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Environmental translation: why our words matter

By Eleri Luff

As translators, we know the importance of every word we write. We have a heightened awareness of nuance and implication – knowledge that is often invaluable to clients who are not native speakers. We know the impact the right wording and terminology has on the meaning of a sentence. And when it comes to the climate and environment, the significance of the words we use is paramount.

The issue of access

Anyone working in an international context, from sales execs to volunteer interpreters for Translators Without Borders, will agree that providing people with information in their native language is the most effective way of encouraging them to act. This applies whether the desired action is clicking on a promotional link or implementing life-saving sanitary measures. This is highly relevant in a climate context: a study published by the International Ecolinguistics Association looking at tackling climate challenges in Togo found that local people were receiving all of their environmental protection information in the official language of French, while the vast majority (over 85%) asserted that in practice, their understanding of French was limited1. This poses a major challenge from both an environmental and international development perspective – if instructions cannot be fully understood and implemented, this leaves local communities even more vulnerable to the threats of an increasingly volatile environment.

The issue of vocabulary

Some of us are fortunate enough to have huge amounts of information on the climate and environment available in our native language. And anyone that does will have borne witness to the rapid evolution of environmental terminology in recent years. As environmental issues have risen in prominence in the mainstream media, so have the number of related buzzwords. From carbon neutrality to climate anxiety to particulate pollution, our vocabulary in the area is speedily expanding.

But the use of this terminology has been as contested as the climate debate itself. The very power of language means we are highly susceptible to manipulation through its use. A study by Yale University back in 2014 looked at people’s responses to the more neutral term ‘climate change’ compared with the more weighted term ‘global warming’. The report showed that the use of ‘global warming’ was associated with a greater sense of threat, a greater sense of responsibility and more willingness to take action2. British daily newspaper The Guardian made official changes to its in-house style guide in 2019 to reflect the importance of vocabulary when reporting on environmental issues, favouring more assertive language over more nuanced wording. This included shifting to talking about ‘the climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’ and ‘climate science deniers’ instead of ‘climate sceptics’3.

What does it mean for us?

As translators, we are not authors – but we are nevertheless creators of content. We are making texts available to a new target audience, and in doing so, we play a significant role in how they are interpreted. In the same way that we can do our bit to tackle gender issues by using inclusive language in the texts we create, so we can contribute to the ongoing climate battle by being aware of how we talk about environmental topics. Just because a source text bandies around words like ‘durable’ and ‘écologique’, for example, doesn’t mean we can’t be more nuanced in the way we talk about sustainability and environmental impact.

Of course, there are practicalities to consider – as language professionals, we have a duty towards our clients and a duty towards the source text. But that doesn’t mean our hands are tied. The climate and environment are now such prevalent topics that they creep into all kinds of texts, even those that are not explicitly focussing on environmental issues. It may seem like a small thing, but every text we read – from a button on a website to the wording on an instruction manual – informs the way we view the world. So whether we work in a technical field or marketing, it’s worth reflecting on why and how we use the words we do. Especially when it comes to something as significant as the way we treat our planet.

Eleri Luff is a London-based freelance translator, editor and copywriter. She works from French and German into English and has an MA in Translation Studies from University College London (UCL).




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