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The Challenges of Watchdogs, the Problems Surrounding Them, and the Outcomes:

This blog discusses the difficulties of translators (activists, volunteers, NGO participants, officers, community leaders, etc.) through their encounters with vulnerable communities or inflicted persons violated of their human rights and their donors or the heads of states. Translators translate transnational ideas to local settings. They are tasked with explaining democracy and human rights from the international definition to an indigenized definition in which villagers or locals may understand and see meaning in those concepts. (Merry, 2006: 38)

Translators found it necessary for “vernacularization” and indigenization. (Merry 2006: 39) Vernacularization allows local institutions and meanings to adapt to a transnational idea. Indigenization is to create a new perspective of the transnational idea so that villagers/locals could understand it through their existing “cultural norms, values, and practices.” (Merry, 2006: 39)

There are two forms of vernacularization: replication and hybridization. Replication is when “the transnational idea remains the same, but local cultural understandings shape the way the work is carried out.” (Merry, 2006: 44) Hybridization is when the transnational idea and institutions merges with local ideas and institutions. (Merry, 2006: 44)

Translators in Hong Kong were able to implement the Western institution of processing battered women. This was an example of replication. Hong Kong opened some centers for battered women and avoided a “Western” -something approach. It was important to indigenize these centers so as to be understood. Hong Kong promoted transplanting North American programs into the Hong Kong context, but adapting it to Chinese culture. (Merry, 2006: 45) This allowed Hong Kong men’s explanations to be understood through their values of “yi” (rightness) and “face.” The problem was not traditional beliefs, but the rigidity with which these men held them. The center taught them the value of greater flexibility in beliefs. This would prevent further violence against women. It became a program of with local cultural context with Western imported structure, aims, and methods. (Merry, 2006: 45)

Another example of replication was a case in Hawaii. A pastor’s approach on domestic violence was anger management programs. He blended “the discursive fields of global Pentecostalism, the transnational indigenous rights movement, and feminist understandings of domestic violence.” Yet he retained the Western structure. (Merry, 2006: 46) Both were focused on local culture as well as transnational practices. (Merry, 2006: 46).

An example of hybridization is the nari adalats (women’s courts) in India. (Merry, 2006: 46) Their goal was to promote women’s human rights. Their approach was to have women activists translate women’s human rights to low-caste women that were poor and illiterate. Violence against women became a huge concern. Their programs put a “strong emphasis on women’s rights and refers to international conventions and treaties; nevertheless, Indian sources of rights concepts are more important.” (Merry, 2006: 47) The women’s courts used their own methods rather than adopting Western methods as they had no legal authority so instead they would pressure and shame to settle marital disputes or other legal disputes. The nari adalats still worked within a familiar political structure to handle cases. The caste-system was explicit in their handlings of cases. They were more successful with lower-caste families than higher-caste families. They were somewhat successful in using “their local knowledge to reshape and reinterpret community idioms, phrases, and beliefs to create and persuade the community to adopt new perspectives.” (Merry, 2006: 47) They were slowly developing a counter-culture “resisting violence in terms of the intrinsic rights of women.” (Merry, 2006: 47) This example shows how international concepts and Indian concepts became blended in these programs with Indian concepts having first priority.

Translators in Malawi had difficulty with creating meaning to democracy with the villagers in communities in Malawi. Again, translators faced problems with the head of states as they were instructed to stay apolitical in their stance to teaching democracy. There could be no meaningful dialogue. This proved to be a main reason as to why many villagers could not relate or find meaning in democracy. When democracy was questioned or criticized by villagers, translators could not discuss further and were constrained by the abstract definition of democracy to stay as apolitical as possible. They ignored the villagers’ own experiences and understandings and devalued and erased them from the public domain. (Englund 2006: 112) They maintained that the source of and the solution to poverty could be found within the community and was no fault of their authorities. (Englund 2006: 102) This was not helpful for villagers. Additionally, there were power inequalities throughout the process of aiding villages of great poverty. To the translators (officers and volunteers in this case) and to the authorities and heads of state, illiterate villagers were assumed to be ignorant. The attitudes by the translators and authorities were patronizing and assumed illiterate villagers were incapable of thinking for themselves. “This was a self-serving assumption of inferiority that obliges others to lead the chronically misguided subjects.” (Englund 2006: 120) They were seen by Malawian elites, in terms of power relations, as far below their own power status. There were power inequalities throughout the process of aiding village communities. Furthermore, the term community was abstracted and this contributed to the lack of participation by the villagers.

Translators face a dilemma in regards to their intermediary position. “The hold power by virtue of their ability to look both ways and work with conflicting value systems, yet they are vulnerable because the power delegated by higher authorities demands concessions resisted by villagers while the villagers make demands unacceptable.” (Merry 2006: 42) This creates problems as translators’ loyalties become ambiguous.

Translation takes place within fields of unequal power. (Merry, 2006: 40) They can exploit those under them, but then are also easily exploitable from authorities above them. Manipulation was run both ways. (Merry, 2006: 42) These are some of the problems with translators and explains as to why they are unsuccessful at times.

Amanda Massoumi, Camilla Kaae, and Ingibjörg Arnadottir


Englund, Harri. 2006. “Watchdogs unleashed? Encountering ‘the grassroots’” in H.Englund, Prisoners of Freedom. Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley, Los Angeles. University of California Press. Pp. 99-122

Merry, S. E. 2006 “Transnational Human Rights and local Activism: Mapping the middle” American Anthropologist 108(1) pp: 38-51

1 comment to The Challenges of Watchdogs, the Problems Surrounding Them, and the Outcomes:

  • jacobra

    Thank you. Fine reading across the two texts.
    As you argue translation and tranlators make it posible to ridge the divide betwen Western/foreign ideas and local cultures thus paving the way for a universal distribution of human rights.But what role do translation annd translators play in relation to holding perpetrators accountable and in relation to notions of justice?

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