How language problems bedevil the response to crises

Sitting on a muddy floor beneath a tarpaulin roof, Nabila, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi, fiddles with her shoelaces as she listens to Tosmida, a Rohingya woman in her mid-30s. Both are crying. Nabila, a student-turned-interpreter, says awkwardly: “She had it from all of them in her secret place.”

The struggle to tell the story of Tosmida’s gang-rape is not just an emotional but a linguistic one. Since some 700,000 Rohingyas escaped persecution in Myanmar and fled to Bangladesh over a year ago, many Bangladeshis like Nabila have suddenly found themselves with new jobs, as interpreters. Tosmida’s Rohingya and Nabila’s Chittagonian are related but not identical. Interpreters, quickly trained, must try their best to understand another language, and fill in the gaps left by cultural differences—including taboos about what victims can say.

The biggest practical issues concern health, says A.K. Rahim, a linguistics researcher working with Translators Without Borders (twb), a group that helps humanitarian agencies. In Chittagonian, health terms come from Bengali and English; scientific knowledge and vocabulary have trickled down from educated elites. But among the relatively few educated Rohingyas, health terms come from Burmese. Most—especially women, who tend to be cut off from the outside world and denied education—have not been touched by that learning. Instead they have developed their own lexicon. They avoid haiz (menstruation) and say gusol (shower). Diarrhoea, a common camp ailment, was routinely misdiagnosed in the first few months. Many Rohingyas reported, “My body is falling apart” (“Gaa-lamani biaram”), baffling health-care workers.

Sex is the trickiest minefield. In the Rohingyas’ conservative Muslim culture, women are not supposed to talk about sex or their bodies at all. They employ euphemisms, using different words to describe sex permissible by religion, or illegal sex and sex out of wedlock. Most of these terms are deliberately vague; they refer to “shameful spaces” and “secret places”. For rape, they might use a word that means forceful torture. This has legal consequences. “I cannot imagine a Rohingya woman standing up in court and saying, ‘I was raped’,” says Mr Rahim. Interpreters must be cautioned not to fill in gaps or encourage their subjects to say particular things; that could weaken a prosecution.

These problems are far from unique to the Rohingyas. Ellie Kemp oftwbadduces the situation in north-eastern Nigeria. For many of the women there, the word for “widow” is taboo. Instead they must be asked: “Do you have a husband? Did you have one? Is he dead now?”

Ms Kemp says crisis-responders often don’t know what language expertise they will need. They hire “local” workers, assuming that is enough. In Nigeria, these might be educated people who speak only English and Hausa, one of the country’s biggest languages. But Hausa may be of little use in Borno state, where the insurgency of Boko Haram rages. If aid workers are lucky, they may find people who know Kanuri, a kind of lingua franca in Borno. But even that might not help in a state where 28 languages are spoken.

Higher-status people—often powerful men—may know several languages and act as a bridge. But aid workers are typically trying to reach the most vulnerable. Ms Kemp notes that in the last Ebola outbreak in west Africa, women were affected worst, because most international advice on prevention came in English and French, which they were less likely to speak.

Some of these problems are intractable. But some are not. Downloadable glossaries (say, between a national and a regional language) can help an aid worker with a smartphone render technical terms in a way locals will understand. In future, automated translation tools such as Google Translate might extend to lesser-known languages. That will be difficult: translation software must be trained with a lot of parallel text that has already been translated by humans. So twb is giving some of its language data to companies such as Google and Microsoft for that purpose.

Outsiders often think an alien language has “no word for” a concept that is taken for granted in English. These problems are better thought of as cultural rather than linguistic: the words exist, but it is vital to have interpreters who know which can be used and when. In a crisis, aid agencies must work quickly; often they can spare their staff for only a day or two’s language training. That is time well spent.