In 2020, many of us heard the words “resilience”, “vulnerability” or “risk” in a new context: a global pandemic. These words are commonly used when we talk about disaster, and while we may associate such words used in relation to an external threat with our personal experience, we all understand them slightly differently. These and other words such as “threats” or “capacities” form professional disaster terminology used by researchers, NGOs, donor organizations and politicians around the world. These words are therefore translated into different languages. Many strategies and practices for ensuring public wellbeing focus on building resilience, developing capacity, or reducing vulnerability.
In Colombia, for example, “resilience” has become an integral part of government policies to reduce disaster risk, but the word is unknown to the public. The local media has actually tried to explain resilience in plain Spanish to formulate stories of strength, but the translation itself is weighed down by intellectual debate and neoliberal overtones. For example, while resilience is often portrayed by politicians as a panacea for all diseases, many scholars point out that such terminology is often used to justify the transfer of responsibility for oppressive social conditions to the individual.
At first glance, a separation between the terms of academics, bureaucrats, and practitioners and those of the lay public doesn’t seem like a big deal. However, this separation can lead to “experts” misunderstanding people’s experiences or (sometimes deliberately) overlooking their struggle for social justice. This terminology is most commonly translated from English into other languages and used in locations around the world where disaster strikes. But can politics (and action) respond to the real needs and expectations of citizens if we stick to translated terminology that is already so badly off-brand?
Local knowledge is so often overlooked that practitioners involved in the management of disaster risk and hazardous events use “inside jargon” such as: Build resilience and hurry to enforce post-disaster solutions that tend to leave local residents a little confused. In Georgian, the word გამძლეობა (“resilience”) is only used by foreign NGOs and political decision-makers. The general public has very little understanding of what is implied and what actions could be taken when different programs – such as 100 Resilient Cities – are implemented. It is therefore very unlikely that the people who are actually affected by the resilience building efforts in Georgia play a central role in project planning and implementation.
And. Interactions between cultures are powerful. The English speaker takes a position of unjustified superiority, and so often the wallet. This can lead to ineffective measures, such as: B. culturally insensitive aid, or that only benefits the elite and the powerful. Even when there is a real intention to help mitigate risk, the lack of a common language can cause actions to fail – not just literally, but metaphorically.
Because of these problems manifesting in disaster-hit locations, we became interested in the actual translation process. What happens to the meaning of disaster concepts when they are translated into other languages? And does the language we use actually support a challenge to oppressive social norms and external threats? In this recently published article, we presented our analysis of the data. In 54 languages, we found that the words used to translate words like “resilience”, “vulnerability” or “catastrophe” often meant little to local people. Our study was the first to examine how the dominance of English affects the meaning of disaster concepts when translated, and to suggest how we could do things differently.
Since the beginning of the 20thth English has gradually become the 20th century Lingua franca. This is particularly evident in science, where scientists and universities are forced to meet the expectations of education and science. Scientists and universities are immediately excluded if they cannot or do not want to use the language. This strengthens unequal power by creating the language norms by which to be published, receive grants, and obtain political buy-in. Those who obey these rules are more successful by all academic standards. However, these publications are rarely available to the communities under study and offer little or no benefit to the local population.
Beyond the use of the English language, Western approaches dominate both in research and in practice in the context of disasters. The use of special terminology and the underlying meaning under “experts” cement this dominance. And the population of the domain through UN agencies, the World Bank, high-level global universities and monolithic humanitarian organizations confirm this. However, languages are sensitive to the context in which they are used. For example, British English has many ways to talk about rain. Likewise, the languages of Mozambique can communicate specific environmental conditions that can be found there. After the floods in 2019, people in Mozambique generally had to speak English to explain their experiences to foreign aid workers in order to gain access to financial support and lost a lot of sensitivity to the local culture and relationship with the environment.
While the most sustainable solutions often arise in a local context, non-English language speakers are forced to express themselves using categories and concepts developed in English (within a Western paradigm). And disaster research is no exception. For example, the difference between a hazard and a disaster in English is clear: a disaster is not just the occurrence of a natural hazard; It’s a combination of social and political factors and a hazard. However, in many languages these words used to translate these terms are used as synonyms. The realm of meaning can reflect chance and chance or danger and destruction. While the general connotation of these meanings is that something bad could happen, the use of separate terms in English obscures how they were understood locally.
Even in English, words like “resilience” or “vulnerability” lack a single, clear definition, and the debate about their meaning is often very political. This makes translation difficult as it is almost impossible to find a word in other languages that have exactly the same meaning.
Disasters are by their nature a political space, but they are depoliticized in translation by international arbitrators. A consensus on the language often leads to a simplified labeling of those who are not at the table (i.e. the “other”). For example, vulnerability is mostly referred to as weakness; This implies that certain groups of people need help, portray them as poor victims, and ignore the fact that many people have coping mechanisms based on their traditional knowledge. This can be offensive and miss the emancipatory potential of the concept.
Language is irreducibly intertwined with culture. It is the primary means of understanding the perspectives of different social groupings and their different members. However, technical terminology often does not reflect the contextual nuances of everyday life. For example, the term resilience did not exist in everyday Nepalese language. However, the World Bank and IMF have pioneered their use, which means that the community or country is moving in the right and right direction. The implication is that “not resilient” has to mean that you are not developing properly – i. H. Language is used to assign responsibility for survival and productivity to people despite unfair social conditions of poverty. They need to strive at the individual level or be treated as “underdeveloped”.
Translations of disaster terms so often miss the opportunity to recognize and use knowledge that has been generated outside of a “Western” framework. An outsider’s interpretation always reflects his or her own knowledge, assumptions and values, creating false “stories” that correspond to their own expectations. Research aims to undermine this disempowering misstep that often occurs in the disaster arena among people who also use “inside jargon”.
Our current norms are used to maintain power imbalances. They allow neoliberal agendas to flourish. Translation often reveals the assumptions and norms taken for granted, both in our own language and that of others. For disaster-related disciplines whose overall goal is to improve the lives of all people, it is important to consider the complex interplay of cultures that occurs in practice and research. Our research indicates the need to respect the local origins of meaning. In this way, we can appreciate the cultural and ideological “baggage” of both English and the language into which words are being translated, and apply locally critical perspectives to enable more meaningful and relevant translations.
Further reading on e-international relations