Lost in Translation? Climate Experts Aim to Break Language Barrier

Climate change communication often excludes people who don’t speak English, but things are now improving in India and Bangladesh.

Indian researcher Sabir Ahamed took a linguist’s help to translate the term “just transition” into Bengali for his new study on the impact of coal mine closures on local people, as countries start to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Ahamed settled on the somewhat poetic “kalo theke aalo”, which literally means “from darkness to hope”, after consulting the language expert for a phrase his target audience of coal communities in India’s state of West Bengal would understand.

“It’s catchy. It is not a direct translation but people do associate ‘kalo’ with coal so it gives an immediate context,” said Ahamed, 45, who explained that there is no equivalent of just transition or even climate change in the Bengali language.

“Besides, I wanted to show there is hope, that there is a way out (of coal),” added Ahamed, who is based in Kolkata in eastern India and works with Pratichi India Trust, a research and advocacy group.

The concept of just transition is complex, even in English.

The U.N.’s International Labour Organization (ILO) defines it as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind”.

Ahamed’s research is among just a handful of efforts to make jargon-heavy climate change and energy transition dialogue – so far restricted to English-speaking think tanks and experts in India – accessible to people who will be impacted the most.

“What is the purpose of doing research if we cannot communicate the findings or the analysis to the communities or stakeholders?” Ahamed added. “I research for action.”

India is the world’s second-largest coal producer and at least 13 million people in the nation depend on the industry for a living, said a 2021 report by the National Foundation for India, a philanthropic organisation focused on social justice.

Many are at risk of losing jobs and incomes as India builds its renewable energy capacity, just transition experts warn.

However, communication about the country’s future move away from fossil fuels – and what this might entail – has yet to reach the people whose lives will be most affected, analysts and activists warned.

“The dialogue around just transition is limited to echo chambers,” said Mayank Aggarwal, who heads the just transition vertical for Indian consulting firm Climate Trends.

Aggarwal has this year launched a podcast on just transition in Hindi and used social media platform X – formerly known as Twitter – to host debates about it in the language, which is widely spoken and understood in India’s mining areas, he said.

“We want to reach out to people who actually matter, who don’t know what just transition is. We want them to understand the issue and be an important stakeholder in the discussion.”

The problem is far from unique to South Asia – even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has tried to make its global findings easier to understand in recent years after criticism from scientists about jargon being a barrier.

Mind the gap

In recent months, think tanks have enlisted comics, poets and musicians to better communicate climate change threats to the public, with a broader aim of making the issue more accessible and widely understood as many people remain unaware.

Apart from spreading the knowledge more widely that extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and cyclones are fuelled by climate change, using local languages will also encourage people to demand political action, campaigners said.

While general community outreach by climate and energy NGOs and researchers in India and neighbouring Bangladesh – where most people speak Bengali – is done in local languages, efforts are now being made to break down and translate technical terms.

In Bangladesh – which is considered one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations – activist group YouthNet for Climate Justice has started posting Bengali commentary on social media about the reports of the IPCC, for example.

The activists, who have in the past campaigned for the cancellation of upcoming coal-based power plants in coastal areas, now want community radio stations to discuss climate and energy issues in local dialects of Bengali.

“Climate-related information hardly ever seeps into the community and we are working to bring it close to the people,” said Sohanur Rahman, executive coordinator of YouthNet.

In a bid to reach more people in India’s coal regions, the Just Transition Research Centre (JTRC) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, rolled out four fellowships last year – with one in Hindi, one in Bengali and two in English.

Researcher Ahamed was awarded one of the fellowships – which aimed to assess the impact of mine closures on coal communities.

The next leg of the programme will focus on renewable energy – and with new projects coming up in India’s western and southern states, fellowships will be offered in languages spoken in those regions – Gujarati and Tamil – “to strengthen impact and reach” of research studies, the organisers said.

“Just transition is a complicated process, and it is important that coal communities understand its dynamics,” said Pradip Swarnakar, an academic who heads the JTRC.

During recent visits to coal hubs in India, Context found jobs for local communities are shrinking as mines use outsourced workers – and that with no other skills, many people are resorting to illegally scavenging coal to eke out a living.

“Officials are discussing India’s net-zero targets but there is no awareness about this among people, so they don’t even demand skills for a future beyond coal,” said Pinaki Roy, who teaches children in the coal hub of Jharia in eastern India.

Literally speaking

Climate change and just transition can often feel like distant and irrelevant problems to communities in India and Bangladesh because they are mainly presented and discussed in English, said activists who work with such people on the ground.

And literal translations of terms from English to local languages fail to convey the threat or persuade people to care and engage, according to climate experts and researchers.

Ismet Jarin of the Bangladesh-based NGO Awaj Foundation, which supports garment workers, said the country’s fashion industry was becoming greener and more sustainable, but stressed that workers who have long been calling for better wages and conditions are unaware of how this shift would impact them.

“It is important that they can see the connection between climate and their rights, and we are working to convey the message to them in a language they understand,” she said.

“We try to use examples that workers can relate to – of seasons changing, disasters and climate hazards becoming more frequent, how the fashion industry is adapting and how workers will cope as the world adjusts to these changes,” Jarin added.

It’s an aim shared by the Indian researcher Ahamed.

“The world is moving away from coal but there is no information about it at the ground level,” he said.

“I want to reach out to (local communities) by writing in Bengali, and motivate others to do the same.”

By Roli Srivastava in Mumbai and Md. Tahmid Zami in Dhaka; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling.