later translated into Russian and English, so information flowed in the other direction in this case. In our Listening Zones report (http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/modern-languages-and-european-studies/Listening_zones_report_-EN.pdf), you can find some other examples of what we have called ‘innovative practice’, meaning language practices that were uncommon but that stimulated more exchange between INGOs and local communities.

Does GOAL have plans to work with other countries within Africa, particularly in W. Africa?

In West Africa GOAL works in Sierra Leone and Niger. At the moment, there are no plans to expand in other countries in West Africa. However, given that humanitarian response is one of the strong elements of GOAL programming, it is possible that in the future this may change should a humanitarian crisis arise in another country in West Africa and GOAL has the capacity to respond.

I’d be interested to hear Enida talk more about international NGOs and the ‘non-mention’ of the role of languages.

It’s not that the ‘role of languages’ is not mentioned in INGOs. I think there is no question among the INGOs on the importance of languages in their work, and their benefits for communities. It’s more an issue of resources and prioritization. Traditionally there is a push to allocate as much or all of the resources towards a direct response e.g. providing food, water, shelter, etc. meeting basic needs. And costs associated with ‘translation’, or ‘fundraising’ or ‘evaluation’ may be perceived as ‘administration’. But I think perceptions are changing and the research like Wine’s and that of other linguistic colleagues is helping raising awareness towards this.

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