From Malawi to the World

A new project aims to improve communications between communities and those involved in international development work.

Interpretation and translation problems often lead to a breakdown of trust between NGOs and the community, and the subsequent failure of development initiatives. 

Improved communication delivers better results. That’s the theory that has led to the Translation Glossary Project, a scheme that started in Malawi and is now being offered to others across the world. 

Dr. Angela Crack, Reader in Civil Society at the University of Portsmouth, worked with local communities in Malawi to co-produce a glossary of terms that are essential to international development work. It contains hundreds of translations on topics such as health, education and climate change, dozens of which have not existed in print before. 

Practitioners who deliver life-saving aid have long complained that they struggle to communicate with the people they serve because of a chronic lack of language support in poorer countries. The glossary is designed to address this problem among Chichewa speakers in Malawi, and the long-term ambition is to empower people across the world to overcome language barriers.

Dr. Crack said: “The idea came from an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded research project called The Listening Zones of NGOs. It revealed that many aid and charity workers cannot speak the languages of the communities that they work with. Research participants suggested that their lives could be made easier by a seemingly simple solution. They wanted a handy translation glossary of development terminology to help NGOs and communities understand one another better. However, until now this did not exist in any of the case study countries, including Malawi.”

Working alongside Dr. Michael Chaukwa from the University of Malawi, and with follow-on funding from the AHRC, the idea of a translation glossary has been made a reality.  Local people in Lilongwe and Zomba (Malawi) volunteered to help create the glossary, none of whom were professional translators, but who shared a love of language. They took part in a participatory workshop to write an early draft, choosing the terms to be included and the simplest ways in which these could be translated. 

Dr. Crack is excited by what has been achieved by this collaborative approach. She said: “Their Chichewa-English translations reflect their unique knowledge of the local vernacular and the development priorities at the grassroots. It is the first comprehensive glossary in the international development sector that has been produced through participatory methods. 

“The intent is to encourage others in other contexts to create glossaries in different languages, and so promote good communication between development stakeholders not just within Malawi, but also beyond.”

Visitors to the Translation Glossary Project website are invited to download a free handbook. It lays out lessons learnt from the project with ideas of how users can create their own grassroots dictionary of terms that will help make lives and work better for all.

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