The Linguist

The Linguist 55,1

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES Rebecca Maina considers the promotion of human rights in Kenya, where the concept itself is considered foreign A few years ago, while I was conducting research about how people living with HIV/Aids (PLWHAs) in Kenya conceptualised and articulated their healthcare entitlements and rights, I had the task of devising a set of questions in Kenya's two official languages: English and Kiswahili (which is also the national language). It was a practical decision to maximise my interviewing opportunities. The first task, of course, was translating the key phrase 'human rights'. Straightforward enough: haki za binadamu. Everybody knows that, I thought. And I proceeded to translate other stock vocabulary from the human rights lexicon: 'duty', 'obligation', and everyday words such as 'should'. This done, the interviews commenced and a couple of peculiar things began to happen. Seemingly innocuous terms morphed: depending on the interviewees' understanding of the question, 'should' turned into 'compel', 'duty' into 'job'. A simpler approximation in Kiswahili had to be hastily scrambled. Then there were the respondents who, having expressed a preference for an interview in Kiswahili, the tongue in which they were more fluent, would suddenly, effortlessly break into English to utter the phrase 'human rights'. "May I ask what you understand by the words 'human rights'?" I asked one participant in Kiswahili. "Unamaanisha 'human rights'?" ("You mean 'human rights'?") she replied in Kiswahili but for the crucial phrase. "I know that 'human rights' is the right of human beings," another interviewee answered (rather tautologously) in Kiswahili, happy to use the words haki ('right') and binadamu ('human beings') when spoken separately but resorting to English when they occurred in the magical sequence 'human rights'. Serious consequences For many Kenyans, the 'carrier' language by which human rights – the phrase as well as the concept – has often been transmitted and popularised is English, and this may have implications for the success of human rights projects as a whole; and consequences, too, for the human rights researcher. English is the language you will primarily hear spoken in the offices, conference halls and plenary sessions in which human rights proponents and activists congregate. But 'human rights in English' arguably entrenches a perception of the 'foreignness' – for some, 'illegitimacy' – of human rights as an alternative, competing moral frame of reference. Its values then seem 'inauthentic' to African culture; other. To invoke a moral framework perceived as having dubious, if any, legitimacy, however popular it may be in certain rarefied circles, will not win you battles when you are trying to have a real, positive effect on people's lives. The most impassioned arguments will founder on a wall of incredulity, as I have learnt to my cost. When my mother and I have engaged in a debate about some hallowed custom of our Kikuyu ethnic group, I have foolishly sought to defend my position by calling upon some human right. She has always, triumphantly, been able to stop the discussion in its tracks with the words: "You and your 'human rights'!" She, like my interviewees, utters this magic phrase in English and every other word in our native Kikuyu. In fact, the phrase has no direct translation in Kikuyu nor, indeed, in most of Kenya's native languages and dialects. Her point is clear, her choice deliberate: 'your' (other) 'human rights' (other). Claims of rights and entitlements couched in the normative framework of human rights and articulated in its vocabulary, especially when they come from groups which By any other name

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