Translation problems ahead of the International Year of Millets (IYOM2023)?

Diversity of millets. Clockwise from top left: Finger plant, grain; logo; foxtail grain, plant; pearl grain, plant; display; proso plant, grain.

On 3 March 2021, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution proposed by India and fifty-one other countries, with association of the FAO, declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYOM). The declaration calls attention to the diversity of millets (which include a number of distinct species), their adaptation to various growing conditions, and their importance in healthy diets.

However, of the versions of the name of the Year in the six UN official languages, only the English is in a plural form. The name in each of the other five – French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese – features either a singular rather than plural form of the word for “millet,” or a name of one specific type (species) of millet most familiar in their cultural-linguistic setting, or both.

The choice of the English plural “millets,” which certainly originates with India, is significant in being explicit about the plurality of this class of grains. It’s doubly significant in that its use, while not at all rare, is apparently still uncommon enough to get flagged by spell-checkers (the singular form “millet” is sometimes also used as an uncountable or “mass” noun). In any event, since India presumably brought the concept to the table first in English, the other five versions would be translations in which different choices were evidently made about the concept and the form of the key term.

So, do all six versions in fact say the same thing? Will this translation issue reduce the effectiveness of messaging about millets before the Year even begins?

This is an important set of questions because the choice of words we use to refer to things influences how we think about them – a proposition known as “linguistic relativity,” or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In a post on another site – “Sapir-Whorf in our millet? Vocabulary & food diversity” (LinkedIn, 2016) – I explored how our use in English of the singular form “millet” tends to amorphize a whole selection of distinct grains. Two remedies to that situation in English are, (1) to adopt unique names for each grain, and (2) to use the plural “millets” more deliberately when discussing them collectively.

The latter is relevant to consideration of appellations for IYOM in various other languages as well: Why not simply use the equivalent translation of “millets” in all languages where the word can form a plural? The use of a plural form, where the language supports it, sends a message that seems more consonant with the intent of the Year than use of a singular form – even if the latter might be intended as a “mass” noun.

However, the very diversity of millets adds a complicating factor to the question of translations: From one agro-climatic zone to another, the millet or subset of millets that is known and named may be quite different. Consequently, some cultures and languages don’t seem to have a generic concept of “millet” apart from their vocabulary for the millet(s) they know best. Far from being a flaw in the idea for a global consideration of the importance of all millets, this is rather a “multi-local” reality that requires attention in translation and creativity in messaging in those languages.

The reason for focus on how the key term in the title of the year – “millets” – is expressed in these major languages is that it will be what UN agencies and interest groups will use and repeat, and be what the public will hear and read. It will also be the model for translations into other languages. The name of IYOM therefore is the first opportunity to establish the terms and shape the discourse, and as such will be a key to the success of the whole endeavor.

In the five blog posts that follow this one, I’ll attempt to outline the issues I see with the name for IYOM in French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese, as well as in Hindi, an official language of India (which, as mentioned above, played a central role in proposing the Year). I’ll follow with a brief discussion of the uniquely “multi-local” aspect of the Year, then offer an overview of the translation issues before offering concluding thoughts.

List of the posts that follow in this “IYOM2023 & translation” series:

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2 thoughts on “Translation problems ahead of the International Year of Millets (IYOM2023)?”

  1. Excellent remarks Don. Linguistic relativity equally impacts the public perception of #sorghums. The reductionism that came with mass media and mass consumption cannot do justice to the enormous diversity available in many crop species – even in environments that may be considered less suited for their cultivation.

    See e.g. https://tinyurl.com/yv7p43bv

  2. Thank you, Sibiry. Intra-specific variation, such as you mention, plus the inter-species differences in the group of “millets” (however defined) make these grains very attractive in terms of adaptations and value, but also complicated for clear messaging to the general public.

    I recall learning some time ago of a set of FAO-sponsored “seed fairs” in northern Mali, where farmers exhibited their local varieties of pearl millet (petit mil). The variation was significant, and apparently some farmers rediscovered cultivars that they thought had been lost, but were still grown elsewhere. One fears that instability and climate change will make it increasingly difficult to maintain such important & useful intra-specific variety in situ. In any event, maybe there will be ways to adapt this kind of information about the adaptability of each millet for messaging.

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