I am writing to express my delight at last week’s meeting in Nairobi during the cocktail for Nairobi based translators. It was an eye opener in as far as we were reminded that translation isn’t only about translating the foremost world languages as we have all tended to believe.

Early last year, I accompanied a group of rice farmers and extension officers from Madagascar. We visited rice farmers in Central Kenya and as the exchanges proceeded, I noticed that our Kenyan farmers were handicapped by Swahili. This was compounded all the more so since the Malagasy side were using their local language that would then be translated into French and I would pick it from there to interpret into Swahili. Being a Kikuyu myself, I formulated a request (in Kikuyu) to the Kenyan group to speak in Kikuyu. All of a sudden, the flood gates opened and exchanges continued for longer than expected.

Most of the questions asked by the Kikuyu farmers would never,  in my view, have come out due to language barriers. I was very happy and proud at the turn of events and you can be sure that I became an instant hero to them.

I was filled with a lot of empathy for the group and realized that most of what we want to communicate never gets to be communicated precisely for reasons such as the fact that we tend to lump people together without taking into account their different language needs and the extent to which they may not understand the major languages that we use. Our African rural populations look  up to us to be their window to the external world, to communicate to them any news of information coming from outside our borders, but in a language they can understand.

When I was small, my late grandmother would sit me down and dictate a letter to me in Kikuyu what she wanted to tell my uncles and aunts. I write and read Kikuyu and she had never gone to school. So she would dictate and I would draft the letter, such is how our communities can be.

Language is oneself, and denying someone the right to express themselves in the language they understand better is denying them their human rights. That said,we cannot impose on everybody to learn a different or foreign language, and that is where we translators and interpreters become messengers.

I do interpretation and translations in English/French/English. I feel privileged and lucky to have transited from a rural upbringing in Kenya into university education in France  and in England. I spent 7 years in France and 11/2 years in Brighton. I run a small translation and interpretation consultancy here in Nairobi but I also work with other interpreters and translators.

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