Lost and Found in Translation by Julius Mugwagwa

Submitted by DPP on Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 14:29

My recent journeys to Burkina Faso have grossly exposed my inability to converse in the French language. I have not felt so incapable language-wise in the many times I have travelled; not even in the two weeks I spent in China at a Research Councils UK and Chinese Academy of Sciences Summer School in 2009, or in Havana, Cuba at the Global Forum for Health Research Conference at the end of 2009 – maybe largely because on these instances I was travelling with colleagues from DPP and/or INNOGEN, and we were participating in meetings where l’anglais langue (English language for those limited in le français langue!) was the main language of communication. Fast forward to Kpalime in Togo, 11 to 13 April 2012, and I found myself in a meeting where the language of exchange was French, with no translation services, except the occasional checking with colleagues from the NEPAD-African Biosafety Network of Expertise agency. The subject being discussed in the meeting was a technical one ... how to incorporate provisions of the Nagoya Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress into the Togo Biosafety Law. As times wore on, I was able to catch on with much of the discussion ...; I would safely put it at 10-15%! Not bad for a novice! But the other side to this story actually starts at the airport on arrival in Burkina Faso. On two occasions I have gone there without my yellow fever vaccination certificate ...having on the first occasion forgotten to pack it at home; then realising upon returning that I could not locate it, and without sufficient time to get a revaccination, used the same excuse of ‘I forgot it at home’ when I went to Ouagadougou second time. What I noticed on both occasions was how quickly the officers handling the vaccination requirement desk quickly waved me on; while at the same time I could see them engaging in lengthy discussions on the same issues with others who could speak French. I was not able to wait and find out what the final outcome of these conversations were, and whether they were allowed to clear immigration without the certificates. For me, it was certainly a case of the language barrier having found me right of passage yet again.  But I began to wonder about how many such laws were having their implementation hampered by language barriers ... which could be anything from an inadequate lingua franca to a practice held hostage by jargon!

Suffice to say, I have since got revaccinated ... in Burkina Faso, at a cost of US$26, compared to £55 that I had been quoted by a travel clinic in the UK!