Lost in Translation


My Swahili is kidogo sana. My Swahili teacher in 2005, Edith, was entertaining with her tales of Kenyan life, but less of a grammar and vocab disciplinarian. I have all the essentials – I can say please, thank you, can I have a beer, can I have some water, no I don’t love you, sorry to hear your sad story – but I can’t explain how we’re making a docu-drama using real people. For that reason we have our current interpreter Ansity. Ansity is getting better and more confident the more she practices and the more people we meet with. One particular busy day of meeting women we also enlisted the help of Charles as so many people wanted us to hear their story.

So far this has gone quite well. We’ve filmed the bits where I explain the important ethics bit – they don’t have to meet with us, they don’t have to be involved in the film, if they want to be involved note that it is a film about HIV/AIDS so their involvement may lead to stigma, and if they are involved they can drop out at any part of the filming – this is to ensure I am doing everything right in accordance with academic standards and that the women are in no way misled. We haven’t filmed the parts where they tell their stories. This is because we need to be as respectful of their identities as possible, and also practically we have met 78 women in four days – 78 women! That would be a lot of footage for an editor or ethics committee to trawl through.

Translation did pose a slight problem at one point this week. We were conducting screen tests and visiting the home of one woman who could potentially be our lead. At the end of some test shots we again explained the proposition. This woman could be the perfect lead for one slight limitation: she has many hardships in her life, however she is not HIV positive. This is not an insurmountable difficulty, but I thought given she may be playing someone HIV positive it would be important to remind her of this and the potential stigma and misperception it may entail in her community. Once I said this – through our interpreter Ansity – she paused and looked uneasy. Ansity asked her something else, and she looked even more uneasy. She said maybe, it is not impossible, but was unsure. I asked Ansity to not ask her again but to say she should think about this, not give us a definitive answer now, but that we completely understood if this was a problem for her. We agreed that we should not put pressure on her and leave it be. She then asked if she definitely had to be HIV positive. It then dawned on us that she thought we were potentially asking her to become HIV positive for the film. Horrified at this potential misinterpretation we overly reassured her that this was definitely not the case. We all had a big laugh of relief and shock at the potential implications of such a misinterpretation. What we found most distressing was that her financial constraints led her to weigh up her options as to whether it was worth becoming HIV positive.

Photo – Ansity, Leanne and me with women from Bagamoyo – Tanzanian women usually don’t smile in photos, they were smiling before. Promise.


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