Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Mali May I

There are many subtle ways in which translation influences power[i], some of which are quite obvious while others may be less apparent.  In the following examples, I describe how translation technology claiming to facilitate communication,  is sustaining a power imbalance. 

In December 2011, Al Jazeera English launched an SMS polling initiative with Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing platform, designed to give a voice to the people of Somali and share a picture of how current violence is impacting everyday lives.[1]  A call for translators in the diaspora, particularly Somali student groups, was issued online, and phones were distributed on the ground throughout Somalia so multiple users could participate.  These volunteers translated the SMSs and categorized the content as either political, social, or economic.  The results were color-coded and aggregated on a map.  The stated goal of the project was to give a voice to the Somalia people, but the Somalis who participated had no say in how their voices were categorized or depicted on the map. The SMS poll asked an open question:

How has the Somalia conflict affected your life?

It was the translators’ choices and the format of the visualization tool communicating we were seeing.  In one response example:

The Bosaso Market fire has affected me. It happened on Saturday.[3]

The response was categorized as ‘social.’ Why didn’t the fact that violence happened in a market, an economic center, denote ‘economic’ categorization?  There was no guidance for maintaining consistency among the translators, nor any indication of how the information would be used later.  It was these categories chosen by the translators, represented as bright colorful circles on the map, which were speaking to the world, not the Somalis. Their voices had been lost through a crowdsourcing application which was designed with a language barrier. They could not suggest another category that better suited the intentions of their responses. The danger is that these categories become the framework for aid donations and policy endeavors; the application frames the discussion rather than the words of the Somalis. The simplistic categories become the point of departure for aid agencies and policy-makers to understand and become involved with translated material.

An 8 December 2011 comment on the Ushahidi blog described in compelling terms how language and control over information flow impact the power balance during a conflict:

A----, My friend received the message from you on his phone. The question says “tell us how is conflict affecting your life” and “include your name of location”. You did not tell him that his name will be told to the world. People in Somalia understand that sms is between just two people. Many people do not even understand the internet. The warlords have money and many contacts. They understand the internet. They will look at this and they will look at who is complaining. Can you protect them? I think this project is not for the people of Somalia. It is for the media like Al Jazeera and Ushahidi. You are not from here. You are not helping. It is better that you stay out. [4]

Ushahidi director Patrick Meier, responded to the comment:

Patrick: Dear A----, I completely share your concern and already mentioned this exact issue to Al Jazeera a few hours ago. I’m sure they’ll fix the issue as soon as they get my message. Note that the question that was sent out does *not* request people to share their names, only the name of their general location. Al Jazeera is careful to map the general location and *not* the exact location. Finally, Al Jazeera has full editorial control over this project, not Ushahidi. [4]

As of 14 January 2012, there were still names featured on the Al Jazeera English website.

A new project Mali Speaks is underway asking,

Do you think France should have intervened in northern Mali? And why? Thanks for responding with your city and first name. [5]

The Al Jazeera website reports that the responses, translated into English and grouped into five pro-intervention categories based on tone, are overwhelmingly favourable (96%) to the French military intervention. The categories are: stability, security, necessity, gratitude and anti-terrorism.  Just 4% of responses were anti-intervention. [5]

The gratitude category is particularly tricky.  Are translators picking up on notes of gratitude to the forum, Al Jazeera, the possibility of a Western audience, or something genuinely related to the situation?  In my experience as a translator, respondents are polite and positive in countries with little chance of free expression.  Their responses should be measured against the context.  Previous Al Jazeera projects similar to this one have encountered problems in which the respondents were concerned about retaliation for their comments, so perhaps the high positive response is related to perceived power relations on the ground.  

Here are two examples pulled from the website which illustrate the misleading nature of the visualization and problematic translation/categorization method. 

Evidently France had to intervene in the north of Mali since the Islamists were progressing so rapidly and our soldiers lacked the means and often the motivation—whereas the enemy is supported by invisible hands. [5]

This was categorized as ‘anti-terrorism’ demonstrating an (un)conscious equivalency between Islamists and terrorists. 

The Malian army doesn’t have enough force to confront the groups here. [5]

Categorized as a security issue, this statement is substantively similar to the first, except for the mention of Islamists.  Has the evidence for the two categories been exaggerated or skewed?

While Al Jazeera is a news organization not a research institute, it plays an important role in informing electorates who can put political pressure governments involved in the conflict such as France and the U.S..  Furthermore, this same type of technology is being used on the ground to gather information in crisis situations at the governmental and UN levels.[6]  Decisions and policies developed from the translated information are less connected to ‘real voices’ than decision-makers at the final end of the information chain believe.  Negotiating the language/power dynamic so that Malians are directing the information flow about the future of their country should be the goal rather than perpetual simplification into the client/victim that is waiting to be given a voice.[7]


[1] Al Jazeera English. Somalia Speaks. 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html (Accessed January 2012).

[2] Al Jazeera English. 2012. Somalia Speaks: screenshot 14 January 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html  (Accessed January 2012).

[3] Anonymous. 2011. Reports: 26721350 December 6, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html (Accessed January 2012).

[4] Meier P. 2011. Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map: #SomaliaSpeaks – The Ushahidi Blog. http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2011/12/08/somalia-speaks/ (Accessed January 2012).

[5] Al Jazeera English. Mali Speaks (Accessed 24 January 2013).  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2013/01/201312113451635182.html

[6] The Standby Task Force Admin. 2011. Libya Crisis Map Deployment 2011 Report: 1 September 2011. http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/libya-crisis-map-report/ (Accessed October 2011).

[7] Mavhunga, C., mavhunga@mit.edu, 2012. Article on likely intervention in Mali: Reply. (email) message to: H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU listeserv‏. 18 December 2012.


[i] See work on traducture of Sideni Group and Wangui Wa Goro (online) http://wiki.ikmemergent.net/files/1202-THE_FINAL_REPORT_DOC_sub.pdf
[ii] Some elements of this piece appear in a version of the article: Sutherlin, G. forthcoming. A voice in the crowd: broader implications for translation crowdsourcing during crisis. Journal of Information Science.

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