Tuesday, 4 October 2016


“Lost in translation” is not just a cute phrase; it sums up the very real challenges and pitfalls of rendering words and thoughts into another language from the original. This is of even greater concern when the subject deals with war and witnesses’ testimony, not to mention literature.

Archive Manager Claver Irakoze speaks at the workshop.
Addressing such issues, Ireland’s University College Cork (UCC) hosted a two-day workshop titled "Translation and Activism" in late September, which had the stated aim of “building a network around activist translation”.

The invited participants included educators, writers and leading figures in translation studies, while the main discussion focused on “translating memory” in the archiving of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Survivors as well as perpetrators of the massacres have been telling their stories to archivists since the Kigali Genocide Memorial was established by the Aegis Trust in 2004. Most speak in Kinyarwanda – Rwanda’s official language – and their words are subsequently translated into English and French. But do aspects of their stories get lost in translation?

“This conference, and my interest in activist translation more generally, arose from my research on Rwandan genocide testimonies which brought to the fore a paradox at the heart of the translation process,” says Dr. Caroline Williamson, a member of UCC’s Department of French who organized the meeting.

Dr. Caroline Williamson and Paul Rukesha
“On the one hand, this crucial activity can provide visibility and engagement to the otherwise obscured and disenfranchised. On the other hand, it is a process rife with potential pitfalls and dissatisfactions,” she added.

She told SWAN that in applying for the Irish Research Council funding that covered the workshop, she posed the following question: “When translating texts that could be perceived as (culturally or politically) controversial or unpalatable to a Western readership, how do translators balance the need to remain faithful to their source material while maintaining international interest or indeed commercial viability?”

The overall aim of the workshop, she continued, “was to bring together translation specialists as well as archivists, ethnographers, and journalists to discuss this question and establish the terms and parameters of a critical and overdue debate about the role of translation in political and social activism.”

Archivists Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha – representing the Aegis Trust, a UK-based organization that works to prevent genocide – travelled to Ireland from Rwanda to participate in the workshop and to discuss their experiences.

Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha present information
about the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.
As the Kigali Genocide Memorial housing the Archive receives more than 70,000 international visitors a year, it’s essential that these visitors are able to read and view testimony in languages other than the local Kinyarwanda, the archivists said.

“Translation is important because we bring to the audience everything that is related to the roots of the genocide, its consequences, and the resilience of the Rwandan people,” said Rukesha, who supervises translating, transcribing and subtitling at the Archive.

“The genocide is not a particularity of any people. It’s a human tragedy that concerns everyone,” he told SWAN.  “Most of the survivors speak in Kinyarwanda, and when you speak in your own language, you can express things that you can’t in an adopted language. That’s why accurate translation is so important.”

This view was supported when Rukesha and Irakoze screened a short film at the workshop, showing survivors speaking about family members who had been murdered and about the horrors they had witnessed in the 100 days of killings in 1994 that took the lives of more than 800,000 people.

The cover of Hatzfeld's book,
in English translation.
The film, with subtitles in English, brought the tragedy of the genocide to the seminar participants, many of whom were visibly moved. It also underscored Rwanda’s work to achieve healing in a place where “perpetrators and survivors share the same country”, as Archive manager Irakoze said.

In other discussions of Rwanda, doctoral candidate Maja Haals Londorf examined the work of translators in ethnographic fieldwork with children after the genocide, and lecturer Anneleen Spiessens of Ghent University (Belgium) discussed the “fiction of an ‘innocent’ translation” in the work of French writer Jean Hatzfeld.

Author of Une Saison de machetes (Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak), Hatzfeld interviewed ten men who participated in the killings, and he presented their “extraordinary” testimony in this book and other reports. But scholars say he gave too little attention to the role of the interpreter during the interviews, raising questions about what might have been said or not said in the original language.

Further exploring the role of translation (or a lack of it in this case), Professor Hilary Footitt of Reading University, England, focused on non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, who may not be doing enough to rectify the dearth of documents in local languages.

In Footitt’s paper “Translating Development”, she outlined the history of translation at the anti-poverty charitable organization, concluding that there is an “overwhelming Euro-centricity of language” in the international development field.

“NGOs always say that they listen to people … that they’re empowering people by listening to them,” Footitt told SWAN. “But it’s very difficult to hear people when you’re talking to them in your own language. There’s an Anglophone blindness in the development world.”

For more information on the Genocide Archive of Rwanda (in English), see: http://www.genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw/index.php

(Note: SWAN's editor attended the workshop, discussing literature in translation.)