Lost and Found in Translation

The Economist recently published a short piece on “the jargon of aid,” entitled “Anyone here speak NGOish?” Evidently, a woman in the Dinka tribe feels to be a “stakeholder” in her nation now that South Sudan is becoming its own country.  The article points out that small NGOs must speak NGOish in order to access grant-funding.  Sadly, this is all the case.

The ability to speak NGO is the reason why so many excellent projects fail to get funding on their own, and why many of us find employment in this sector.  I have often described my work as being the translator between “first world” funders and social change projects, and I don’t mean in terms of the languages actually spoken in these countries.  I flounder around Portuguese and Spanish and haven’t tried my way with other languages spoken in poorer places around the world.  But I speak NGOish, and thus many of the projects I work with have benefited from the grant funds that we manage to bring in together.

People have learned the language of those in power since the beginning of time.  If learning English, Chinese, or NGOish is going to give you, your family, or your community access to economic, political or cultural benefits, you would be foolish not to.   NGOish becomes the lingua franca for indigenous communities trying to access the largesse of international NGOs that over time have become a semi-permanent presence in their societies.  The fact that a Dinkan woman speaks NGOish is an indication of how much exposure she has had to NGOs in her daily life.

But we need to be careful what conclusions we draw from her ability to speak NGOish.

Language can just be a bunch of words put together.  Because they use NGO words does not mean that they think NGO.  I am reminded of a conversation I had once where someone was making an argument about the supremacy of American culture, as evidenced by two men, one Japanese and one Chinese, talking to each other in English.  Clearly the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world if two non-Americans choose our language to speak with each other, right?  (My British friends may argue that this proves British supremacy, but  that is a topic for another day.)  These men were just using English words in order to convey their ideas in a language they both knew.  They were not accessing American culture to do so, nor can we even be sure that they were using these words with the full sense of meaning understood by someone born and raised in Seattle.  While she may know the word “stakeholder,” I am sure that this Sudanese woman is not re-organizing her work according to a progressive logic model or cost allocating overhead to project budgets.  In my work with small bi-cultural social change organizations, there exists a significant gap in how the local project thinks about their work and how we here might conceptualize it, and this gap can get lost when both sides grab on to the words that we are supposed to use to get funding.

Language can be a significant gateway into culture.  As a German major at Swarthmore College, I remember Professor George Avery repeatedly admonishing us to stop translating our English thoughts into German words—it inevitably resulted in bad German.  Instead we should think in German and let the language flow as it would from someone raised in Heidelberg or Heilbronn.  We would then feel firsthand how language is a reflection of culture, thought, worldview, and so many other aspects of a society.

Since learning German, I have seen many examples of this same interplay between language and culture and its dissonance with NGOish.   An example from my work with a project in Brazil involves the term “social justice,” which means different things to different people depending on their race, position, culture, and context.  While some understand “justice” to be a call for equal treatment today, others (including funders) worry about its other meaning, that suggesting retribution and an historical compensation for past wrong.  A second example comes from my recent work with a project based in Chiapas, Mexico.  The term “accompany” is used within Jesuit communities to describe collaborative work with local people.  The term plays a critical role in how local people describe their work and is deeply rooted in local theology, and yet it falls well outside standard NGOish given that it conveys a vague sense of partnership without clear responsibility.

Social change requires local people to drive it—it is their society after all—and they need to be able to express their needs in their own words and concepts.  In the short term, people like me translate their words and concepts into answers that fit into word-limited grant forms.  Over time, they build capacity to answer the questions themselves in ways that resonant with large-scale NGOs.  These same large-scale NGOs hopefully hear their local partners and adapt their language to be more inclusive of diverse ways of thinking about concepts related to program design, accountability, and success.

But if we allow their language to be replaced by NGOish, we lose the nuance and cultural context related to how they talk about their community (“stakeholders”), ways of doing things (“their toolbox”), and reasons for celebration (“expected outcomes”).  We won’t be challenged to rethink our assumptions and develop new approaches that honor the complexity of their reality.  Our learning becomes lost in translation.

More on language: For a fascinating glimpse into language, see the Economist’s “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.” It is a fascinating review of some of the world’s most complex languages.

3 responses to “Lost and Found in Translation

  1. In the army I learnt that ‘Bullshit baffles brains’. It works in sales too.

  2. Critical Reader

    This article was lost in translation. Why didn’t anybody–the author even–bother to proofread &/or copy edit?

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