Glossary building improves the efficiency and confidence of RLP interpreters

Andre Habarugira

The first time I went to court in 2012 for Kinyarwanda interpretation, the challenges I faced marked a turning point for me in the implementation of glossary building. Glossary building is a term used to refer to the act of collecting difficult terms in their alphabetical order and find their explanations and meanings in other languages The legal officer with whom I went to court had explained to me that he would be on ‘watching brief’. That was also my first time to come across the legal term “counsel on watching brief.” 

While in court, I took oath and the court clerk handed me a charge sheet to sight-translate to the client. The latter was accused of being “rogue and vagabond.”  “How do you plead?” asked the magistrate, as I was interpreting into Kinyarwanda. After pleading not guilty, the accused was informed that he had the right to apply for bail. He was requested to produce substantive sureties, unfortunately he did not have any. When he also failed to prove that he had a fixed place of abode this prompted the magistrate to adjourn his case to a later date. 

I must admit that the thirty minutes I spent in court made me sweat! I struggled to find the direct equivalents of the words “rogue and vagabond, counsel on watching brief, how do you plead, substantive sureties, fixed place of abode” in Kinyarwanda, yet it is my native language. 

On another occasion, I was asked to do Kinyarwanda interpretation in a workshop organized by the Refugee Law Project. The same challenge re-occurred when I had to interpret the words “Access to Justice, Gender and Sexuality, Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing, Media for Social Change, Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance” which are the five thematic programmes of the Refugee Law Project. 

Later, during other interpretation sessions, I came across the words “gender, PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis), gender non-conforming, depression, stress, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), flashback, positive thinking, group therapy,” and other words like “affidavit, plea bargaining, output, outcome, affirmative action, screening” and the same challenge of finding direct equivalents into my native language re-surfaced. 


These interpretation challenges reminded me of what I had learnt back during my community interpreter training; that professional interpreters prepare for every assignment by learning specialized vocabulary and researching about the subject matter. I discussed the challenges with my teammates. We then embarked on a long and rigorous linguistic research that gave birth to the “RLP Community Interpretation Glossary Reference Manual” in December 2015. Keeping in mind that some concepts in English don’t have equivalents in other languages, we have so far managed, with the help of Refugee Law Project officers, to compile more than 1336 terms, expressions, acronyms and concepts that are difficult to interpret. We documented them, defined them and got their equivalents into Kinyarwanda, French, and Kiswahili languages. This linguistic activity was geared towards building our interpreting and translating capacity and was one step in a broader initiative to standardize and harmonize our interpretation and translation services. The ultimate goal was and still is to find equivalents for all those terms and others we may add on later into all Refugee Law Project community interpreters’ working languages. 

Glossary Building is a rewarding activity 

This manual has become a reference for all our Community Interpreters and has greatly mitigated the challenges they used to face when interpreting. Interpreters have got the basic terminologies, their meanings and equivalents in different languages, thus making their interpretation much better, more efficient, more consistent, and more confident. 

glossary building remains an intellectually stimulating exercise that gives one an exciting opportunity to learn new words, terms and expressions from languages. If for example the official language is English, always be keen to listen to English speakers and note down difficult terminologies they use and later endeavor to find their equivalents in native languages or vice versa. Every time you come across a new word or expression, add it to your glossary, document it and translate it. That’s how you will gain correct terminology and good knowledge of the subject matter you are interpreting, and will be able to interpret more efficiently and confidently. 

The author is the Ag Coordinator of the Assessment, Intake, Community Interpretation and Reception Unit of the Refugee Law Project, Kampala-Uganda, with over 7 years’ experience as a Community Interpreter.

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