A Translator’s Call to Arms: Make a Difference!

Caroline Ahlquist took on the role of Translators without Borders’ (TWB) international marketing intern from January–July 2013. She was interested in working with TWB in part due to her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay.  Here she tells stories from the front-line and calls on all translators to make a difference.

I served in Villa Oliva, a small town in Paraguay, from 2010-2012. Villa Oliva was lucky, it was located on the Argentine border and thus, most people spoke Spanish and had access to the Argentine medical system. It was unlike other towns in Paraguay, where poverty means you speak Guarani and you only see a doctor when you are born and when you die.

Despite the fact that Villa Oliva was relatively well-informed in Paraguay, there is still lack of knowledge that could be addressed with more information provided to villagers in their own languages (Spanish or Guarani). Here are three stories from my service that shed light on the front-line knowledge gap.

There was a rumor that I was a vegetarian. Even though people regularly saw me eat meat, they knew that I ate a lot of vegetables and had a large veggie garden in my backyard. Thus, in their eyes I was a vegetarian. One day as I was walking to school, I ran into an eighth grade student of mine. We started talking and she asked me about being a vegetarian. I gave her my stock answer, that meat is like beer, it’s only good if it is consumed in moderation. She looked at me with relief and explained that she had been worried about me because she had heard of an old man in the next town over who was a vegetarian and died because of a lack of cow’s blood.

A woman came down with something I had never seen before. It was basically an open wound that, even after months, refused to close. She had gone to the town doctors and then to a private doctor in the capital city. She was complaining about the pain to a friend one day, lamenting the fact that doctors weren’t doing anything to help her. The friend responded, “Well Aunty, at this point there is only one answer. You will have to capture a toad and put it on the wound.”

Like all Peace Corps volunteers, I spent three months of training living with a host family. My family was amazing and adopted me as their own. To this day, if you go to their house, my little host sister will say the room I lived in is Carolina’s room, despite the fact that she has been sleeping in it for three years now. My host mom was telling me one day about how her aunt saved her life. Apparently, as a young girl she had fallen out of a tree and become concussed. Her aunt went running to the bathroom and then the kitchen. She came back with her own urine mixed with salt and spooned it into her niece’s mouth. After hearing this I obviously grimaced. My host mom told me that, as her daughter, if I ever pass out she will spoon me the same concoction because, in her word, nothing is better for a knock on the head than pee-pee.

These stories are always entertaining and my American friends and family always enjoy a good laugh when I tell them. Truthfully I have hundreds more like this, not only from Paraguay, but from my time in India and Korea as well. We can laugh at them, but they sadly illustrate the continuation of a power structure that is as old as the printing press: those who hold information hold power; those who do not are left in ignorance.

When I talk about access to information, I receive blank stares. I have one foot in the development industry and one foot in the localization industry, and professionals from both are confused and/or uninspired by the idea. When you speak English, the language of business, the language of medicine, but really the language of power, you don’t have to care about where a non-English speaker goes for their information. We can Google any question that might arise. But where does a speaker of Guarani go for information?

They go to someone they know who probably has the same bad information as everyone else. Doctors in Paraguay study in English, even if they can’t speak it. That is why my friend couldn’t find an answer to the problem with her open wound.

The only people in the world who hold the key to breaking down the information power structure are translators. This is my call to arms for the translation industry: Get out of your comfort zone in the industry and give access to information to those who don’t have it. It is on you, the translators and localizers, to make people see the problem, to make information a part of the development dialogue.

Information is power: It was true in medieval times when priests would not allow their followers to read the bible in their language; it is true when dictators come to power and ruin the education system in their countries; and it is true when we speakers of the power language allow ourselves to be blind to the lack of information available to those who don’t speak it.