Found in Translation: From Barriers to Bridges in Multilingual Research

“Open government for us is a coyuntura,” explained David, the leader of a civil society organization in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was sitting in his office with my colleague, Ana Maria, conducting one of our daily ethnographic interviews. “Coyuntura?” I asked. I’d been a student of Spanish for over a decade, but had never heard that word. David and Ana Maria explained that the English word for coyuntura is “juncture”—but that translation doesn’t capture its full meaning. David had used coyuntura to describe a point at which different human, capital, and material resources meet and make things possible. Our conversation on that autumn day in Guadalajara stuck with me. As coyuntura has slipped as a loan word into our English-language reports, it has raised a critical question for me. Is there a way to not only navigate language barriers, but also use them to our advantage in our work as development professionals?

Language barriers are intimately familiar to me. Growing up speaking both Swedish and English, I quickly learned about the power of communicating fluently in two languages, but I just as quickly learned that meanings could be lost or mysteriously transformed when I switched from one language to the next. A simple one that usually tripped me up was the word eventually; the Swedish equivalent is eventuellt, but it means that something might or might not happen, whereas the English word connotes that something certainly will happen.

Linguists have been publishing studies about these incongruences for decades. While the subtle differences between similar words might not seem consequential, the truth is that linguistics has real implications for development work. Take, for example, a recent study published in the Scientific American that found that reading statements requiring a moral judgment in a foreign language—rather than participants’ native language—led participants “to place greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments.” In other words, if we hear something in a language we don’t know well, we may focus more on the what than the why of another person’s decision, especially in a gray area, ultimately decreasing our empathy. These shifts in moral judgment have certainly affected negotiations between politicians of different countries at a forum like the UN, or complicated conversations between an American doctor and a Spanish-speaking patient. As development practitioners, we need to be alert to how language barriers can affect our decision-making.

At Reboot, appropriate language use and comprehension is at the heart of our qualitative research methods. Ethnographic methods require in-depth conversations to capture experiences; when these conversations happen in an unfamiliar language, we need to carefully process them to check for biased interpretation and pull out meaningful insights. Our work takes place in a variety of linguistic contexts, and often involves close collaboration with locals who speak English as a second or third language. To do our work well, we have to take measures to mitigate language barriers, and caveat what might be lost in translation.

To do this in many instances, we rely on the acquired language abilities of a permanent staff member. This certainly has drawbacks; for one thing, consider how dialect and slang are so variable in terms of geographic origin. I experienced this when I took notes in a focus group with Mexican and Dominican women in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as part of our research with the New York City Mayor’s Office. Having studied Spanish in Ecuador, I understood the Mexican dialect readily. But I found it tricky to follow along the entire conversation because the Dominican dialect shortens the endings of most words. For example, when saying, “we go to the city,” Dominicans would say vamo a ciudá instead of vamos a la ciudad. In that research, to fill in the details I relied on our local researcher, a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in the community for 10 years.

Which brings me to another measure we take to navigate language barriers; we often engage native speakers as key members of our research teams. These local researchers not only act as interpreters, but as connected community members with deep understanding of the local context and customs. The local researchers do more than just translate words; they explain how and why those words are used in order to deepen our research insights. In Mexico, for example, my colleague Ana Maria helped me contextualize coyuntura in a way Google Translate never could.

However, the local researcher introduces another set of linguistic obstacles. Nuance can easily be lost in translation between the Rebooter and the local researcher, from the local language to English as well as the other way around. For example, in a recent training session for a Wikimedia Foundation project with local researchers in Brazil, the English phrasing of the project objectives and methodological terms did not easily translate to Brazilian Portuguese. This is why we approach training as an ongoing process throughout the project, rather than containing it in a one-day workshop. As we work closely to uncover, discuss, and resolve different interpretations and approaches to understanding people’s lives, we are able to not only translate but also adapt Reboot principles and methods to the local context.

It’s important to overcome language barriers, but the term “barrier” can also be misleading; while a shared accent can be an invaluable connector, in a different way, so can a different dialect—or even a different language. These differences may cast the researcher in the role of an “outsider,” but that role can open new and deeper lines of questioning in surprising ways. Since my native language, Swedish, is spoken by a population the size of New York City, I often fall into that category of the outsider. But as an anthropologist, I’ve found that I can use this role to ask questions about aspects of a language that native speakers take for granted; it often allows me to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a particular context unique.

And that’s what happened with the word coyuntura. If it hadn’t been foreign to me, I never would have reacted as I did, and connected with David during our interview about our different interpretations of the term. The untranslatable quality of the word ignited a conversation that helped us bridge understandings, rather than add to the misunderstandings.

Approached in this way, differences in language can serve as a bridge to connection, rather than a barrier to communication. Lauren Collins recently wrote an article about learning to speak her French husband’s native language; as she poignantly put it, “If first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.” The international development community has been lacking an open conversation about language comprehension—related to ways we overcome the subtle moral, psychological, and social barriers that language can create, as well as ways to leverage those barriers into bridges. I’d love to talk more about this with practitioners who are experiencing such barriers and bridges: I invite you to not only share the challenges of language barriers, but also the unexpected opportunities they present in their inevitability. Share your thoughts with me on twitter, ethnography slack, facebook, or instagram with the hashtag #languageisabridge!

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