Lost in translation: Why the language used in social work matters

Lost in translation: Why the language used in social work matters


Most people have a pretty natural idea that social work is job that involves a lot of language. After all, a lot of social work students say they chose the field because ‘they just love talking to people.’ Of course, the job itself is more complex than that, but still, it does involve a lot of talking. It also involves a lot of understanding what people are really saying, sometimes in spite of the actual words coming out of their mouths.

Something that doesn’t get as much thought is how social work might play out when it’s done in a second language. Or at least, those of us born into places where we speak English as our first language don’t have to think about it much. We usually have the luxury of living in places where our clients, our bosses, our coworkers, all speak our language. But for Children in Families, the effect of a second language on social work is an important consideration. Of course, we’re a Cambodian NGO in Cambodia, working with almost exclusively Cambodian clients and families. But while the majority of our staff are Khmer, we also have a fair number of foreigners around the place. As the Social Work Technical Adviser, I’m one of them – an Australian. Our Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Technical Advisers are Americans. Our comms team is a mix of the two. In addition, our donors come from the USA, UK, Australia, and continental Europe. All of them want reports on our work in English.

For the rest of this article, I’m going to look at two questions. Firstly, why is it so important for social work to be done in the heart-language (what we sometimes call the ‘mother tongue’) of both the worker and the client? And secondly, in an office where the workers speak one language, and the reporting and advisory staff speak another, how do you bridge the inevitable gaps?

Why is social work done best in the heart-language of the worker and the client?

So, the obvious answer to this question is “because they need to understand each other.” That’s true enough. But understand each other when it comes to what? Another way to look at this question is to ask, “Is it just as acceptable for social work to be done in the client’s heart language, and the worker’s second language?”

Actually, this is something that happens the world over. There are social workers in the USA who speak Spanish as a second language, and provide support to Latino groups in Spanish. There are social workers in southern Europe, especially Italy, trying to support refugees from north Africa and the middle east in Arabic, or even in English, which might be a second language for both people involved. At CIF, all of our foreign staff actually speak Khmer to at least some degree. There are a lot of expatriates in Phnom Penh and other parts of Cambodia who do. Many of them are experienced social workers. So it’s not that you can’t do social work in a second language. But it’s certainly not best practice.


Client-centered case management

One of the key tenets of modern social work practice is that of client-centered case management. Put simply, that means that the best interests and the goals of the client inform everything else that we do. Social workers don’t set goals for clients to improve their lives, they work with clients to help set their own goals. Then they support them to achieve those goals. Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, a lot of things can make that difficult. If a client is court-ordered to meet with a social worker, the court may have chosen goals for the client (not to use drugs, for instance). In fact, even in general, it’s difficult to convince people that the clients should be the drivers of social work, not the professional social workers!For the worker, the urge to tell people how to solve their problems can be overwhelming, even if doing so is frequently unhelpful, or their suggestions are simply wrong! And for the client, sometimes it can seem like the easiest way to stay on this social worker’s good side is to just agree with their suggestions. Social workers get to make decisions about who can have care of a child, and can influence a person’s interactions with the courts. So for a lot of clients, it often seems safest to make the social worker happy. So the client nods along with what the worker is suggesting. When the worker leaves though, the client usually just goes right back to doing what they wanted to in the first place!

That interaction leads to frustration for workers and clients. Nothing gets done, no one is satisfied with the outcome, and sometimes there are even legal repercussions for clients. For that reason, it’s really important for a worker to be able to tell when a client is really motivated to do what they say they will. The worker needs to be sure that the client is sincere, not just nodding along. And that’s much, much harder in a second language.


Misunderstanding and miscommunication

On top of that, working in a second language dramatically increases the chance that someone will misunderstand something that has been said. Misunderstandings aren’t necessarily the death of a good working relationship in social work, but they don’t help.

Early in my time studying Khmer, I was trying to explain to my language teacher that I had been a part-time wedding photographer before coming to Cambodia. He asked what I would photograph, and I wanted to say that early in the day I would go to the bride’s house and take photos there. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong combination of words, and ended up explaining how I would typically take photos in brothels. He thought it was hilarious. (By the end of the week, every teacher at my language school thought it was hilarious too!) It was a pretty harmless example. But when people are talking about the pains and uncertainties of raising traumatised children, or confronting pain that they may have had buried since they were children themselves, misunderstandings are best avoided!

two-women-listen to-each-other
Listening to each other’s stories

Symbolic Khmer

To make matters more complicated, in Khmer, many things are named by describing what they are. A wardrobe is a “pants-and-shirts-cupboard.” Milk is “cow-breast water.” (For some reason, Khmer people don’t drink a lot of milk.) That gets harder when you’re talking about abstract concepts. Many words for psychological concepts don’t have direct Khmer translations. Depression in Khmer is “fallen heart-water”. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often called “Broken Courage”. And even those aren’t direct translations. They have different shades of meaning than the English words we pair them with. It’s difficult for foreign workers to learn how and when to use them appropriately.

For all those reasons, at CIF we insist on Cambodian social workers for Cambodian clients.

Which brings us to our next question:

What do we do about the Khmer/English interface?

We will explore that question later in the week – come back then to find out more.

Lost in translation: Why the language used in social work matters