Monday, July 21, 2008

The Translators

I forgot my list of interview questions at home. I was at one of the Child Learning Centers run by my organization, located in a neighborhood called Krok Krak Nai. I wanted to interview some teachers for a report I'm writing about the child centers.

It turned out that I didn't need my list of questions. The interviews ended up being one big exercise in how to lose everything in translation.

The original plan was to conduct structured interviews with each teacher, and turn the data into a well-researched document about how the child center intervention model is being used to achieve the project objectives.

I love how grad school brainwashes you into thinking that systematic, analytical approaches to problem solving work.

I interviewed Yi first, a Burmese woman who taught high school before coming to Thailand. I was accompanied by a small team of interpreters. Oay translated my English into Thai, and then a ten-year-old Burmese kid tried to translate her Thai into Burmese.

My first question was very simple: In your opinion, what are the objectives of the child center?

I knew we weren’t going to get very far. When I was ten, I don’t think I knew the word “objective.” Oay and the kid discussed it for awhile, then he translated it into Burmese. There was only confusion on the other side.

I tried again, trying to use simpler language. What are the problems that the child center tries to help with?

The question was passed down the line like a bucket of water down a row of firefighters, a little bit of meaning sloshing out with each new person handling it.

A light bulb seemed to go off on Yi’s side, and she sent her reply back down the line.

“She says…” Oay began. “Sometimes kids fight, and the teachers try to talk to them, teach them not to fight, or they talk to the parents to try to help the problem.

“I think maybe she didn’t understand the question,” Oay added.

No kidding. Our Thai-to-Burmese interpreter is a 10-year-old.

Oay picked up her phone. “I call someone else to come translate.” A grown-up, I hope.

While we waited, I tried to ask the question again, simplifying even more. How does the child center help the kids?

“We teach the kids how to brush their teeth, how to eat, to clean themselves,” came the answer.

A little closer, but not quite the big picture response I was looking for. To provide free day care services and teach basic language and life skills to children of Burmese migrant workers in the Krok Krak Nai community. That sort of thing.

Man, three days into this project and I could already invent objectives without interviewing the teachers, and be right. But that wouldn’t be a systematic or scientific approach, would it?

The new interpreter, a grownup, arrived and the poor kid was excused. We fared a little better, but the question about objectives just wasn’t surviving the gauntlet of translation.

It made me think of some of my professors who go into complex emergency situations in Africa or Eastern Europe and do rapid assessments. They interview people who not only speak a different language, but people who in many cases have just run for their lives, are sick and hungry, and have lost homes, livelihoods and family members.

And I was sitting barefoot on the floor of an air-conditioned office, ants zipping circles around me, feeling extremely awkward and reflecting on the absurdity of my situation, which was not so bad compared to what it could have been.

Again I'm struck by how silly it is that my organization agreed to take on an intern who doesn’t speak Thai. I’m sure they know something I don’t. They have a steady stream of foreign interns who don’t speak Thai. There must be a secret to this somewhere.

I’ve discovered the ancient Thai secret to eating – buy more than one meal. I see people at the market carrying at least five bags stuffed full of food. It’s possible that they’re feeding their whole family, but still, there’s no way that people can survive on the tiny portions that they serve here. I think most people snack throughout the day, but my variation is just to eat two servings at every meal.

There’s a reason my tribal name in Kenya meant “the girl who is always hungry.” Gobble gobble.

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