Lost in translation: Part 2 Bridging the Khmer/English language gap

Lost in translation: Part 2 Bridging the Khmer/English language gap

Earlier this week, we explored why the language used in social work matters. We looked at all the reasons why we at CIF insist on Cambodian social workers for Cambodian clients. If CIF believes so passionately in doing Khmer language based work with our clients, what do we do about working with organisations and people who don’t speak Khmer?

This brings us to our next question which we want to explore today:

What do we do about the Khmer/English interface?

Of course, it’s not impossible for non-Khmer speakers to be involved in social work in Cambodia. In fact, social workers from around the world work alongside Cambodians every day, and social work as a discipline is in a constant state of development here. Which is great. There are more and more qualified Cambodian social workers. There is greater awareness of social work-related issues.

The hard part is that it means there are a lot of English speakers trying to understand (and fund) Cambodian social workers. And those people want reports in a language they can understand. And guess which language that is? Not Khmer!

Cambodian social workers face constant pressure to produce reports, notes and other documentation in English, so that English speaking donors and managers can read them. This demand pushes those workers to do more of their jobs in their second language. And all the downsides we just went over for foreigners speaking Khmer apply for Cambodians speaking English too!

Introducing other NGOs, RCIs and orphanages to OSCaR.
Introducing other NGOs, RCIs and orphanages to OSCaR.

Bilingual OSCaR

Different organisations manage this is different ways. One of the things we’ve done at CIF is put a greater onus on our foreign staff not just speaking Khmer, but also reading and writing it. We used to ask our social workers to write up reports in English. Our advisory staff could read those reports pretty easily, but the information in them was of a lower standard than we needed. And what’s the point of a report you can read that doesn’t tell you anything?

Now we take a different approach. All case management activities are carried out in Khmer, from speaking with clients, to conducting assessments, to writing notes, to filling in reports for management. But our case management system, OSCaR (which you can read more about over here if you want to) exists in both Khmer and English. That means that after our staff enter notes in the field marked កំណត់​ត្រា​ករណី our English speakers can press a button that translates that field into an English label that says “Case Notes”. They still have to read the actual note in Khmer of course. But bilingual labeling makes understanding come that much faster.

Cambodian managers

Another change we’ve made at CIF is, since mid-2016, we have a Khmer general manager. Lynny is the first head of operations we’ve had who is Khmer, was born in Cambodia, and speaks Khmer as a first language. That helps us shift our focus toward Khmer-language policy, Khmer-language social work, and culturally-appropriate Cambodian practice. We take the same approach to all our projects. Our ABLE disability program was originally managed by Lisa, our American Physical Therapist. These days it’s handled by Srey Ny, whose competence and passion are wonderful to see .

Lynny Sor General Manager
Lynny Sor, our General Manager

How’s it going?

It would be untrue to say that CIF has got this cross-linguistic thing sorted out. We still face challenges when our staff try to explain complex situations to advisers. We still end up going back and forth between Khmer and English. Our donor reporting is still often a two-stage process, where our workers provide information to our communications team, who then turn it into an English-language report. Some of those problems aren’t going to go away.


However, we do feel like we are starting from a good place. We understand the importance of our clients receiving social work in their heart-language from workers speaking their heart-language. Aiming at that end-goal, we’ve seen our social work practice improve, and our staff provided with opportunities to grow into better workers.


Social work is a highly language-rich discipline. At CIF we’ll continue to value what our Khmer-speaking social workers bring to the role, while working to bridge the gap for foreign staff contributing as well.


Lost in translation: Part 2 Bridging the Khmer/English language gap