Lost in translation: Using indigenous languages to improve access to rights in Peru

Research Grant (Standard) project title:
Translated cultures and the legislated mediation of indigenous rights in Peru
PI: Rosleen Howard

In 2011, the Peruvian government passed two important pieces of legislation: The Law on the Right to Prior Consultation and the Law of Language Rights. Both laws signalled a significant change of policy with regards to the rights of the indigenous populations of the Andean and Amazonian region, significant both on a national level and an international level.

The Law on the Right to Prior Consultation gives indigenous peoples the right to be consulted on matters regarding the industrial development of their land, particularly where the extraction of natural resources is at stake.

However, because Peru is a multilingual country - while Spanish is the main language, there are numerous other Amerindian languages in usage as well - there was the issue of communication across language and cultural boundaries.

Hence, the Law of Language Rights, which states that indigenous peoples have a right to acquire Spanish as a working language. But that they also have a right to have their own language recognised and accommodated in formal settings such as hospitals, law courts and shops.

Both laws are breaking new ground in the region. But how effective are they proving?

This project aimed to discover how the principle of language rights, as stipulated by the law, was working on the ground.

Rosaleen Howard, director of the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Newcastle University, and one of the three project members, says: “The overall aim was to explore the ways in which the Peruvian state is implementing the new legislation.

“The indigenous people often feel that their cultures and languages have no importance and that their children shouldn’t speak their languages any more, but should speak Spanish.”

In order to fulfill the new language law obligations, the state had to provide translators and interpreters to mediate the consultations and transmit the message of the law.

This has meant training up indigenous peoples to be translators and interpreters. Howard and her colleagues (one from the UK and one from Peru) spent a lot of time working with trainers, interpreters, translators and associated bodies, discovering how the legislation was being enacted.

What they found was quite an impressive programme. Training had got underway in 2012 and by the time the project had ended in June 2016, 250 indigenous people had already been trained as interpreters.

But Howard and her colleagues did more than just observing - they also provided lots of guidance and support to those developing and delivering the training.

“We worked alongside the people in Peru who are developing the training courses, both in order for us to benefit from learning what they are doing and also to benefit them with our expertise. We talked to trainees, held focus groups and workshops to focus on certain topics. We gave a lot of suggestions and guidance.”

For example, one of Howard’s colleagues, a specialist in community interpreting, gave guidance on international protocols of interpreting and neutrality. “The interpreters can’t take sides - they must be neutral,” explains Howard.

“They must reproduce the words that they hear in the other language, which can be difficult, because they are interpreting for members of the community that they are trying to support.”

In addition, the team looked at other issues, such as how interpreters were being recruited, what status they were accorded and how they got paid.

The team worked with the Department of Indigenous Languages and Department of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, within Peru’s Ministry of Culture, establishing what they were doing, giving advice and guidance and helping validate the interpreting and translating policies. 

They also worked with a local NGO that focused on helping women in rural areas. This led to some really interesting developments, in particular hearing about women who have been assisting in interpreting the testimonies of women who were victims of forced sterilization.

“In those hearings, it became apparent that it was a big difficulty for the women to tell their stories and so they wanted to hire some interpreters,” says Howard. “They are now training some women. This has come about as a result of the project that we had with the NGO.” 

Howard and her colleagues also spent time looking at how translation services were performing. They examined written translations of the law and went through them with some of the translators, line-by-line, talking about how they translated the legal language, about concepts of rights and law.

Peru doesn’t really have a translation policy at the moment, something Howard believes makes her work was even more important.

“They found it very useful to have our wider perspective, the fact that we were putting a spotlight on what they were doing and highlighting what could be done better,” she says.

During the project, the team also went to Bolivia and Ecuador to raise awareness.

“There is scope for knowledge transfer of the experiences of translator and interpreter training for speakers of indigenous languages across to neighbouring countries,” she says.

Intended outcomes and impact

  • Raised awareness of international interpreting and translation protocols and procedures
  • Issued guidance and specialist support to those developing and delivering training and revised the  Peruvian Ministry of Culture’s draft of the Protocol for Indigenous Translators and Interpreters in Public Services
  • Raised awareness of the value and importance of interpreters and translators in Peru. One major impact was the training up of female interpreters to represent the views and experiences of women who had been forcibly sterilised
  • Visited Ecuador and Bolivia to talk about the developments in Peru and to raise awareness of language rights
  • Produced a report that Ministry of Culture officials could use to validate their approach to legislation and language policies.