IYOM2023 & translation: “Multi-local” millets go global

6th & final in series on translation & the International Year of Millets

Although the coming International Year of Millets (IYOM 2023) will primarily be about agronomy, food, and development, it also involves important issues of language, concepts, and communication. And since messaging for such a UN international observance goes out in multiple languages, translation will play a pivotal role.

A central premise of the discussion in this series of blog posts is that a singular form of of a word that can take a plural – in this case “millet” or its equivalent in other languages – will have many people thinking of one singular thing. That is the case even when what appears in singular form is intended in a collective or “mass noun” sense.1 And this perception is especially likely where there is not a wide familiarity with the topic.

Use of a plural form – in this case “millets” or its equivalent in other languages – makes it clear from the outset that a plurality of things is at issue. That is why this choice would seem important for the name of IYOM, in whatever language. After all, the name of the Year is effectively the “headline” on any publicity about it,

“Multi-Local” Year of Millets?

An additional realization from this investigation is that in many if not most languages, the vocabulary for what we take in English as a generic term (millet), tends to refer to one or several of the specific millets. This reflects the “multilocal” aspect of the International Year of Millets:

  • Although the subject of IYOM is an identifiable set of at least a dozen distinct species of cultivated millets, the subsets of those that are currently grown and consumed, and how they are used, varies significantly from region to region around the world (even in India, a veritable “crossroads” of millets, some species are not known).
  • The term or terms used in each language and culture to describe the subset that they know (perhaps as few as one), tends to be particular (and sometimes quite elaborate at the level of cultivars and uses), such that there may be no generic term for the totality of millets. This would seem to be the situation in most languages.
  • For languages like English, French, and Spanish with generic words for “millets,” these seem to have been specific terms that took on general meanings through the colonial era encounter with foods and crops of diverse regions. Even so, a generic term may become associated with a specific species, such as in US English, where “millet” (unmodified) is nowadays often used to market proso millet, or in French, where some sources suggest that mil (unmodified) means pearl millet (a major staple crop in West Africa and India). Per the discussion above, pluralizing the generic term is an easy way to get past this particular limitation.

This “multilocal” dimension of IYM2023 should not be misunderstood. Any international observance will differ in some degree in character and content around the world. The case of millets, however, is somewhat unique, in that the differences are inherent to the subject of the Year – a diverse group of grains, the global distribution of each of which is different and sometimes highly localized.

At the same time, the “multilocal” dimension is also a dynamic one, subject to change and exchange. For example, different types of millet can be and are being introduced as crops in areas that have not cultivated them before – something that climate change patterns may further encourage. Teff and proso, for example, are now being grown in drier parts of the US West where irrigation of thirstier traditional crops is no longer so practical.

Also, international trade in food products means that any healthy millet can be marketed, in one form or another, far from a region where it is produced in surplus. There are already many examples of this, although generally marginal in overall food sales and consumption).

For all of this, awareness of the plurality of millets, plus knowledge of specific grains among them seems essential. Their would be among the goals of messaging in , and the success of that, in turn depends to a large degree on the terms used across  languages.

Three millets: sorghum (sometimes called “great millet”) – finger millet – fonio (l. tor.)

Translation and IYOM2023

Translation involves several considerations beyond the word-for-word equivalence popularly associated with it, in order to achieve equivalence of meaning across linguistic and cultural differences.2

In the case of what we may take as the translation of the original “International Year of Millets” from English into the five other UN official languages, I am suggesting that achieving equivalence of meaning is running into problems on one or both of two main levels:

  1. The use of a singular form (presumably intended in a “mass noun” or collective sense) instead of an available plural form that more clearly communicates plurality (of course); and
  2. Reliance on a term that is primarily associated with one species of millet (as opposed to a more generic term that may not exist).

The first of these – use of the plural, as the word-for-word equivalent of “millets” – seems relatively straightforward in Spanish even if there might be concern about confusion with a homonym. Likewise it is not especially problematic in French, although the picture is somewhat complicated by there being effectively two generic terms to cover the range of millets (both of which can be and are used in plural).

The terms millet, mijo, mil & millet in these three UN official languages of West European origin (English, Spanish, and French) have taken on a generic sense, as discussed above, that makes it easy to discuss the use of their plurals.

The second level – which reflects the multi-local nature of millets – is more complicated. The chosen translation for “millet” in the other three official UN languages may actually be the word for the type of millet most familiar to their respective cultures and regions, and consequently perhaps not easily relatable to other millets. The Arabic, Russian, and Chinese terms for millet appear to be linked to pearl, proso, and foxtail, respectively.

How might this affect messaging about other millets or millets in general? Would it be helpful to develop new terms to better be able to discuss this group of grains, such as is being attempted in Hindi? Or will the meanings of these specific terms take on more generic sense (as seems to have happened with millet, mijo, mil, and millet in English, Spanish, and French)? Such questions are pertinent to translation of the name of IYOM into many languages.

Of these three non-West European UN official languages, Arabic and Russian may also be able to form plurals from their words for “millet” in the current translations of IYOM. Could use of their plurals help messaging, the particular meanings of their words for millet notwithstanding? (Chinese, as mentioned above, does not indicate plural in the same way.)

Conclusion

The upcoming International Year of Millets (IYM2023) will be the first opportunity to spotlight, on a global scale, the multi-local realities and worldwide possibilities of this important and diverse, but often underappreciated, group of small round grains – both as crops with various uses and advantageous adaptations, and as foods with favorable nutritional profiles.

And the name of the Year will be the first and most frequently heard reference in messaging, serving in effect as a “headline” to every story and every webpage on it.

So in this series of posts I have called attention to how the key term in the name of the Year – “millets” – is rendered in five UN official languages, plus Hindi. I have also discussed the alternatives and issues I see, as an interested observer, without expertise in these languages.

None of this is to suggest that any of the UN official translations of “millets” (assuming that the English version was the initial one) are incorrect. It does, however, stand out that the key term is plural in only one of the different language versions of the name.

Beyond consideration of specific translations and equivalence of meaning among them, there is the issue of how they will work in messaging about the plurality of millets. This might be considered as an overriding concern if it is possible to review and potentially revise UN official translations of the name “International Year of Millets.”

Notes:

  1. The word “furniture,” for example, is almost always used as an uncountable or mass noun. In singular form, it refers to a plurality of objects. The singular form “millet” can be used both as a singular, which is also used in the plural, and as a mass noun.
  2. My understanding of “translation” in this context is informed by my understanding of “localization,” for any readers involved in either area.

Posts in this “IYOM2023 & translation” series:

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