Translating Climate Change into Marshallese

by Phoebe Shum

How do you effectively communicate the impending threat of climate change to those who don’t even understand the concept due to lexical gaps? Peter Rudiak-Gould, currently an assistant Anthropology professor at University of Toronto, explains how much meaning is lost through translation between scholars to citizens, English to other languages, and even citizens to scholars when discussing climate change issues (2012). Rudiak-Gould spent almost two years in the Republic of the Marshall Islands researching local opinions on climate change. The Marshall Islands is especially endangered by rising sea levels, and information about the dangers have been relayed through various forms of media and government organizations, informing them that the 60,000 citizens will probably need to relocate in 80 years. However, since the word for ‘climate’ in Marshallese also refers to the environment and universe, citizens attribute climate change as a result of anything from solar eclipses to accelerating time. This has resulted in the Marshallese blaming everything on this omnipotent concept of climate change whenever something out of the ordinary happens.

Linguistic translation involves more than simply substituting phrases word for word, as different languages each have their own idiosyncrasies that reflect culture. For example, there are eleven Marshallese words for the stages of coconut growth, a word to describe the smell of an exposed reef (ebbwilwodwod), and a verb that describes the action of choking on a fishbone (pal). Translators must choose between what translation theorists call fidelity (faithful, literal translations that are less accessible to the general audience but more accurately convey information) and transparency (vernacular translations that sometimes misconstrue meaning) when conveying information about the time-sensitive issue of climate change. Usually, the more easily understandable a translation is, the less faithful that translation is to the original text.

While meanings lost in translation may be misleading and dangerous, Rudiak-Gould argues that we should treat these misinterpretations as reinterpretations, ones that are capable of providing new opportunities. The Marshallese conflate climate and nature as one concept, which is actually a valid and more holistic outlook capable of inspiring new scientific thought stemmed from a humanistic point of view. Without these mistranslations, the climate change discussion would lie dormant and repetitive.


Rudiak-Gould P., 2012. Promiscuous corroboration and climate change translation: A case study from the Marshall Islands, Global Environmental Change, 46-54.




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