‘These are all outside words’: translating development discourse in NGOs’ projects Kyrgyzstan and Malawi

Wine Tesseur, Angela Crack

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This article discusses the challenges encountered by NGO staff when translating the discourse of international development into the local languages of low-income countries as part of their efforts to communicate with the communities with which they work and to deliver successful projects. Development discourse is characterised by the use of vague and complex English buzzwords, which are not directly translatable into other languages and carry culturally specific connotations. This issue has rarely been problematized in Development Studies or in Translation Studies.

We address this gap by drawing on data from 69 semi-structured interviews with staff from international and Southern NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and Malawi. Participants were asked to explain how they translated development discourse when designing, delivering or evaluating development projects and to describe the linguistic and cultural challenges they encountered when doing so. They were also asked to evaluate the impact of translation and interpreting issues on project outcomes.

Our findings indicate that poor translation of buzzwords can seriously compromise the ability of communities to understand the purpose of projects and to participate in them in a meaningful way. The findings also underline the value of using local interpreters to build understanding and trust between NGOs and communities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-42
JournalJournal for Translation Studies in Africa
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2020


  • RCUK
  • AHRC
  • AH/M006808/1


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