Dispatch from the Field: Working with Interpreters to Survey Clients in Zambia

> Posted by Eleanor Coates
In her second post, Eleanor Coates talks about the linguistic and cultural challenges she faces as a FINCA client survey researcher.
While English is Zambia’s national language, most people speak one of the seventy-two tribal languages. We arrived in Lusaka believing that we would be able to communicate with clients, if not easily, at least a little. That has not been the case. We have hired three full-time translators and they have become as useful as we are in the field, getting four or five interviews each in a day, easily slipping between English, Nyanja and Bemba (one of them even speaks Tonga). Nyanja and Bemba are the most prevalent languages we have come across, and while a couple of us excel at picking up words in Nyanja, I have hardly made it past the greetings.
My interpreter, Chissanga, has taught me some signs of respect (clapping together cupped hands, one over the other, and grasping your own arm which shaking someone’s hand) so that I do not appear too rude to the more traditional clients. Chissanga explained that because English has no formal form of address, the language, and the Western manners that accompany it, can be perceived as disrespectful. I have been scolded more than once for not speaking a Zambian language, not being able to eat nchima properly, not wearing a chitenge around my pants when I walk into a village bank meeting. Zambians are proud of their country, their languages and their culture, and our interpreters have helped us to bridge gaps we sometimes do not even realize exist. Their help has made this experience far richer, and the extra cultural understanding has given more depth to the survey of clients and their lives.