Natalie Tarr

Interpreting the Administration: Burkina Faso in Translation

The French language, administrative system and French model schools were imported to West Africa with conquest and colonialism. This school system allowed only French as language of instruction and educative systems/methods are largely continued today. African languages are systematically marginalized and while pupils using their mother tongues used to be ridiculed and punished until about a decade ago, using African languages in school is still discouraged. Drop out rates are high. Standardized French, which is based on a written variety of French, continues to be the only language of instruction on all levels of schooling. In addition, it is the only official language in Burkina Faso. This means only this variety of French is accepted for all communication in administration, politics and in education. Through aggressive language politics promoting, supporting and encouraging the use of French in all domains of daily life, institutions such as la Francophonie and the Burkinabe government have implicitly created and maintain a language hierarchy positioning standardized French as the only language guaranteeing success and prestige. Only those speakers in Burkina Faso, who had been educated in the classical school system, have access to and can use the standardized variety of French, however.
In the courtroom, standardized French needs to be used mandatorily by magistrates, judges, lawyers, but also by defendants and witnesses. A remnant of French colonialism, the justice system in Burkina Faso continues to maintain a monolingual ideology. This automatically creates a power imbalance between the court and the general public – between the educational elite and the uneducated majority. Less than 2% of Burkinabe see themselves as confirmed francophones and only 0,01% use French as a family language (Diallo 2004). African French as well is not considered as standard and thus rejected for communication in court. Observation so far shows that the presiding judge decides if the person brought before the court can communicate in French or needs to use the services of an interpreter.


Research questions
For my PhD thesis I will look at the following questions:

•    Who decides if an interpreter is needed?
•    Based on what (linguistic) criteria/language ideology is this decision made?
•    Who are the court interpreters and what are their (educational) trajectories?


Ethnographic fieldwork will focus on observation of open hearings at the criminal court in Bobo-Dioulasso, BF. Interviews with judges and magistrates will give insights into how decisions reg. French language skills are made and on interpreting practices. Interpreters' narratives will illuminate their trajectories, i.e. who they are, what they study/-ied and why they act as interpreters in court. Audio recordings of court hearings and access to written court records will give a more contextual and in-depth understanding of interpreting practices.My research assistant will ideally be proficient in Jula, the principal language of Bobo-Dioulasso, in order to have insights into interpreters' renderings.

Theoretical fields

Concept of language repertoire (John Gumperz), untranslatability (Kwasi Wiredu), appropriation/cohabitation (Achille Mbembe; Elísio Macamo).


With this PhD thesis I will close a gap in anthropological linguistic research on court interpreting in FWA. Through an analysis of the interpreting practices in court and how decisions are made by whom I aim to see if, indeed, existing power relations are perpetuated or subverted through the way language is used in court.


Keywords: multilingualism, interpreting, language ideology, language and power, untranslatability

The fieldwork of this project is funded by the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft Basel (FAG)


Supervisor: Elisio Macamo

Co-Supervisor: Alexandre Duchêne, Institut of Multilingualism/Institut de Plurilinguisme, University of Fribourg



Natalie Tarr obtained her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree from Allegheny College, PA, USA in social anthropology and sociology with a minor in Black Studies. After several years of work experience in Brazil and Côte d'Ivoire she continued her education in social anthropology at The New School in New York City and at the University of Hamburg, Germany. In 2015 she finished her Master of Arts (MA) at the interdisciplinary Center for African Studies at the University of Basel with a focus on social anthropology and history. For her MA thesis she conducted fieldwork in Burkina Faso, particularly in Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Natalie wants to continue researching and gaining a better understanding of language use in French West Africa and has thus enrolled in the PhD program at the Center for African Studies, specializing in linguistic anthropology. Her research interests include interpreting, multilingualism, language ideology, language and power, la Francophonie, and world Englishes in the life-world of students in Burkina Faso and French West Africa more generally.