Peer educator Susan Mwangi explains the finer points of reproductive health, Kenya, April 26, 2011.
Peer educator Susan Mwangi explains the finer points of reproductive health, Kenya, April 26, 2011.

The U.S.-based group Translators Without Borders was in Kenya?s capital recently to train new translators on how to put health information into Ki?Swahili and other local languages.  The training raised an interesting dilemma: what if the word in English is too scandalous for local sensitivities?

Healthcare information

Muthoni Gichohi is passionate about ensuring that all Kenyans get the healthcare information they need in a language that they can understand.

Gichohi is a manager at the advocacy and research group Family Health Options Kenya, which facilitated the Translators Without Borders training.  She also heads several international health information organizations.

She says she has no problem expressing anatomical terms in English. But, when it comes to her mother tongue, it is a different situation.

?I am a Kikuyu," said Gichohi. "There are some words that I cannot really talk to the public, because they may be provocative, so I have got to really put it in another way that it is still delivering the same message, but the words will be different.?

Acceptable language

The same problem arises for Kenya?s national language, Ki?Swahili. Translator and course instructor Paul Warambo explains.

?Sometimes you are also forced to use euphemisms - use a language that is more acceptable to the people," he said. "For example, in Swahili, we will not call a body part - the vagina, for example - we will not call it by its name. We use ?kitu chake? - her thing.  You do not just mention it by the name, you say, ?her thing,? so that if somebody wants to know her thing, in a medical environment and a context we will not ask you questions because we will understand what it means.?

The use of euphemisms highlights a big issue in translation: the culture of the community in which something is being translated will largely determine how words and expressions from the source language - in this case, English - will appear in that community?s language.

In some cases, the way the culture conceptualizes a particular activity or object becomes the actual translation for that activity or object.

Translator Warambo explains the common translation of ?sexual intercourse? from English into Ki?Swahili.

?We always say, in Ki?Swahili, ?kutenda kitendo kibaya? - to do something bad," said Warambo. "So, imagine sex was associated with something bad, emanating from the African cultural context.?

Both Warambo and Gichohi say that the culturally-appropriate use of language is key to whether or not a community will accept - or even listen to - the message being conveyed.

This is especially crucial in the health-care field.  A phrase translated into language unacceptable to, or not understood by, the community could, in a worst-case scenario, cause a patient?s death.


Lori Thicke co-founded Translators Without Borders in 1993. She says, in general, a lot of development organizations have tended to overlook the importance of language in health care behavior change.

?It is true that people do not think of translation," said Thicke. "It is absolutely not on the radar, but it is so critical if you think about it, for people to get information, whether it is how to take their medication, whether it is where to find supplies in a crisis situation.?

But it is not just the use of culturally-appropriate translation that will make a difference.

Family Health Options Kenya?s Gichohi and her team recently opened a health information center in a Maasai community. During the process, she came to learn that young Maasai cannot say certain things in the presence of Maasai elders. Also, it is usually men who address public gatherings, so the message might not be accepted from a woman.

?I would wish that the government would really encourage the citizens to learn about each others? cultures because I have realized that there is a lot of richness in culture," said Gichohi. "Culture is not only even language - it is also the way we put clothes, the way we talk, and because I am saying, even for translation, the tone you are going to put will also make that somebody realize this person is for me, or not for me.?

Communication that goes far beyond words.