U-M Gala program, Translate-a-Thon advance informational justice and language accessibility
The multimodal learning platform Gala was co-founded by the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) faculty member Rebecca Hardin, along with a team of faculty, staff, students and alumni from across U-M. Created for use in classrooms, cohorts, and wider communities, Gala was named for a popular apple variety grown in Michigan, which evokes both farms and classrooms. But the name also sounds like a celebration-for-a-cause, which Gala co-hosted annually (pre-COVID), in conjunction with the Michigan Theater and the Mayor’s Green Fair in Ann Arbor.
These locally rooted contexts and celebrations are important in an era characterized by a world of information available at the click of a button. Despite this digital age of technological innovation, there are significant disparities in who has access to this technology and information. This is why the sustainability cases and related materials on Gala are made with open-source software and are available open access for anyone to browse—enhancing, not replacing, place-based or face-to-face learning. Aligning with both local and more global movements democratizing access to knowledge and achieving informational and digital justice, Gala enables users to become makers of content, and vice versa. This fosters case studies and learning modules that can be widely adopted, updated, and even adapted or enhanced with rich data sets, digital media, and more.
Initially limited to U-M users and makers and their collaborators from global partner institutions (such as those in Africa), Gala has grown through word of mouth to foster a collaborative international learning community that values immersive, inclusive online learning that connects to experiences of positive change.
This includes working with scholars, professionals, and students from around the globe to increase language accessibility through the translation of case studies and learning modules (languages on the platform include, but are not limited to, English, Mandarin, Spanish, Bahasa, French, Portuguese, and more). U-M’s Language Resource Center also emphasizes the importance of language accessibility in a digitized world. Every year it hosts a “Translate-a-Thon,” a two-day community-driven translation marathon where volunteers from U-M and the community come together to translate materials, thereby increasing language accessibility for the benefit of information equity.
Translate-a-thon keynote speaker Dr. Binze Bi Kumbe
The recent Translate-a-Thon, in collaboration with Gala, highlighted the crucial role of translation in making educational materials accessible globally. Dr. Binze Bi Kumbe, a former visiting researcher at U-M who has extensive knowledge and translation experience with the Gala community in both the U.S. and Gabon, was the keynote speaker at the event.
Kumbe began his collaboration with U-M on the REFRESCH (REsearching FRESh solutions to the energy/food/water, CHallenge in resource-constrained environments) project in Gabon. It was later linked to a long-term proposal, “Research Institute for Sustainability Education,” or RISE, aimed at vocational and technical training in West Africa, but open to international educators and learners. It brought together Gabonese scholars and innovators with U-M and Howard University faculty to tackle local challenges in food, water, and energy.
Kumbe translated the Gala “wolf hunt” case study to French by lamplight, enabling Gabonese high school students, universities, and environmental agency educators to immerse themselves fully in a workshop designed to reflect human-wildlife conflicts, a problem shared by communities across the globe. This effort underscored the power of translation in enhancing participatory learning and connecting disparate communities. Kumbe’s research and collaboration with Gala lies at the intersection of translation, education, and inclusivity. His journey from Gabon to U-M and his commitment to bridging cultural and linguistic gaps highlight the transformative power of language.
The nested collaboration among Gabonese institutions, with U-M and Howard University faculty in facilitative and supportive roles, was a first step for the U-M team toward decolonized partnerships for environment and sustainability education.
Kumbe’s collaboration with U-M extended beyond these workshops. For a semester, he collaborated with drinking water experts to develop partnerships with local water utilities. Afterward, he translated a second Gala case study related to Ann Arbor’s plume of 1,4 dioxane causing groundwater contamination. Such challenges—like wildlife human conflict—plague communities and policy makers in both Gabon and the U.S. The French version of that case study undergirded a research partnership between U.S. and Gabonese drinking water infrastructure experts who also visited Detroit and Ann Arbor to learn about our approaches to protecting public health from water pollution. The researchers identified shared challenges, as well as possible solutions, thus setting the stage for further collaborations to ensure safe drinking water for all.
Kumbe’s talk addresses decolonization and local knowledge in translation
In his keynote address, Kumbe emphasized the profound significance of translation in connecting diverse communities and fostering inclusive knowledge sharing. He drew from decolonial theories explored in his dissertation to underscore the importance of adapting translations to the educational levels and cultural contexts of the audience. Further, he argued that translating materials for global audiences involves more than language—it’s about ensuring that the information resonates within local belief systems and knowledge frameworks.
In his experience translating the “wolf hunt” case in Lambaréné, Gabon, he explained how most residents in rural communities in that country do not have more than a 10th-grade education. “Therefore, the terminologies used in the translation must be adapted to the language and education level to help them better understand.”
Kumbe stressed that adapting the translation of information does not imply a lack of intelligence or capability within these communities. Many cultures and ways of knowing contrast with dominant Western-inflected educational systems.
In addition, there’s a difference between linguistic translation and the translation information within the framework of local systems of beliefs. For example, when it comes to water in Gabon, he explained that local people consider some water sources as “divinities,” or sacred sources. To the local people, sacred sources are suitable to drink. This highlights the challenge in addressing drinking water quality issues, as he states “maybe in the past exposure to pathogens built a stronger immune system, but today’s chemical contamination from extractive industries complicate the situation.”
He closed his talk with an important point for the future translators, to remember that we do not translate for ourselves. We translate to serve and understand an other or l’alterité. Sometimes those “others” are future generations. Kumbe’s talk emphasized that our actions today have lasting implications on future generations. Gabon’s abundant water resources, like the U.S., will depend on future knowledge and use of water resources and will reflect the implications of decisions many of us make today. Therefore, the reconnection of specific cases and challenges with the concepts and ethical frames of Indigenous communities, while not easy work, is of critical importance.