Working with interpreters Very much lost in translation

Nov 2nd 2012, 15:40 by S.A.P.


IT’S a strange experience to travel with a personal interpreter. It’s a luxury, to be sure—one that I had never had before—but perhaps most necessary in the least luxurious settings. I met my interpreter in Baraka, in a town on the western banks of Lake Tanganyika. He’s an English teacher and a radio broadcaster there. His English skills are moderate; his French, excellent. We made do with a broken combination of both.

Tanganyika is beautiful, but South Kivu isn’t quite a tourism hotspot. Racked by conflict and besieged by militias, this small eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced outsized pain. Its recent history has crippled its infrastructure. The province is profoundly underdeveloped: traveling just 50km can take up to five hours via various combinations of 4x4s, motorbikes, and old-fashioned hiking boots. (An unexpected river, too, might block your path.) My colleagues and I went to settlements in South Kivu to research the impact of repeated attacks.

The villages we visited were populated by people who spoke Bembe, a Bantu language. My interpreter spoke Bembe fluently. Not all of our interpreters did. Swahili, another Bantu language used as a lingua franca across much of eastern Africa, was sometimes used in Bembe’s place. Monolinguals were sent to my interpreter, bilinguals to the Swahili-speaking interpreter. The occasional French-speaker was interviewed by our Swiss colleague. (She prized those exchanges, a rare chance to speak directly with villagers.)

At the beginning of my first interview, my interpreter asked our villager if he was ready to speak. My ears perked up in an unusual moment. He used a word I knew: tayari, “ready”. Kannada, a Dravidian language spoken in southwestern India, uses the same word for “readiness”—probably borrowed from Arabic via Persian and Hindi. Bembe probably borrowed the word from Swahili, a language that has absorbed a great deal of Arabic vocabulary through centuries of trade. How wonderfully curious, I thought, that a Kannada-speaker from the United States would have this word in common with a Bembe-speaker from one of the most remote regions in the world. I felt inspired—perhaps this interpreter bit would turn out well after all.

My readiness ended there. It’s easy, I learned, to feel excluded from a conversation when working through an interpreter. Our experienced interpreters diligently translated sentences, allowing the speakers to direct the conversation. The impatient ones paraphrased, asking follow-up questions without translation, condensing five minutes of exposition into five sentences.

The topics of discussion were—to put it lightly—sensitive. It’s difficult enough to talk about rape and murder in English. In a Bembe village, through an interpreter? I wanted to convey compassion and empathy. What use is mere intonation when my words are meaningless? When I have no control over how my language, or my intent, or my concern would come across because my words weren’t my own? I knew, of course, that I’d never be able to understand the pain of war. But any mere attempt to understand was filtered by an emotionless team of interpreters scarred, too, by Congo’s wars. What was meant to be a set of careful, sensitive English-to-Bembe interviews became Bembe-only conversations deadened by familiar stories of violence. My pole sana, “I’m very sorry,” was wildly inadequate for anyone or anything in the villages. I never felt so far removed from anyone as I did on those days.

Our trip showed the difficulty of doing the sort of research required to understand the consequences of far-flung wars. More specifically, it underscored the disheartening reality of working with populations who speak relatively unknown languages: without the money and time required to learn languages like Bembe, these stories will always be a world apart. The danger is in allowing that distance to discourage research. Babel fishes are pipe dreams, especially for highly localised languages like Bembe. An interpreter was necessary in those parts. I needed mine. I wish I hadn’t.


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