Interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in cross-cultural contexts

Ruth Evans, Geography & Environmental Science, University of Reading.

Translating and interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in multilingual, cross-cultural settings is complex. Our experiences of qualitative research in urban Senegal, West Africa, demonstrate the importance of involving interpreters and field researchers throughout the research process. This enabled us to gain insight into the cultural nuances of indigenous languages and how these are translated and potentially re-framed in the process.  As part of the broader postcolonial project to de-centre conceptual frameworks developed in minority European socio-linguistic contexts, we argue in our latest article that studies of bereavement and emotions need to engage more fully with insights gained in diverse cultural and linguistic contexts in the Majority world.

Understandings of death and bereavement which dominate death studies have been largely based on research and theorising in the Minority world, particularly in the US and UK.  Indeed, social science theories and understandings of society are often fundamentally based on Anglophone perspectives, which reflect colonial legacies, global and local power relations and axes of social difference such as gender, ethnicity and class. The process of translation raises ‘vital questions of alterity, difference and how we define the Other’. Yet there is often a pervading silence about language and interpretation issues, linked to ‘romantic notions’ or ‘myths’ about fieldwork in Majority world contexts.

In our article, we explore the complexities of translating and interpreting emotions and meanings surrounding death in our research in Senegal. The feminist ethic of care perspective we adopted prioritised listening to the voices of participants. We discuss the challenges of working with multiple languages (Wolof, French, English) and interpreting the responses of participants with very different socio-cultural and material frames of reference to those of most of the research team.

When working with French and Wolof, we found it difficult to translate from English specific aspects of the experience of death and grief, denoted by particular words and phrases. Many languages have no word that corresponds to the present, narrow use of ‘grief’ in English, used to refer to an individual emotional response. The English word ‘grief’ (defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death’) was difficult to translate precisely, since the words used to convey these feelings in Wolof and French do not refer specifically to emotions associated with loss or death. One Wolof word commonly used by participants to describe their feelings following a death was métite, which can be translated by the French nouns, chagrin, peine and douleur. The expression in Wolof, ‘âme metite’ was often used by young people, which translates to French as, ‘j’ai eu mal or ‘ça m’a fait mal’, literally, ‘I felt bad/ pain’. While these expressions carry a depth of emotions that English speakers might associate with ‘grief’, they are nevertheless somewhat broader in their connotations, and differ from more specific Anglophone phrases which might have been used, such as ‘I was grieving’, ‘I was grief-stricken’.

Table 1 summarises some of the Wolof phrases and the equivalent French and English translations used in our dataset.

Table 1: Wolof phrases used and French/English translation (adapted from Evans et al, 2017)
Wolof French English
âme metite J’avais mal/ je me sentais douleur I felt bad, pain
deudji (noun) deuil bereavement, mourning, funeral period
téndeu (noun) veuvage widowhood, widowhood-mourning practices
No Wolof word veuf widower


When developing our interview schedules, Jane argued for the cautious use of the word ‘loss’, since it potentially makes assumptions about the significance of the death being discussed. Ruth, Fatou and Joséphine who conducted the fieldwork tried to avoid introducing this term ourselves in interviews and focus groups. Participants in Senegal, however, commonly referred to the death of a relative and the effects of the death on those left behind using the words, niak /perte [loss].

But when the Wolof word, niak [loss] is used as an adjective, it can mean lacking, nothing to lose or poor, which points to further insights.  Our research has revealed that the material, social and emotional dimensions of death are intrinsically interwoven. A family death could cause a myriad of material, social, and emotional disruptions to the everyday lives of children and adults, particularly among poorer families. The multiple meanings of the Wolof word niak here are particularly pertinent in understanding how the death of a relative may affect family members, with interlinked emotional and material consequences, which is not conveyed through the French or English words. Without probing further into the inflection of the Wolof word, we would not have gained this insight.

Working with multiple languages provided important insights into the cultural specificities of language surrounding ‘grief’ and emotions. We demonstrate the importance of teasing out the cultural nuances of key signifying words and phrases used by participants, translators and researchers in order to understand the socio-cultural expectations and taken-for-granted assumptions which construct ‘grief’ and experiences/meanings of death and bereavement in particular ways. In addition to identifying practical tips for researchers, it may be helpful to consider the following questions when researching responses to death and emotions in multilingual, diverse cultural contexts:

  • Consider how far bereavement and responses to death have been understood through Anglophone assumptions and theoretical perspectives, bound up in the English language. How can English-speaking researchers put their assumptions about ‘grief’ on hold?
  • Consider how spoken words may or may not be part of the general expression of emotions for participants in the study. Meaning-making about responses to death may occur through other means (eg. silences and everyday embodied activities) that do not require individual introspection.
  • Recognise how far ‘translation’ involves much more than a technical exercise of finding equivalent words. Cultural diversities are intrinsically bound up in language, evoking assumptions and nuances that require much thought and attention to explicate for readers of varying linguistic communities.

It is important to work across linguistic boundaries, where possible, and investigate diverse socio-cultural and religious understandings of death in languages other than English, both in the Minority and Majority worlds.  Only then will we be able to develop more culturally nuanced understandings of responses to death in diverse contexts.

Ruth Evans is an Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Reading and Principal Investigator for the Leverhulme Trust research project, Death in the Family in Urban Senegal: bereavement, care and family relations.

This blog post is a summary of the article: Ruth Evans, Jane Ribbens McCarthy, Fatou Kébé, Sophie Bowlby & Joséphine Wouango (2017): Interpreting ‘grief’ in Senegal: language, emotions and cross-cultural translation in a francophone African context, Mortality, 22.

Full text available on request from here or from Ruth Evans:; @DrRuth_Evans