Dying for Lack of Knowledge
By Cheryl Rettig
Research clearly shows that people prefer to buy products and services in their own languages.1 This is the reason that so many businesses have undertaken translation and localization projects to transform their websites and documents from English into the native language(s) of their target markets. This seems like a pretty basic concept, but unfortunately, one that has not been adopted by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) attempting to provide information that has the potential to save millions of lives.
For many years, numerous NGOs in Africa have been producing materials largely in English or French, based on the assumption that everyone now speaks the languages once imposed by colonial administrations. The result of this logic is that many documents, manuals, reports, websites, posters and pamphlets are often in a language that many people can’t understand. This mistaken belief – that everyone in Africa speaks English or French (and to a lesser extent Portuguese) – has significantly reduced the effectiveness of numerous projects, including disaster relief, education, nutrition and gender equality programmes. There are many people across Africa who speak neither English nor French, and if they do, it is often their third or fourth language. The people who do speak English or French fluently often comprise the elite minority who are highly educated and live in urban areas. But the majority of Africans live in more rural areas where local languages and dialects are often spoken.2
Lori Thicke, co-founder of Translators without Borders (TWB), provides several examples of the need for African NGOs to have materials translated into local languages. For example, in Thange, Kenya, most villagers speak Swahili and barely understand English. But the large poster encouraging healthy practices to reduce the spread of HIV is in English, along with the village’s sole health manual. Another eye-opening example took place when Thicke traveled to Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya (and the second largest slum in all of Africa) with a delegation from Translators without Borders.3 Approximately one million of the world’s poorest people live in Kibera and it was here that the need for translation into local languages is particularly urgent.
On their visit, TWB had the opportunity to speak with 15 young girls working in the commercial sex industry. The girls also hold the honored position of being ‘peer educators’ in their community. Their responsibilities include educating other women living in the slum on important health issues, including family planning, nutrition and the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These young women are in the unique position of being able to reach other people in their community much more effectively than any ‘outsider.’ But there’s just one major problem. Language barriers and the resulting lack of information are killing people and destroying lives. This is especially evident in light of the number of people with HIV, the number of girls dying from unsafe abortions, the high rate of female cutting and the number of children orphaned by AIDS.
Peer educators are therefore justifiably frustrated with the lack of written health materials in the languages of the women in their community. One said that most of the women they work with speak and understand very little English, but that English is actually the language of over 90% of the written materials they have access to, resulting in a huge lack of understanding of the health practices that could save lives. Brochures in English often get tossed to the ground because recipients can’t understand the information they provide. As a result, these young women have asked Translators without Borders to train their entire group to be able to translate the brochures into local languages so they will be better able to communicate with the people they are trying to educate. They fully understand that access to materials in local languages can prevent diseases and STIs.
Thicke, too, endorses the direct relationship between access to knowledge and access to health: ‘knowledge is incredibly powerful. Knowledge ensures better health and longer lives, it reduces maternal mortality, it empowers women, it saves children from dying unnecessarily, it improves economic opportunities, it lifts people out of poverty, it encourages protection of the environment…’4 A closer look at Thicke’s statement reveals that many of the Millennium Development Goals hinge on the relationship between knowledge and health. Thicke stresses that without translation, worldwide access to knowledge, including the knowledge that can save lives, is impossible. And without global access to knowledge, the lofty goals of universal access to education and gender equality, as well as reducing poverty, maternal mortality and childhood deaths from preventable diseases, are also impossible.5
Thicke summarises the requirement to provide access to health information in local African languages in an interview with The Huffington Post’s Nataly Kelly: ‘in poorer regions, the information that people need, crucially, like how to protect themselves against AIDS, malaria, cholera and so on, is locked up in languages they don’t even speak. Ironically, the people who need that information the most – information about health, science, technology and so on – have zero access to it because of the language barrier.’6
Since there are so few translators of African languages, TWB has focused on capacity building through mentoring local translators to be able to better provide translations in local languages. One of these projects is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that has been decimated by years of war, resource exploitation, systemic sexual violence and rampant disease. There are so many aid organizations working in the DRC and a project like this has the potential to provide the NGOs with the translators they need to communicate vital information concerning health, education, nutrition, sexual assault, etc.
The Rehydration Project, an organization that provides easy-to-understand and practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases, clearly illustrates the value of information in local languages right on their website: ‘Information available in the local language is much more effective than in a foreign language. This is true for engineering and construction projects (such as digging water wells), and agricultural projects (such as how to irrigate the land). But it is particularly important in healthcare. In many areas in the world people do not only die from diseases, but also from the fact that they do not have basic information about how to stay healthy and what to do to prevent disease.’8
However, disease prevention is not the only urgent need. When I was in Ghana working for a women’s rights NGO, I learned first-hand the need for people to have materials in their local languages that focused on domestic violence. Even though the official language of Ghana is English, there are dozens of languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. The number of languages spoken, particularly in the northern, rural parts of the country, posed specific problems to my organisation. Even though we had access to local interpreters, when we spoke with women who were survivors of domestic violence during interviews or training sessions, it was clear that many of the women had questions that could have been answered through materials such as brochures, posters or pamphlets in their native language. These materials would also have helped spread messages of equality that could have contributed to curbing domestic violence in their homes and communities. In this way, women who have access to NGOs could share vital information with those who do not. The importance of NGOs having materials translated into local languages so they can better communicate with the people they are trying to help cannot be stressed enough. Without information and materials in local languages, NGOs will be unable to facilitate necessary changes in healthcare, education, disaster relief, environmental protection and gender equality.
Cheryl Rettig is a freelance writer with wintranslation and has completed international human rights internships in Haiti, Ghana, India, Israel and Palestine and Washington, DC. She has also written extensively on commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, torture, sexual violence in conflict zones and gender equality. To see more of Cheryl’s work, please check out “Women Search for Justice” at http://womensearchforjustice.blogspot.com.
1 “Report on Global Consumer Online Buying Preferences, Showing the Impact of Language, Nationality, and Brand Recognition” Common Sense Advisory (January 2011), http://www.commonsenseadvisory.com/Default.aspx?Contenttype=ArticleDet&tabID=64&moduleId=392&Aid=1147&PR=PR
2 Lori Thicke, “Everyone in Africa Speaks English. Or do they?” (January 20, 2012), http://lori4twb.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/everyone-in-africa-speaks-english-or-do-they/
4 Lori Thicke, “Want to End Poverty and Save Lives? Translate!” (February 18, 2012), http://lori4twb.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/want-to-end-poverty-and-save-lives-translate/
6 Nataly Kelly, “Translators without Borders Prepares to Bridge the Last Language Mile,” (12/03/11), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nataly-kelly/translators-without-borde_b_1122452.html