I’m in a big room at the plush Himalaya Hotel in Kathmandu. A book about Nepal’s earthquake is being launched, I’m surrounded by well dressed people and I feel out of place.
At the back of the room is a round table where a Nepali man in a white shirt sits alone. He doesn’t look like he fits in either, so I join him. “I’m the interpreter,” he says and I make a note to talk to him later.
On the 25th of April 2015 Nepal was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Over 8,000 people were killed and over half a million made homeless. People in the mountainous Gorkha region, the epicentre, were the most badly hit: landslides swept away whole villages, houses collapsed, roads and water supplies were cut off and buildings were compromised. They are still in the process of recovery and some of the people in this room are here to help with the rebuilding process.
I want to find out more about these relief efforts, I want to visit the affected villages, meet the people and tell their stories. But it’s difficult as the relief workers use so many acronyms and technical terms that it’s hard to follow what they say — and asking makes one feel like an idiot (which isn’t a problem for me as I’ve felt like an idiot all my life).
Now the author of the book being launched is talking. He says his objectives are…I missed it, even though I’m sitting right next to the interpreter. I can’t follow him. Then he mentions his conclusions and I grasp a point that I do understand; the aim of the book is to help the victims. Good for him.
The name of the book is rather long winded: The Gorkha Earthquake 2015: A Photographic Atlas.
Now he’s showing lots of photos — before and after the earthquake — shots of sad looking people, mountainous landscapes and piles of rubble.. The book includes facts, figures, graphs and maps. It sounds more like a reference book than an atlas.
Hang on, isn’t an atlas a book of maps? This is an example of a well known word (atlas) being used for something else. The NGOs, donors and government people seem to do this a lot in Nepal and I don’t think it helps explain to us simple outsiders what’s going on.
Another example of this comes from the short documentary that is now showing: those involved in helping the earthquake victims are called “actors”. I thought an actor was someone on the stage or screen?
The documentary also has a long-winded title — NDRC Documentary ‘Together We Stand’ — but please don’t ask me what NDRC stands for as I have no idea. The opening shot is compelling, a rumble of thunder and a building coming down in central Kathmandu, but then sentimental music starts and a boring voiceover takes over. I switch off.
Fortunately the film is short, but we’re not allowed to go yet — a whole series of people have to give talks. I start to lose the will to live, but I want to talk to the interpreter and so I stay put.
The event was organised by an outfit called VSO. This was one of the few acronyms that I actually know — it’s a British organisation called Voluntary Service Overseas and I remember it from my university days. They would organise your gap year, your 10 months of voluntary work in Africa or the subcontinent. I knew two English teachers in Lhasa who had been sent by VSO to teach English at Tibet University.
The VSO speaker is a Nepali and his job title is Project Coordination Specialist. He is fluent in acronyms and the language of aid work. He talks about “knowledge management”…“district focused activities”…and a “policy sharing platform” Nobody asks what any of this means.
I take a note of the various acronyms mentioned, each one of which is an organisation involved in earthquake relief: NDRCS, AIN, DLSA, NEOC, MoFALD, MoHA and the NRA. The only acronym I recognise is the NRA but this is not the NRA that we know from the USA, the National Rifle Association, this is a department of the Nepali Government called the National Reconstruction Authority — and I know about them as my brother (who works for another acronym in Nepal, DFID) works with them.
The “under secretary” from the NRA makes an interesting comment. He says there is “coordination overload” and asks who will “coordinate the coordinators?” Needless to say, nobody picks up this critical point and I get the feeling that maybe these people feel comfortable in their little world or acronyms and techie terms — maybe they don’t feel the need to communicate with the public and the press. After all, it would just lead to awkward questions.
After the event I chat with the interpreter, who you can see in the photo above. He was an English teacher in all the private English schools in Kathmandu and recently become a translator. He spent months learning all the acronyms. His name is Anim Dahal.
He is critical of the way that kids speak Nepali as they mix it up with English words and, in doing so, degrade their own language. I saw the same process at work in Romania.
Anim really comes to life when talking about his passion: organic gardening. He has a small plot on the north side of Kathmandu and he invited me to come and visit, to sample the fruit and veg he grows without chemical fertilisers. I’m impressed that he has another source of income, another source of life, outside the cloistered world of international aid and diplomacy.
I’ve always been interested in translators. I’ve always admired their ability to master two languages and to think so quickly when doing simultaneous interpretation. And I’ve never liked the way that we tend to take them for granted, shown by the fact that they are usually underpaid.
I didn’t get any complaints like this from my new friend, but these are my impressions from Eastern Europe: translators are highly talented but they have low status and many people don’t seem to respect their skills. I thought maybe it’s not like this in Nepal, but when I showed this article to Anim he said the status of translators here is “pitiful.” Maybe it’s like this everywhere?