A foreign language can be great fun, but it can also be a great obstacle. It can be an even greater challenge for social research. Here in the Oogué-Ivindo region of Gabon, I am doing just that. Over the last five weeks, I’ve been asking communities to map and discuss how they use the natural resources around their villages, and how those resources are threatened, all to promote the incorporation of local knowledge into conservation planning. All of that, in French.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in translation from the field.
Ditch the dictionary
Well, not entirely. A French-English dictionary quickly became my closest companion here. They do come in handy. Do not take your dictionary for granted, though, as I learned through my attempts to translate “threat”.
A large chunk of my research this summer is mapping villages’ natural resources and where they are threatened, such as elephants encroaching on agricultural fields, or mines polluting water sources. So, inevitably, I must ask “What are the main threats to your community’s natural resources?” Threat translates to menace. The rest was simple enough. I rehearsed the questions in French and had the vocabulary well memorized before my first interview with a village chief.
However, during the first interview, I got some very interesting responses to the threat question. Instead of the common ones we expected, he mentioned threats such as animals being dangerous to hunters, and concerns over political tensions. At this point we realized their understanding of menace was more along the lines of “danger,” not necessarily encompassing the threats to their resources.
We tried instead to ask about “problems” with their natural resources. This, however, prompted him to explain their lack of financial and material resources for agriculture. We still hadn’t quite hit the nail on the head.
The one that finally worked was, “Which of your resources are threatened (menacées), and by what?” Maybe it was the emphasis on resources instead of threats, or maybe it was the slight difference in connotation for menace and menacées. Either way, this version has worked every time since. Some mistranslations may be avoidable, but in many cases it is simply a matter of trial and error.
Watch for traps
There are some words that you may guess to be the same in French and English (cognates). That is, once you’ve tried saying the English word in a French accent and it doesn’t sound too bad in your opinion. I’ve coined these to be trap words, and I’ve already found myself trapped translating in both directions. Here are just a few.
Permission: On our fifth failed try at saying permission in a French accent, we finally looked it up. Yes, permission is technically one correct translation, but it turns out the best translation, in this region at least, is “autorisation”. Sound familiar? Should’ve been obvious, right?
Societies: In this region “société” is most commonly used in reference to a company (i.e. logging, mining), not a society, but I’ve gotten so accustomed to calling them sociétés that I find myself calling them societies even in English.
Surface area: At one point, with the term “surface area” on the tip of my tongue, I convinced myself for a brief moment that the French translation superficie (which easily came to mind after hearing it on a daily basis) works in both languages. Sounds like it could, right?
You had me at “good morning”
Overall, working in a foreign language is challenging, especially in a language you are still learning. It can easily leave you shy to make small talk and build rapport with your colleagues and host community. Sometimes your brain just can’t handle the thought of switching to French at 5:30am. A daily “Bonjour!” “Ça va?” is simple and easy. Think of them as a warm up, even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning. Dip your toes in each day before diving in head first.
Through all of the mistranslations, traps, and feeling overwhelmed, be sure to take time to enjoy it, and recognize your milestones. Making people laugh is important to me, so for me an obvious milestone was the first time I made a joke in French and was understood and people laughed. It was an incredible feeling. They are moments like those that make the challenges worth it and will keep you coming back for more.