Interpreting the Administration: Burkina Faso‘s Courts in Translation

This project argues that bureaucratization in African societies can only be understood by looking into domestication processes. The justice system is one expression of bureaucratization and it can serve as an example of how bureaucratic practices get adapted in local contexts. In my research, I describe the processes of this domestication through an analysis of court interpretation and how it serves to legitimize (or de-legitimize) bureaucratization. Given the imposition of French as mandatory language in court, bureaucratization comes with an institutional problem and the challenge of interpretation. One form of domestication is translation in a double-sense, the “translation” of an institution into local conditions, and the “translation” of court trials. Domestication is thus a process of interrelated steps, translating the foreign justice system to local settings. Court interpretation constitutes the final step in this domestication process. My research focuses on Burkina Faso, where I am carrying out fieldwork at the criminal court in the second main city, Bobo-Dioulasso. 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 processes via an analysis of court interpretation, while benefiting from sharing ideas with researchers of other disciplines, particularly history.

Statement of the Research Question

In this research project I look at the impact of bureaucratization on communication in plurilingual societies by using the example of courts in Burkina Faso and particularly its second main town, Bobo-Dioulasso. I focus on translating and interpreting practices occurring in formalized settings, more specifically during court trials, and inquire into the ways in which bureaucratization in Africa can be understood as a challenge of translation and interpretation. Bureaucracy foists upon local societies formal procedures and patterns of state-society relations, which challenge both society and its members and incite them to engage in interpretation. I am particularly interested in the mandatory use of standardized French (i.e. the variety based on the written standard; German: Amtssprache) in courts in Burkina Faso, a requirement imported with the French justice system during colonization and which was one of the main mechanisms to discipline and control the local population. My research bears directly on communication practices of participants in the courtroom space (see Elijah Anderson [2015] and his concept of “white space”). It seeks to elaborate on the argument according to which bureaucratic apparatuses should not be solely understood as a set of formal procedures, but mainly as forms of language that are deployed and appropriated on the ground on the basis of interpretation. In my PhD thesis I ask how court interpreting contributes to the translation/domestication of the (foreign) justice system into local social and cultural settings, thus lending – or not – legitimacy to bureaucratization processes.


The research focuses on interaction in the courtroom space, where a chamber play in being performed (German: Kammerspielforschung). The main characters are: judges, prosecutors, interpreter, defendants.

This research is, first of all, classically qualitative:

·         observation of the court and defendants during trials

·         informal talks with judges, prosecutors, interpreters, and clerks (and tbd)

·         formal interviews with same

·         audio recordings of trials and transcription

Theoretical Fields

Sociology/Ethnography of Translation, Science and Technology Studies


So far, interpreting at court in Burkina Faso – or French West Africa tout court – as a bureaucratically legitimized activity and the "officialization" of government spaces by written rules of behavior (codification) have received only little scholarly attention. This research will contribute to fill this gap by highlighting how bureaucratic processes influence understanding and the administration of justice at court. In other words, I want to show that the success and failure of bureaucratization is not only dependent on the quality of institutions, but also on the extent to which the alien nature of the justice system and its underlying values are domesticated into local settings.

Keywords: interpretation, plurilingualism, bureaucratization, language and power, language ideology

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.

Portrait Natalie Tarr G3S 2018

Natalie Tarr
Graduate School of Social Sciences
Petersgraben 52
4051 Basel