Communication Problems Addressed from the Bottom-up

Dr Angela Crack (University of Portsmouth) and Dr Michael Chasukwa (University of Malawi)

Ask aid-workers whether they encounter problems with translation in their day-to-day job, and they are likely to roll their eyes in frustration before they regale you with anecdotes about awful situations that could have easily been prevented if the right language support was in place. Translation has been described as the ‘perennial hidden issue’ of aid work (Tesseur, 2022: p.1). However, there have been few experiments with practical and effective solutions to surmounting language barriers in the context of limited financial resources.

Dr Michael Chasukwa (University of Malawi) and Dr Angela Crack (University of Portsmouth) have addressed this problem by creating a new method of participatory translation. They worked with local communities in Malawi to co-produce a translation glossary of terms that are essential to international development work. The glossary contains hundreds of translations on topics such as health, education and climate change, dozens of which have not existed in print before. Participants designed the entire glossary themselves, choosing to translate terms that they thought would be most useful to potential users of the glossary: community members, community-based organisations and NGOs. The terms include English development jargon as well as Chichewa words that are integral to their visions of development.

The participants took part in a three-day workshop to write the draft, which involved multiple activities to facilitate the sharing of their unique knowledge of the local vernacular and the development priorities at the grassroots. It is the first comprehensive glossary in the international development sector that has been produced through participatory methods.

The remarkable thing is that none of the participants were professional translators or had engaged in any kind of formal translation work before. No special training is required to run or participate in one of these workshops. It is something that anyone can try, if they have enough enthusiasm and volunteers to help!

The glossary can be downloaded for free on the project website, along with a handbook that explains how it was created step-by-step, for anyone who would like to try holding their own workshop. The intent is to encourage others in different contexts to create glossaries in different languages. The handbook has is written in an accessible style, and is available in three languages. It is copyright free to encourage people to distribute it and amend it as they see fit. In this way, it is hoped that the glossary project will empower stakeholders across the world to overcome language barriers. 

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