Community-Sourced Translation Glossary for International Development Work

Project Details


The international development community has expressed a collective commitment to promote the participation of marginalised peoples in development initiatives, as illustrated by the pledge of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to 'leave no one behind'. In their publicity materials, NGOs usually claim to deliver development projects with close consultation of communities that receive their aid. However, the Listening Zones of NGOs (LZ) AHRC-funded research project found that NGO fieldworkers often do not speak the local language. Fieldworkers complained about lack of guidance on how to translate words accurately, and discuss taboo topics in a culturally appropriate way. They claimed that translation difficulties often lead to project failure. When asked what is needed to help improve the quality of communication, they appealed for a translation glossary specifically designed for development work. Commercial dictionaries are of little assistance because they often do not contain translations for complex development jargon. The LZ project concluded with a recommendation that glossaries should be developed and shared as a common resource. This proposal offers an innovative way to implement that recommendation, which embraces the ethos of grassroots participation.

The (FoF) project created a two-way Chichewa-English glossary for the use of stakeholders in the Malawi development sector, one of the poorest countries in the world and a LZ country case study. The key innovation of this project was that the glossary was generated using participatory methods in six workshops in Malawi of c.40 people total. Workshop participants represented potential users of the glossary, including local people, national/international NGOs and translators/interpreters. They have created translations for Chichewa terms that are crucial to local understandings of development, and translations for English terms that are commonly used in development work. The content of the glossary was determined by workshop participants, and informed by an online survey of potential users and content analysis of development policy documents. Communities had given feedback on the draft glossary before it was published on a specially created website. The project output that creates the most value for development stakeholders is an online training manual on the methods used to create the glossary for those interested in replicating the process in other languages. The manual is available in Chichewa, English, Spanish and Russian, in order to reach an international audience and the language groups of the participants of the LZ project. The website also includes training videos in these languages. A Facebook group has been created so that people who have used the glossary/manual can exchange knowledge and develop a community of practice. The outputs will be widely promoted to development actors who have an interest in ensuring that poor communication does not obstruct the achievement of the intended social and economic benefits of development work (e.g. international donors, third sector). They will be encouraged to use the resources and pursue similar initiatives, thus ensuring that the impact of the project is far-reaching and long-term.

At the end of the project, fieldworkers will have the practical tools that they have stated that they require to build better relationships with communities. Communities will be empowered to share ideas about development as relevant to their culture, which will strengthen their capacity to articulate their needs to NGOs and participate in decision-making about development initiatives. Moreover, the online resources will share knowledge that will build the language capacity of development stakeholders within and outside of Malawi. This will promote the longer-term sustainability of the project after the end of the funding period.

Layperson's description

Good communication is essential in international development work, but development practitioners report that they don't have the language support that they need to deliver aid successfully. This project co-produced a translation glossary of development terminology with local communities in Malawi, using a participatory method that can be copied by practitioners in other countries to create glossaries in their own language. It provides a low-cost and accessible way to improve communication between development stakeholders.

Key findings

Participatory translation can produce effective and empowering solutions to communication difficulties between development stakeholders.
Short titleCommunity-Sourced Translation Glossary
Effective start/end date30/07/2130/09/22


  • Arts & Humanities Research Council: £57,551.60

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


  • translation
  • interpretation
  • development aid
  • non-governmental organisations
  • Malawi
  • Chichewa