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Lost in translation

A friend in my study abroad program, Tim, was interviewing a microfinance borrower when his translator told him the woman spent $300 on two bulls. But Tim heard “bowl” instead of “bull,” and in disbelief, said, “I have to see these bowls.” The family took him around the house, where a bull was grazing next to a ceramic bowl on the ground.

To the family’s amusement, Tim began to examine what he thought was the most expensive bowl in the Indian countryside. After a while, his translator finally asked, “What are you doing? The bull’s over there.”

After working with a translator this semester to conduct field research, I realized that the translation process is like a game of telephone. As information is conveyed from one person to the next, the original meaning of each phrase loses the linguistic and cultural subtleties that cannot be carried over from language to language.

In a translator-outsider relationship where one person is so clearly dependent on the other for language, tricky issues arise.

Since a translator is working professionally with you but personally identifies with the native culture and language, there is an implicit question of allegiance. Is your translator more aligned with you or with the people to whom you cannot speak directly? It’s a difficult issue, when one person is so clearly dependent on the other when it comes to language.

For example, should translators selectively pick certain details to convey based on their discretion, acting as an informational screen?

On one of my field research visits, I followed a nurse during her rounds. Somehow, my translator caught wind of the fact that the nurse’s husband had passed away recently and hadn’t immediately conveyed that to me due to its sensitive nature. But that personal detail completely altered the lens through which I observed the nurse’s performance and was therefore relevant to me.

A translator might also purposefully omit certain messages for your sake. For example, if I were interviewing a group of men and one of them made an inappropriate joke as an aside. In that scenario, it indeed could have changed my interviewing style or level of comfort in the situation. Selective interpretation can weed out useful pieces of information or leave you uninformed of the entire subtext of a conversation.

Also, is the translator responsible for alerting you to non-verbal information, such as social cues that are not directly communicated in speech but immediately apparent to the translator? Once I was interviewing a woman who was actually eager to end the conversation. In blissful ignorance, I let the interview drag on until, when it ended, my translator commented that the woman muttered, “Finally, I can go work on my crops....” I found it ironic that in the name of poverty alleviation research, I had kept a subsistence farmer from her livelihood against her will.

For me, my translator has quickly become my lifeline in a new environment and a close friend.

She has made it possible for me to form relationships in the village with people I can’t directly speak to.

Through my translator, my village host auntie, with whom I stay during field visits, has begged for me to speak only in Hindi so that when I returned to the U.S. we could have long conversations on the phone. I enthusiastically nodded in lieu of speech, though privately thinking that she was greatly overestimating my potential for Hindi language acquisition.

Before we sleep, my auntie asks me questions, such as how often I speak to my mother on the phone and whether I have any prospects for marriage yet. With the translator, my village host auntie and I can converse about topics like her views on purdah or Indian history.

But the moment the translator leaves, we fall into a helpless silence. It’s awkward for a moment, but she scrambles to bring me chai from the kitchen. I protest in rudimentary Hindi, she insists “You, tea,” and I finally nod in assent. Without much language at all, we have just had an exchange, as simple as it was.

And somehow, in this way, we get by without much speaking.

Jessica Kim is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Beijing. Her column runs every other Monday.


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