“How do you say ‘I walk my dog’ in Malagasy?”
Sometimes, I wish I had written down some of the things people have asked me to translate. Personal regrets aside, let me explain why this is a ridiculous question: we do not walk dogs in Madagascar. Almost no one really has a pet dog, at least not in the way some Americans do. Like Tanzanian dogs, most Malagasy dogs do not have owners. They are strays who fend for themselves; we do not give them names and we definitely do not allow them into the house. So, when I say I cannot translate that sentence, it is not because I am lying about being fluent in Malagasy, it is because the concept of “walking” something does not exist in our culture. In summary, I have experienced some translation issues before, but nothing that compared to the difficulties we faced during our summer research project.
Our group’s research project analyzed “Health Seeking Behaviors”, which consisted of asking people where they decide go to when they feel sick and why they went there specifically. The topic seemed straightforward enough, but we ran into more problems than anticipated, most of which had to do with translation. For example, one of our questions was: “Do you ever stay home when you feel sick?” Most people answered no, but upon analyzing the interviews, we found that many individuals waited several days before going to a health facility. I think this happened because people assumed that we literally meant “staying at home”, when the purpose of the question was to ask if the interviewee delayed seeking medical attention, and how long they waited before seeking treatment. Another example of mistaken translation was the case of the “First Aid Kit”. While analyzing written interview notes, we identified the phrase “First Aid Kit” and thought we had found something significant to our research and included the phrase in our final report. However, it turned out our Tanzanian research partner had simply used the phrase to describe people who went to the pharmacy first. However, failing to catch this early on had a heavy toll. We ended up having to edit and re-translate all four final reports. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to finish the Swahili long report before the deadline, which was frustrating.
This is not to say that translation should not be trusted, but I encourage everyone to understand how translation works, and what its limitations can be. I wish we had established what style of translation would work best for our research earlier, but mistakes like this are all part of the learning process. If anything, this experience has given me greater appreciation for translation and its nuances in a way I did not have at the start of this program.