Spotlight on translations: Getting the language right (Trust)

June 19, 2017
Une traduction pour cet article est disponible en Français

When farmers in northern Burkina Faso speak about the direction of the wind, they refer to the direction it is blowing in. The Burkinabé meteorological agency, however, classifies wind by the direction it comes from.

This means that, when state forecasters warn of a strong west wind, farmers find that an east wind comes gusting along, flattening their faith in forecasts.

But a new guide aims to solve this problem and help farmers build better resilience to climate change. The guide translates the French and English words commonly used in weather forecasts into northern Burkina Faso’s local languages—and into its culture.

For example, the guide translates the French and English word “eclipse”—the total or partial disappearance of the sun or moon—into the much more colourful term Burkinabé farmers use for the phenomenon.

Malick Victor is a journalist from Chad who is leading the development of the translation guide. He explains, “If on local radio I want to announce an eclipse, I need to say that tomorrow, according to the meteorological forecast, the cat will catch the moon or the sun.”

He adds, “Right now, the language used [by forecasters] is so technical, and not designed for the farmer. But if we give it to the farmer in a way they can understand, they can use it.”

The guide is a dictionary of more than 500 French and English meteorological terms with equivalent translations in Moore, Fulfulde, and Gulimancema, northern Burkina Faso’s three most-spoken languages.

To resolve any translation problems, Mr. Victor brought together farmers, journalists from local radio stations, community leaders, and officials from the meteorological agency. Over two days, they discussed the 517 key terms that needed better translation.

For example, farmers in Burkina Faso have little use for terms like “winter” and “summer,” instead dividing the year into periods with different rainfall and winds, such as the hot Saharan Harmattan wind season or the monsoon period.

Broadcasting expected high temperatures also doesn’t make much sense to farmers in remote rural areas without temperature gauges.

Mr. Victor says that, instead, “If you can say whether it’s a day you can go outside with your animals or not, that can help.”

He’s hoping the guide can address the misunderstandings that occur when meteorologists accuse journalists of misinterpreting weather information, and journalists accuse meteorologists of being inaccurate. In the end, farmers are not sure they can trust the information they receive.

Edmund Henley from the UK’s Meteorological Office provided technical assistance. He says this is not the first effort to translate complicated terms into other languages, but it is the first to try to put those terms into language that is understandable to people. Mr. Henley explains, “They had to think, “What are we trying to get across?’”

The project is now considering mobile phone abbreviations for key terms, which will make weather information more widely understandable via text message.

This story is based on an article from Thomson Reuters Foundation titled, “When the cat catches the sun: Translated forecasts aim to aid Africa’s farmers.” To read the full story, go to: and