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TCDC and the communications problem: an Asian dilemma

A plea for linguists to take their place in the development process

by D. Jon Grossman

While enthusiasm for technical cooperation among developing countries (TCDC) continues to run high, little thought seems to have been given to the problem of how, from the communications point of view, it can be made to work in regions of high linguistic diversity such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific. That region suffers from a serious scarcity of qualified translators and interpreters into, out of, and even more seriously between local languages, frequently compounded by an absolute lack of technical terminologies, generally agreed or not. As a result, TCDC runs the risk of being confined to the elites that can use English or another lingua franca, instead of reaching the low-to-intermediate levels where its workings otherwise promise to be most beneficial.

It is clear that linguistic nationalism, a trend among newly independent countries to reject the language of their former colonizers in favour of their earlier local language, even if a dead one, is here to stay. Linguistic nationalism is not new: in 1777, the legislature of the newly independent
South Carolina rejected by only one vote a motion that German, rather than English, should be the official language of the state. Linguistic nationalism among Irish intellectuals may be said to have been the axis about which the Irish independence movement, which led to the 1916 Easter rebellion, revolved, and Gaelic is today the official language of the Irish Republic. One of the first official acts of the newly created state of Israel was to adopt Hebrew (later described as neo-Hebrew) as its sole official language, despite the contrary view of the early, more pragmatic, Zionist leaders. In Africa south of the Sahara, tribal linguistic diversity and the absence of a written literature among the tribal languages and dialects have enabled English and French to maintain their position as linguae francae, but in developing Asia, nationalism, linguistic unity and, often, a long written tradition in individual countries are combining to lead to the linguistic Balkanization of the region.

Symbolic of oppression

The trend is comprehensible. The first act of almost all colonizing powers, from ancient Greece to the present time, has been to impose their languages, which became symbolic of, or synonymous with, oppression when recolonization or decolonization takes place. As a result, the first symbol of the ex-occupants' power to be rejected, once a few statues have been overthrown, is the occupants' language. Spanish was able to maintain itself when the Latin American countries achieved independence in the nineteenth century because it had no strong competitor, considering the relatively small indigenous population in the heavily colonized areas, the great tribal linguistic diversity of the region and the lack of a native written tradition. Similarly,
English is likely to survive in India until that country has solved, one way or another, the problem of its linguistic unity: it appears to have abandoned, in the face of strong resistance from other language minorities, efforts to impose Hindi as the sole national language.

But elsewhere in southern and southeastern Asia, English is rapidly declining as the lingua franca, and whether it will be replaced by Japanese, Chinese, Bahasa or a combination of these - or whether it will be replaced at all - it is not yet possible to say. As will be seen below, nearly 80 percent of Thai replies to an ESCAP survey were to the effect that technical material was desired in the Thai language. In Bangladesh, an annual national holiday marks the anniversary of the 1952 linguistic riots, and a newspaper editorial (in English) stated recently that "language and our national identity are inseparable and indivisible." In the Philippines, where there is a variety of local languages and dialects none of which is spoken by as much as 25 percent of the population, the Government is supporting education in Pilipino, an artificial, Tagalog-based language, the intent apparently being for Pilipino to replace English as soon as it is spoken by a large enough segment of the population (the 50-percent level has already been reached).

From the practical point of view, the effects of this trend - no matter how natural and comprehensible it may be - are little short of appalling. The multiplication of languages has been a major barrier to understanding among men ever since the tower of Babel, and it is hard at times to escape the impression that by refusing a lingua franca, the countries of developing Asia are deliberately creating for themselves an obstacle as insuperable as it is needless. On the other hand, however, it is useless to formulate value judgements when such emotion charged concepts as national independence are involved. The trend toward linguistic Balkanization being irreversible, at least within the foreseeable future, workers in development must accept the fact and address themselves to the task of minimizing its negative effects.

The problem itself can be reduced to very simple terms. How, for example, is an Indonesian to gain access to a new technique for protecting harvested crops, evolved in Thailand and written in a paper in Thai? How is a Korean adviser on animal breeding to talk to a Sinhalese farmer? Few, if any, of the people working at these levels have any common language. Thus far, they have worked through English, but language training in the region is on the decline, except at university levels - where it is now much less satisfactory than formerly.

Translation into local languages from the so-called "international" languages (especially English) is the least serious aspect of the problem, but it is still not a negligible one. While the number of technicians with some training in English, often received abroad, is still considerable, their training has, by the nature of things, been largely confined to their specialties. No training in translation techniques, as such, has been received - or, most likely, even envisaged. Leaving aside commercial and semi-literary hack work, therefore, the pool available for translating consists mainly of people trained abroad and now on the staff of the various universities. To the extent that these are engaged in passing on, in their local languages, the training that they themselves received abroad, basing themselves largely on their own lecture notes, they are in fact engaged in a very special type of "consecutive interpretation," and local-language lecture notes derived from their courses can, if published, serve in some degree as raw material for subsequent local-language work, assuming that the terminological difficulties can be overcome.

Collections of gems

Translation out of local languages into "international" languages presents problems of another order. It is axiomatic that translators must translate into their mother tongue only, and while some exceptions to this rule do in fact exist, results are usually only marginal. But the number of native speakers of international languages who know a local language well enough to translate out of it is very limited, and such people are not usually prepared to do so as a career: they can as a general rule embrace a more highly and rapidly remunerative and visible profession, and are thus unmotivated to move into the translation arena, except perhaps on an occasional basis.

It is thus inevitable that translation out of local languages into "international" languages will, for the foreseeable future, have to lie with native speakers of the former working into the latter. The cost of this approach in terms of accuracy - and even of comprehensibility - is high indeed: every translator has his own collection of "gems" created in the international languages alone by people who "translate" from German into "French" or from French into "English" without really knowing the latter of the languages. (It must be added that these collections are often rivalled by collections of "gems" created by the professional translators themselves, who are by no means exempt from error.)

When however it becomes necessary to translate into one local language a text already translated out of another into an "international" language, the possibility of error and incomprehensibility rises to the level of probability, if not certainty. It is in fact highly doubtful whether (for example) a text translated, under the above conditions, from Tamil through English into Thai, or from Thai through English into Tamil, would on arrival in the final language be sufficiently valid as to be usable. Many experiments with successive translations by professional translators, working in "international" languages only, have illustrated the serious likelihood of error and loss, despite a wealth of experience and the availability of translators' tools unheard of as regards local languages.

Yet the concept of TCDC appears, for Asia, to assume just such linguistic transfers. In Latin America, where most developing countries share varieties of Spanish that are close enough to permit generally satisfactory communication, the problem is not urgent. Nor, for the time being at least, is it urgent in Africa and the Near East, where Arabic, English and French among them still carry the burden reasonably well, although growing trends toward linguistic nationalism may well, within the next 20 years or so, render the problem more acute in this part of the world as well. In Asia, however, the problem has almost incalculable dimensions, which appear to have escaped the attention of all the theorists of TCDC.

The carrier language

Indeed, little attention seems to have been paid to how, from the communications point of view, TCDC can be made to work in Asia at all. If English (or another international language) is to be the unique "carrier" language, then all communications among the countries involved will have to take place at the level of foreign-trained specialists, who are not only an extreme minority of the population, but who also constitute an elite whose availability for the TCDC exercise will be limited, to say the least. A multilateral, high-level TCDC is by no means to be excluded, but the value of TCDC, like that of technical cooperation in general, will obviously be greatest at the low-to-intermediate operating levels, where linguistic versatility will be most uncommon.

One first tentative - and substantively limited - attempt has been made to envisage the linguistic problems of the transfer of written information among the countries of Asia and the Pacific: an Expert Group Meeting on the Translation of Population Material (Bangkok, 8-12 December 1975), organized by ESCAP. As its title indicates, the meeting was concerned exclusively with the translation of population material, but there is every reason to believe that most of the information it received, and most of the conclusions it reached, are of far more general applicability. The meeting was attended by population experts from nine ESCAP member countries, seven UN bodies and specialized agencies (including FAO), and several NGOS. Typically, only one language expert - a translator on the ESCAP staff - attended.

The meeting had before it an "overview," prepared by the ESCAP Secretariat, of language barriers and translation needs in the ESCAP region, based on a 1974 ESCAP survey of the needs of 165 government agencies, 430 research and teaching institutions, and 57 NGOS "active or interested in population" in 34 countries.

A strong demand for the local language translation of population materials (and, by extrapolation, training material in other fields) was thus clearly shown to exist.

The countries from which most population materials were desired are those which were believed, rightly or wrongly, to be most active and/or successful in the population field. In general, too, countries appeared to be most desirous of having information from countries of similar geographic or sociocultural backgrounds. It is reasonable to assume (pending the needed in-depth studies) that what applies to population activities is equally - or even more - applicable to agriculture. Obviously, geographical situations will assume greater, and sociocultural situations less, weight, but the demand for information is high, and it may be expected to grow.

The question then becomes: what can the UN system, and FAO in particular, do to meet this urgent and growing need? The answer, it appears to me, is that every UN agency should do what it can to foster, in its particular field, the professional training of translators equipped to work from their own local languages directly into other local languages, eliminating to the greatest extent possible the need to pass through an "international" language. It is recognized that the necessary bilingual dictionaries in local languages do not yet exist (although the literature for some combinations, such as Urdu/Hindi, is far from negligible), and that technical terminologies in these languages are bound to present a permanent problem that can be solved only through the use and abuse of Anglicisms until the body of technical literature in the local languages has grown considerably. Yet direct communication among countries is a basic requisite for meaningful TCDC, and since the technicians cannot, for obvious reasons, be expected to have the needed linguistic skills, their need for linguistic support from trained professional translators can only become increasingly acute.

The problem of quality control

The forms that such action would have to take may be varied. No major school for translators exists in the region, except in Japan (where work is concentrated on "international" languages and those of Japan's neighbours) and China (where training in little-known languages and dialects is known to exist, but apparently for Chinese-speaking students only). A regional training school for translators and interpreters would appear at first view to be the most desirable solution, but the variety of languages into and from which translation is required would appear to make this approach unrealistic, except with regard to training in translation techniques, given - for practical reasons only - in an "international" language. Specialization in particular languages and in particular fields would still, however, have to be obtained at the local level, perhaps on an
"exchange fellowship" basis.

A thought-provoking paper, submitted to the 1975 Bangkok meeting, proposes a solution to the problem of translation quality control which may indicate one way of fostering the needed training. Under this system, in use by the National Translation Institute of Science and Technology (NATIST) of Japan, a text in the source language (SL) is given to a professional translator who puts it into the target language (TL); the translation is then revised by a technician whose mother tongue is the TL but who has a fair command of SL (or vice versa); it then goes to a rewriter or reviser whose mother tongue is the TL and who revises for style and readability. As a further check, the revised draft may be reviewed once more by a speaker of the SL, any problems then being ironed out in consultation with the rewriter. Theoretically, the original translator should be a native speaker of the TL, but where none is available, and he is a native speaker of the SL, then the second-stage technician should be a speaker of the TL. Thus, if a translation is desired from Hindi to Tagalog, the translator is a Filipino who knows Hindi, the technical reviser an Indian who knows Tagalog, and the rewriter/reviser is a Filipino. Alternatively, the translator may be an Indian who knows Tagalog, but then the technical reviser should be a Filipino who knows Hindi.

To tailor each course

The difficulty with this theoretical construct is, of course, that the number of professional Tagalog translators who know Hindi may be taken as equal to the number of Indian technicians who know Tagalog, i.e., approximately zero. The NATIST approach, if valid at all, can be valid only for such a country as Japan. On the other hand, however, it is designed in particular to deal with translations of a highly sophisticated nature, involving technologies of such a complex kind that it is doubtful whether users of them, in general, cannot be satisfied with texts in "international" languages. Such a technology is demography, for which terminologies have been evolving rapidly over the past few years, but in an anarchic manner, so that it is rare for two demographers to agree on any but the most basic terminology. The same need not however be true of most agricultural sciences, particularly at operating levels. Here, terminologies are well developed and reasonably stable. Field applications need not create major difficulties, provided that reasonable levels of linguistic skill and translinguistic technique have been attained.

Under these circumstances, it should not be difficult for a selected university in each language area to establish and run a training course for translators, the students to be carefully selected from among those who have demonstrated language skills and good motivations. Trainees should then be sent, under exchange arrangements, to equivalent courses given in their selected target-language areas, where they would obtain thorough on-the-job training by collaborating in a team setup analogous to that adopted by NATIST. It goes without saying that all work - except at the most theoretic levels - should be carried on in the target language itself, to enable the trainee to acquire a thorough working knowledge of that language. Such programmes could be included as components of national agricultural development projects executed by FAO

As a parallel activity, the universities should also organize, perhaps with international financing, crash courses for the training in local languages of national experts assisting other countries of the region under TCDC. It may be found necessary to tailor each such course according to the vocabulary needs of individual experts, but it should be possible to establish a general syllabus, which can be adapted as required to each special case. By and large, experts can be expected to pick up fairly rapidly, in the field, the technical vocabularies they need, provided that they have a broad general base in the local language itself.

Their own terminology

Maintaining motivations would of course be essential. It has been repeatedly, and justifiably, pointed out that training is not useful if the trainee is not thereafter put to work and kept at work in the field in which he has been trained. He would therefore have to have a reasonable assurance of continued, remunerative employment when his training has been completed. This is, quite obviously, a problem for individual governments interested in TCDC. They should be in a position to establish, perhaps within their national research institutions, translators' and experts' pools, endowed with suitable language libraries, and to keep their translators and experts fully occupied with TCDC work alone. A number of them can be expected eventually to move into the private sector, or into free-lancing, but these too will be needed as direct exchanges among developing countries continue to expand.

Just as already occurs with translation among the "international" languages, and within the translation services of the international organizations, translators will eventually come to specialize in particular aspects of their trade. Such specializations will often be a reflection of the translator's background, or of his major fields of interest. At other times, they will result from the fact that a given translator, having made a good translation on a given topic, will be given more work to do on the same topic. In time, such specialized translators will accumulate as all professionals do their own card catalogues of terminology. The international organizations should then be prepared to assist in publishing these terminologies, no matter how fragmentary they may be, as useful guides to future work.

In my view, such translation training and promotion programmes should be planned and executed by language personnel, preferably among those whose formation also includes a planning or training component. Until the present, language staff, in the international organizations in particular, have played only a passive role in development, as intermediaries between those for whom they are a communications tool of the same nature as a telephone. As language becomes a development priority of TCDC, linguists must be prepared to come out of their libraries and into the open air and to take their place in the line of operations.