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March 29, 2019

The Challenge of Language

March 29, 2019 | By | No Comments

When I decided to use my CHI Fellowship to chronicle and disseminate the stories of individual migrants, my greatest question was the problem of language. My wider research focuses on the experience of migrants and the wider significance of migrants in southern Senegambia, but through a combination of oral history interviews, archival sources, and published sources. The oral history interviews in large part structure my project, but ultimately the analysis and larger conclusions are my own.

Focusing on the stories of individual migrants is an incredible opportunity but features questions of translation. How to best represent interviews done in a mish-mash of languages. Most of my interviews (and all of the ones highlighted in my CHI project) center around the West African language Pulaar (also known as Fulfulde in the eastern part of West Africa). However, many of my interviews feature words and phrases in French, Portuguese, and English as well.

What is the best way to represent the words of my interviewers? A direct transcription of their words would allow those in southern Senegambia to read and analyze these interviews, but Pulaar is (for most of its speakers) not a written language. Traditionally, Pulaar was written in ajami (Arabic script), but very few today learn to write Pulaar using Arabic characters. Today, Pulaar is primarily written using the Latin/Roman alphabet. However, there is no standardized spelling in Pulaar, and words appear radically different in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea, due to the legacy of European colonialism. The word for thank you is spelled jarama (Gambia), diorama (Senegal/Guinea), and djaarama (Guinea-Bissau). Even names are spelled different. One common Pulaar last name is spelled Diallo (Senegal/Guinea), Jallow (Gambia), or Djaló (Guinea-Bissau). Additionally, there are many dialects of Pulaar in West Africa, and I did interviews with speakers of at least three different dialects.

If one is to translate these interviews, there is of course the issue of access. The official language of Senegal and Guinea is French, in Gambia it is English, and in Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese. I am very comfortable translating Pulaar to English (which I do often in my dissertation, somewhat comfortable with French (which I did often as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal), and not particularly comfortable translating Pulaar to Portuguese (which I have little experience with). In the rural areas of West Africa where I conducted my research, the penetration of official languages is often limited, with obviously greater access by those who have studied in government-run schools. Most of those I interviewed did not attend such schools, although some of them still speak English, French, or Portuguese well. For the first phase of this project, I am translating the segments of these interviews into English, since I am an academic based in the U.S. and plan on using these stories in my own teaching. However, I would like to eventually make them available in other languages, particularly Pulaar, French, and Portuguese. This will take more time, and will not take place during the period of the CHI Fellowship, but I believe it is an important step in democratizing digital knowledge, which typically neglects the importance of African languages in favor of European languages.

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