Monthly Archives: January 2015

Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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The secret language of Turkey’s LGBT community

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

Read this post from Dalia Mortada. Or listen to the podcast above.

Sevval Kilic is a couple of inches shy of six feet. Her hair, various shades of light brown, rests at the middle of her back, and her eyes, outlined by long lashes, look like perfectly drawn almonds.

She has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it’s infectious. She looks much younger than her 40 years, and she likes to reminisce about the good old days when she made good money.

“In my day,” she reminisces, “I was shopping. I was shopping as hell…my shoes, just my shoes…” she trails off, giggling. That was in the 1990s, when Sevval lived in a neighborhood notorious for its unregistered brothels. She was 19 when she moved in.

Today, the quiet lane in central Istanbul looks much like it did in the 90s. But the sounds that fill the street are completely different.

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

A lady washing her windows on the third floor takes a break to chat with a neighbor hollering hello from the street. It’s not, as it once was, packed with guys taking their pick of sexual adventures for the night. No catcalls descend from the windows like they did a couple of decades ago, like the kind of catcall Sevval used to attract clients: “Psh psh, psh psh — this is the way,” Sevval explains, “or sfoot sfoot.” Just a small, subtle sound to catch a guy’s attention.

In Turkey, prostitution is legal with a license, and state-run brothels have an intense registration process. But Sevval and her colleagues were not eligible: The state did not, and still does not, accept transitioning women or gay men. Sevval had not completed her transition to becoming a woman when she signed up for her brothel.

In fact, she arrived with just her boy clothes. One of the more experienced women took her under her wing. “She took care of me like real mom. She washed me, she fed me, she dressed me, she taught me everything about working, about secrecy,” she says. Secrecy included using a secret slang, or as linguists call it, an argot, called Lubunca.

Lubunca is how Sevval and her colleagues talked to each other about their work in front of clients or the cops. It uses Turkish sentences and grammar, but certain words are replaced. The words Sevval used were related to her work. There are terms for hair and make-up, sex positions and different types of clients. “Let’s say there’s a rich customer and the girl in the front apartment yells, ‘It’s a hundred dollar customer!’ That’s bir but baari, Sevval explains.

Bir is the Turkish word for “one” and but means thigh or rump, like a large cut of meat. Bari is like saying “at least.” These are all Turkish words, but the way they’re strung together means you wouldn’t understand unless you knew Lubunca.

Other words in the slang come from different languages. “Some of the core elements of Lubunca come from other minority languages that haven’t been spoken very much for quite some time,” Nicholas Kontovas explains. Kontovas is a socio-historical linguist who has studied the origins of Lubunca. He explains that most of the words come from Romani — the language of ethnic Roma, or gypsies, who live in Turkey. There are words from Greek, Kurdish and Bulgarian, too. Kontovas explains that people from these communities have, to a greater or lesser extent, been outcasts in Turkish society, so they tend to live in the same city neighborhoods. That’s how Lubunca picked up its foreign feel.

Kontovas says the words from Lubunca are intimately tied to these neighborhoods and to meeting spots within those neighborhoods. The Turkish word for an Ottoman style bathhouse, for example, is hamam. In Lubunca, it’s tato which comes from the Romani word for warm. “The fact that there’s a word for hamam is pretty telling, the queer slang varieties that were used beforehand, at least what is recorded, were predominantly used in hamams,” which is where male sex work took place during the Ottoman empire, Kontovas says.

Of course, Lubunca has evolved. The terms for sex organs and positions get pretty creative — and are not appropriate for publishing. Terms for flirting are pretty crafty, too. “Badem alikmak, which is also to eye up. Badem, meaning almond, obviously in reference to shape of the eye,” Kontovas describes. “There’s another thing that’s great which is badem sekeri, which is ‘almond candy,’ which is eye candy,” he adds.

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

It is quite similar to Polari — the British gay argot that made it into the mainstream in the 1960s, back when being gay was still criminal in the UK. An example of Polari would be: “Bona to vada your dolly old eek.” That means “Nice to see your pretty face.”

Eventually, after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the argot dropped out of fashion. Kontovas says, “The use of Polari started to decline so much so people had to go and record it and go into archives and look into recordings and ask older members of the community.”

As more people use Lubunca, it’s possible that it too could fade away like Polari, but that seems unlikely. Like Polari, Lubunca exists because it needs to: Not only is gay and trans sex work likely to stay illegal, but Lubunca’s use has grown in recent years. More members of the LGBT community — especially gay men — have adopted the argot. Sometimes they use it to show off — to declare they are part of the gay community while still keeping it a secret in public. And being trans or a sex worker can even be looked down upon within the LGBT community.

Turgay Bayindir, for example, came out as gay in college, but he knew nothing about the community. He heard his new friends using Lubunca for fun, but he did not get it. “At first I was uncomfortable, especially because it was associated with trans-women who are sex workers,” Turgay recalls, saying he considered it demeaning. But he got over his bias after he actually learned more about Lubunca and why certain people need to use it.

The word “lubunya” is how gay men and trans women often describe themselves — and it has crept into Turgay’s vocabulary. He says it might not be such a bad thing if the secret language becomes a little less secret. “I think in general exposure would be good and also it would make the lubunya community less scary to the public when they start learning about it,” he says.

Still, because certain words have become so mainstream, they are no longer used in the sex work community. Sevval, who left sex work to become an activist after her gender reassignment surgery, says she doesn’t recognize a lot of the words anymore. “Girls invented some new words — even I don’t understand them. In 2015, girls speak something else,” she says. “It evolves.”

Perhaps society will evolve too, so that Lubunca can be used for fun and not just because it is necessary.


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