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Translate to innovate August 14th, 2014 by

During a recent workshop on fact sheet and video script writing in Egypt, I read an interesting article on Alexandria, which for centuries was a granary for the Mediterranean (Casali, 2014). Alexander the Great made his name by building a vast empire between 334 and 324 BC. Military power and intelligence were keys to forging an empire that covered Greece, North Africa, Turkey and the Near East all the way to Pakistan. Alexander was a student of Aristotle, who would send his students to various places, and incorporated their observations into his works.  So the young Alexander also realised that progress in a society depends on knowledge and innovation. Apart from collecting gold, precious stones and other wealth from the countries he conquered, his servants collected or copied any manuscript they could find. The way Alexander made the manuscripts accessible was less orthodox: he imprisoned a small army of translators to render the books from various foreign languages into Greek. This allowed the Greeks to innovate based on the knowledge acquired in other cultures.

Eventually the sun set on the Greek empire, and even on Greek learning. But during the Middle Ages the Spanish Arabs collected Greek manuscripts and translated Aristotle and other classics to Arabic. The Arabs had a large library in Córdoba, Spain, with 200,000 books. After the Catholic Spaniards re-conquered Spain from the Moors, ending in 1491, European scholars got interested in the books the Muslims left behind. The European scholars teamed up with the citizens of Córdoba (many of whom still spoke Arabic after the Moors departed) to translate the classical manuscripts into Latin. Those Latin versions were then the basis of translations into European vernacular languages. If not for all that translation, Aristotle’s knowledge would have been lost.

In several societies the need to invest in language skills has been key to survival. In West Africa, the Hausa traders and the Peulh nomads who herd their cattle over thousands of miles speak several languages out of necessity.  In parts of the Amazon where there are many small ethnic groups, native Amazonians often speak six or seven languages. The Roma in India travel across the country and learn all the regional languages. More recently, rural migration has been another force that has changed communities and influenced language skills. In Benin and Togo, I visited small villages where up to five different languages were spoken, with farmers often mastering the languages of other ethnic groups. Rural migration often enriches local societies with new ideas and agricultural technologies from elsewhere. Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto says much the same thing in his comparative study of world civilizations; the ones with the most contact with others were the most technically innovative.

People across the world like to speak, sing and listen to others in their own language. This is equally true for farmers. The international NGO Access Agriculture has established a network of over 200 people in developing countries to translate and record voices in local languages and edit these onto available training videos. Farmers like seeing videos featuring smallholders from other countries, solving agricultural problems that are common to many different peoples. The rapidly evolving communication technologies have enabled this. More than two thousand years after the Greeks established their world famous library in Alexandria, farmers are now able to innovate by learning from farmers in other cultures, whose words have been translated and filmed on video (see www.accessagriculture.org for farmer-to-farmer videos in over 50 languages). Translation is key to helping people innovate by taking inspiration from other cultures.


Thanks to my colleague and blogger Jeff Bentley for his contributions.

For further reading:

Casali, D. 2014. Alexandrie, capital du monde. Égypte : Pourquoi elle nous fascine. L’Express Grand Format No. 7, 42-43.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe 2000 Civilizations. London: Macmillan Publishers. 636 pp.

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