Interpreting the Administration: Burkina Faso’s Courts in Translation

This project argues that bureaucratization in African societies can only be understood by looking into translation processes. The justice system is one expression of bureaucratization and it can serve as an example of how bureaucratic practices get adapted or translated in(to) local contexts. In my research, I describe the processes of translation through an analysis of the work of the court interpreter. Observing penal trials at the regional high court, the tribunal de grande instance, in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, I look at translation in a double sense: translation of the justice system into local conditions and translation of spoken language. How do these serve to legitimize (or de-legitimize) this particular instance of bureaucratization? How does interpreting contribute to the translation of the justice system into local social and cultural settings thus lending – or not – legitimacy to bureaucratization processes?

Given the imposition of French as mandatory language in court (German: Amtssprache), both types of translation come with an institutional problem and the challenge of interpretation. My unit of analysis being the court interpreter and his work, I ask about how he conceives of his role as intermediary or broker of a system and of a language – his translational work – mediating between an institution and defendants. My research is mainly situated in Bobo-Dioulasso and I compare language use and interpreting there with practices at the penal court in Dakar, Senegal. African history has a longtime research relationship and interest in court trials and court interpreters. Yet, there is almost no research on current ways of negotiating language and meaning in courts. My research is a novel way of looking at bureaucratization and translational processes via an analysis of court interpretation, while benefiting from sharing ideas with research from other disciplines, particularly linguistics, literature (fiction and faction), philosophy, and history.

Keywords: translation, language use, broker, court interpreting, plurilingualism


Supervisor:Elisio Macamo, sociologist
Alexandre Duchêne, sociolinguist (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. Natalie is currently writing her PhD thesis at the Center for African Studies, specializing in linguistic anthropology. Her research interests include interpreting, translation, plurilingualism, la Francophonie, West African literature and the English language in the life-world of researchers in Burkina Faso and Senegal and in French West Africa more generally.

Since fall 2015 she is a member of the board and since 2017 editor of the newsletter of the Swiss Society for African Studies (ssas/ssea/sgas).


Recent peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals

Book Review: Roth, Claudia (2012†), Willemijn de Jong, Manfred Perlik, Noemi Steuer, and Heinzpeter Znoj (eds.) 2018. Urban Dreams: Transformations of Family Life in Burkina Faso. In: Africa Spectrum 53(3): 131–133, (2018)

The language of justice: when the colonial past is invited into the courtroom. Etudes de Lettres 3-4: 155-172, (2017)



Portrait Natalie Tarr G3S 2018

Natalie Tarr
Graduate School of Social Sciences
Petersgraben 52
4051 Basel