In 2010 I visited Mozambique for the first time in 15 years.  I was on a monitoring visit and had also arranged to meet with possible new partners. Not speaking Portuguese, I found working Mozambique pretty tough.  I had a very different feeling to that which I have in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda where I feel that, by and large, I understand what is going on around me.  This is partly because I speak fluent Swahili and partly because I have visited so many many times I feel ‘at home’ rather than ‘at sea’.  I feel I can communicate and come close to understanding situations, problems and solutions.  I feel that in this space ideas and plans and even transformation are possible.

In Mozambique I felt different.  I felt isolated and I felt that my experience was almost entirely ‘translated’ for me by my very kind a courteous hosts.

Two things served to emphasis this.  On a visit to a market we had stopped to ‘take a soda’ when a well-dressed man approached us offering his business card.

Arnaldo Nyanala Director describes himself on his card as ‘Sworn Translator of Portuguese/English Vice-Verse.  My first investigative question to Arnaldo, ‘Do you speak English?’ was met with the interesting reply, ‘No, I only write!  No I only write!’

I particularly liked the more in depth explanation on the back of his card:

‘We do all document translations, simultaneous interpretations, touristy guides for Males, and Females during all hours in Mozambican territory, profissional work and confidential’

As this wasn’t enough to persuade me just how much language matters something much more important got lost in translation as I prepared to leave Mozambique.  Upstairs in the airport tapping away at my report on this very laptop I inquired of one of the airport staff whether it was time to board Kenya Airways, the reply, ‘not yet’, assured me that I still had time to waste – ten minutes later, to my dismay, after a tip-off from a member of the public I discover, aghast that my bags had been removed from the flight and it was about to take off without me, the ‘lost passenger’ who had checked in 2 hours previously but whom they had apparently been unable to find upstairs.  Many hours later, after a frosty standoff with a man from Kenya Airways who accused me of lying and falling asleep before eventually conceding some responsibility for the unfortunate mishap, I found myself once again by the ocean, eating seafood and reflecting that, sometimes life imposes a timely pause.

Pause and think about it.  How much is lost in translation? How sure are you that you know are communicating effectively with your partners?  How possible might it be to effect transformational change in an absence of shared understanding?  How much do language barriers impede your work?  Is there ways you could help salvage what might be lost in translation and improve the way you communicate with those with whom you work?

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