How can aid agencies effectively support communities and ‘listen to their needs’ if their staff don’t speak the local language? In an article written for The Conversation, Professor Hilary Footitt and Dr Wine Tesseur tell us about their research which sheds light on the issues and identifies ways to address them.
Reproduced under Creative Commons licence
After the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti hit the headlines earlier this year, 22 aid agencies published an open letter declaring that they would “take every step to right our wrongs and eradicate abuse in our industry”. They made a commitment to “listen and take action”.
There is nothing new about NGOs claiming that they “listen” to communities and act on their feedback. A cursory glance at NGO publicity materials reveals that they typically claim that they empower communities by listening and involving them in decisions about aid projects.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that aid workers share the same language as local communities (or at least that they use good interpreters). Otherwise, how could aid providers and aid recipients communicate with one another effectively? You might also assume that it is relatively easy to translate basic development terms into local languages. Development NGOs promote common goals, such as gender equality and human rights. Surely organisations must use common interpretations of these words when interacting with the people that they aim to help?
But our research suggests that this is typically not the case. We conducted a three-year project to explore the role of languages in international development, in conjunction with UK-based NGO INTRAC. We interviewed dozens of NGOs, officials from the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID), and conducted field research in developing countries. Our data led us to arrive at three startling conclusions.
Translating in Danger Zones seminar 6, Modern Languages and European Studies
“Languages in post-conflict development: working with NGOs”, Professor Hilary Footitt and Dr Wine Tesseur (University of Reading)
Wednesday 1 February, 5-6pm, HUMSS 128
International NGOs are confronted with a large variety of languages in their fieldwork, yet languages do not tend to have a high profile within international British NGOs. Foreign language policies are often not in place, and funding for translation and interpreting needs tends to be limited. Moreover, evaluative processes usually omit references to languages. This seminar draws on early findings of the AHRC-funded project “The Listening Zones of NGOs: languages and cultural knowledge in development programmes” (2015-2018), a joint project by the University of Reading, with the University of Portsmouth and the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), Oxford (www.reading.ac.uk/listening-zones-ngos). We will discuss how our previous research, such as on Languages at War and Translation Policies at Amnesty International, has led us to the present project. We will then describe the aid and humanitarian working space in more detail, and share some preliminary results from our interviews with NGO practitioners and translators/interpreters working for and in development projects.
Professor Hilary Footitt, from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, has a major interest in ‘Languages and international NGOs’ (non-governmental organisations) and how research into languages and cultures can support the work of NGOs and aid agencies as they operate ‘on the ground’ in international conflict and crisis zones. It focuses on the language and cultural challenges faced by international NGOs, and the role and status of the local personnel they increasingly employ.
The occlusion of non-military linguists, their apparent absence from policymaking for conflict, is in many ways related to a much more fundamental problem, a classic tendency to ignore the presence of language intermediaries altogether, to deny personal subjectivity to those ‘middle’ men and women who stand between institutions and foreign populations. Two discourses, one from those who employ interpreters, and one from the profession of interpreting itself, arguably contribute to the continued invisibility of the linguist.
For institutions in conflict situations, interpreting and translating are often seen through the lens of logistics. In this perspective, language intermediaries are one element in the overall matériel of war, as interpreters in Bosnia/Herzegovina explained: “That was our favourite briefing for soldiers when they were going on a patrol. Don’t forget your kit. Helmets, body armour. Don’t forget your satellite box, the orange box of the satellite phone. Don’t forget your interpreter…as if I am a tool”; “ …the Americans used to call the interpreters ‘lips’. ‘ Hey, lips’, you know, and the lips would come over and do the interpreting and they were supposed to be invisible.” (Baker b, 2012, 208). Paradoxically, this tendency to deny personal visibility to the interpreter can be reinforced by the traditional discourse of professional interpreting, developed and codified after the Second World War, in which the primary ethical requirement is for the interpreter to be impartial at all times.
Both the notion of the language intermediary as a part of operational logistics, and the neutrality concept of professional interpreting contribute in their different ways to the invisibility of language mediation in accounts of conflict.