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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Page 8 of 35 FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016 The Linguist 9 traditionally have been marginalised, such as women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and latterly PLWHAs, may be undermined or rejected on this basis. Their arguments and demands will have an audience among the advocacy groups, who will often have been their source in the first place, and among the vital overseas donors and aid agencies whose funds often underwrite their struggle for justice. But, for many, the fight at home, where the actual discrimination and stigmatisation happens, is conducted on very different terms. This 'otherness' appears to demarcate the human rights discourse as the preserve of, in the words of Nigerian human rights lawyer Chidi Odinkalu, the "inward-looking professionals or careerists" at the heart of the project, and this at a time when the Kenyan government and other actors are talking about the promulgation of human rights norms at grassroots level. One support officer for members of a PLWHA network was unsurprised by the fact that most of his clients considered their spouses or families to be the primary duty-bearers in the provision of their health needs, as per traditional custom. "Human rights are not like the Bible," whose teachings most Kenyans absorb from infancy, he said. So to expect them, reflexively, to invoke the former, more nascent moral framework and its concepts of rights-holders and duty-bearers, to imagine that they will automatically proclaim a right to health, inherently theirs by virtue of their humanness, and that they would further cite the state as owing them such a right, is highly unrealistic. Yet, to pursue the support officer's religious analogy, the High Priests appear reluctant to acknowledge that the congregation is packed with non-believers. And as long as the liturgy is largely delivered in English, its teachings will continue to alienate and divide. Power dynamics For the researcher there are interesting issues to contend with: on an epistemological level, the act of asking laypeople questions about human rights is already liable to the charge that such queries manoeuvre them into a social context dominated by the rights discourse and its proponents, in which they are led to confirm their familiarity with – and knowledge of – rights. The interviewer-interviewee dynamic, already defined by considerable power asymmetries, broadens this disparity by conjuring up a world made of words in which governments and overseas actors might be 'compelled', even 'forced', to act to secure PLWHAs' healthcare needs. I might ask respondents whether they endorse the existence of such a world, thus leaving them open to reject it, as some did. When I asked one Kiswahili-speaker if the government should be 'compelled' to provide her treatments, she replied: "If they wanted to get involved they could do it – nothing is beyond their abilities… [but] they should be approached and spoken to gently!" Even so, by my words I had brought this different world into being. In a political culture where a venal state, often acting with impunity, is the reality, alternative narratives, even when they are suggested in the apparently simple translation of common words ('should' to 'compel' to 'force') is a potent act: translation of words to translation of ideas. And if questioning interviewees about 'human rights' is asking them to validate the broader project, doing so in English is, arguably, asking them to validate something further: for the language is a symbol of many things in contemporary Kenya, not least the triumph of a Western education, that emblem of modernity, and one's ability to negotiate passage through our increasingly globalised existence. It is arguably an identity marker of membership to a wider, more inclusive national public, which endorses the conventional state-citizen dynamic envisaged by the human rights paradigm, with the state as the main, if not the sole, locus of power. Paradoxically, this public endorses this central relationship, even as it uses the terms and norms of the human rights project to challenge the power of the state. But in postcolonial Kenya, any endorsement of the state, any signal of allegiance to it, conscious or otherwise, necessarily challenges the concurrent competing claims of the exclusive, primordial ethnic public as the principal locus of (legitimate, authentic) power. For this public, as indeed the national public, the choice of language by which to ask and answer questions, to promulgate ideas, to conjure up worlds, can never be just an issue of practicality; it is an issue of power. The phrase has no direct translation in Kikuyu nor, indeed, in most of Kenya's native languages FEATURES CULTURAL HEALTH Women who care for their grandchildren with HIV (below); and Maasai in Kenya (right)

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