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From 'friendship’ to ‘compañerismo’ - COTT in translation

Image: Cultural Nests: supporting Indigenous cultural start-ups, photo by: Centro de Investigación en Comunicación Comunitaria A.C.

For this blog post, we’ve been talking to arts and heritage evaluation consultant, Siân Hunter Dodsworth. The readers of the blog will recognise Siân’s name from a previous post about the origins of COTT. She was one of the original group who made the game and has worked with the cards ever since. In this post, we talk about the challenges of translating COTT for use in a UNESCO funded project in Mexico called Cultural Nests: supporting Indigenous Cultural Start-ups. 

Siân, can you start by saying a bit about your work generally? 

I class myself as an evaluator, or evaluation consultant; someone who's either brought in to work very specifically supporting organisations to think about the role of evaluation in the work they're doing, or to help develop frameworks, methodologies, and toolkits to carry out evaluation. I work with arts and heritage-based organisations in the UK, and more recently (post-pandemic) in Mexico. A lot of my work is hybrid, with a lot of stuff happening at my desk, and through online meetings, zoomy stuff, and then some face-to-face work, usually related to data collection and evaluation training. I especially like using creative and ethnographic approaches, I suppose that's where my main interest lies, hence, COTT. 

On the hybrid front, could you talk about using COTT in hybrid situations, either when facilitators are not in the room with the rest of the group, or when some people are together and others are joining online? 

Yeah. Technically it works quite well. When you and I facilitated the game together in an evaluation context, you placed all the cards on a whiteboard so that everyone who was looking at their laptop screen could see the cards. But I think often it does require two facilitators, one to coordinate and the other to deal with the cards. When we did it together it was a little bit like a Countdown, turning over the cards for contestants! It took preparation. We had to send people pictures of their ‘hands’ before we played, and then one facilitator had the physical pack and arranged the cards for the camera. 

If it’s like Countdown I guess that makes me Carol Vorderman and you Richard Whiteley. What were the challenges of using the game like this?

I think the main challenge is just the online space of Zoom. It's hard enough to do anything other than a straightforward conversation. Even a group conversation is tricky on those platforms and anything else that mixes-up, or messes with that format is tricky. Playing COTT isn’t always a comfortable experience, so playing in an already uncomfortable online space can make those conversations even harder. If players already feel detached from each other, the online space can compound that distance. I would say that the game does better in an ‘intimate’ space, for want of a better word, a shared physical space. This means players can see each other’s gestures, the way each other moves, and the way they respond to other people's hands in a much more fluid and natural way. I wonder if it's the format or just the fact that the cards themselves awaken in people a mixture of emotions, which can be quite hard to process on the receiving end of a video camera. 

Do you think the cards can act as a physical link between, or to, the awkwardness? Even if there isn’t an already existing social link between the players, the cards can connect people in a physical way that can lead to other ways of linking. 

Totally, yeah, people get quite excited about the design of the cards, the box they come in etc., that's part of the experience. Unpacking the game, the cards being laid out in front of you, the communion of that, I suppose. Even if the conversations then send people off down different paths, the idea is that the game and the physical cards bring everybody back together. There's something about the physical and tactile experience of that, which enables that connection to take place. 

I use the cards quite regularly as part of a toolkit of methods I bring to different projects. They have varying success when implemented. Some people love the idea of a game, but actually, when they get into it, they just might not be ready to have some of those conversations, or they feel quite exposed. At the beginning of a project, some people can feel quite prickly about what they've set out to do with others and anxious about whether it's going to actually achieve their identified aims. Towards the end of a project, people have often gotten to know each other enough to be able to experiment more with what they likely would consider an experimental tool. I do think COTT is experimental, it's not something that's an easy go-to. It's something that you have to be open to testing out and get used to using. From an evaluation point of view, the transcripts from the recorded conversations facilitated by the game provide rich data about the way people interact and reflect on their work together. 

Before we talk about the process of translating the cards, can you tell me about the project you were working on that led you to want to translate them in the first place?

The project Cultural Nests: supporting Indigenous cultural start-ups was a 2-year project funded by UNESCO’s International Fund for Cultural Diversity. It was a collaboration between a Mexico City-based NGO (The Centre for Research into Community Communication A.C.) and Indigenous communities from three different states in Mexico. The idea was to support them in setting up creative and artistic co-ops that built on existing craft skills and cultural and heritage practices but also preserved and strengthened these - as many are at risk of dying out. We were working with painters, textile artists and graphic artists. Beyond the co-ops themselves, the project created an E-commerce space called Arte Maiz (Art / Corn) where artists could sell their work directly to buyers (without the need for a middle-man who would take a cut) and support the creation of a network of like-minded groups who could share knowledge and resources related to the development, production and selling of artistic outputs. The idea was to challenge existing exploitative production and distribution chains of Indigenous art and craft objects and empower project participants to self-generate and share knowledge related to all the production/post-production stages of art-making to ensure a viable and collective income stream. The project aimed to learn about and connect to fair trade networks modelled on Indigenous notions of ‘vida digna’/ ‘a dignified life’, protection of and respect for all living things. The existing commercial system exploits and discriminates against Indigenous people in Mexico in a variety of ways, feeding off and into a context of extreme poverty and violence. I actually started as a project facilitator, doing a lot of face-to-face delivery and project management. Then I got pregnant, and it wasn't possible or safe for me to travel to many of the communities as required.

Is there already a big economy for selling different cultural products or artefacts? Was this project less about encouraging more people to make more things, or encouraging more people to engage with those artefacts, but about making that economy more equitable?

Exactly. It's about setting up an alternative form of economy to move away from exploitative commerce chains. The producer has direct contact with the seller and knows the price and can elevate the prices to reflect an hourly rate rather than a market rate, which doesn't reflect the work that's gone into producing those items. That's where the originality of the model came in alongside the research carried out by the NGO and Indigenous participants, and eventual implementation of a social market, where logics of solidarity, reciprocity, democracy and participation took precedence. The project supported those co-ops to have lots of different forms of training. They became way more proficient in knowing how to price their artworks, marketing their items using Instagram and social media, etc. Basically, all the things that are often closed off to Indigenous rural communities for various reasons like the distance they would need to travel to attend a course in marketing, say, and the prohibitive costs involved in that, or even lack of internet connection and electricity, which mean that they are excluded from online courses and things like that. Some Indigenous people are unable to leave their community at various times of the year due to the pressures of the agricultural calendar (planting and harvesting) or extreme weather, you know, terrible rains, hurricanes, etc. In this project, the idea was to bring the information to them. The Mexico City-based organisation that oversaw the project is very young, and they were interested in reflecting more on what their own practice was all about. They came out of an activist setting where they'd used a lot of activist techniques to support community-based organisations that were often identified as Indigenous, although not always. They were trying to transfer those techniques over into an NGO setting and that was complicated. They wanted me to support them in documenting what the project was achieving and not achieving but also what the experience had been for those who were engaged in laying the foundations for this very particular practice. That's where the cards came to the fore. We did think about using them more broadly, but a really important point to make about this project, and the context in which I was working, was that a lot of people were not fully literate, so the cards posed a massive obstacle and actually, just the pressure of having to engage with the written word would have been massively off-putting.

So this wasn’t just a case of translating English to Spanish, there were a whole load more language-based barriers going on. 

We were working with some communities where multiple languages were being spoken. I think it's important to say that only two of the six communities that we worked with spoke Indigenous languages as their mother tongue and almost everyone, with the exception of a couple of older members of some of the cooperatives, spoke Spanish. In the wider context within which the project was operating, Spanish is very dominant and all Indigenous languages in Mexico, like the majority in the world, are at risk of extinction (linguicide). We tried throughout the project to encourage people to use their mother tongue language (the onus was on us to arrange translation for ourselves, not pressure people to use Spanish so that it made things easier for us) and even think about how artistic practices could be used to raise the profile of these languages as part of a wider initiative to value and protect what was already being lost in those particular settings. Also, just to return to the cards again, more than people not speaking Spanish as a first language or not feeling comfortable with written Spanish, a bigger issue was the fact that the written word is not prevalent in the same way as in the global north and isn’t part of people's day-to-day.

Instead, people often sit down and have long meetings to discuss or share ideas, and stories, and there's not the same sense of time being limited, pressurised, or monetized like in a Western context. A meeting could go on for hours, miss all of the points on the agenda, and go completely rogue. That’s seen as bad or wasteful within a Western context, particularly in so-called professional settings. In the communities where we were working, in-depth discussion - which went off in all kinds of directions and was sometimes not directly linked to what we were doing at that moment - was essential to a communal way of working, building trust amongst participants and facilitators and allowed everyone to develop a deep (as opposed to superficial) understanding of the lived reality of communities, their histories and shared identities and what is important to them. 

On the other hand, everyone in Mexico is very savvy in terms of using social media. People use WhatsApp and other forms of social media, but often, people prefer to use voice notes, stickers, and an adapted vernacular form of Spanish. There are many different accepted forms of Spanish, which are not grammatically correct, the structure of the way that people record is not “correct” but it's acceptable within the wider context. 

As an evaluator, I didn't want to step into a space where language has, and continues to be, used as a colonialist tool, you know? Spanish dominates and discriminates obscures and eradicates other languages within Latin America, in particular. But also it is true to say that in the context of the project, it was a functional language used by everyone so that different groups could communicate with each other. It would have been interesting to think about how it could have been translated into Nahuatl or Amuzgo, say, but resources and time were an issue

Where did the money come from and could you tell me a bit about funding structures in Mexico? 

The funding for this project was international, they received funding from UNESCO. So it was a UN-funded global project as part of their cultural diversity fund. I was out of it for maternity leave for at least one year. Also, due to COVID, there was a delayed start. There was also a cut made to the budget, something like 20% of the budget was reduced following the pandemic, but there was no recognition that therefore activity would have to also be reduced by 20%. We had to deliver what we set out to deliver when the budget was significantly bigger, but with a reduced budget. There was a small amount of money to cover the evaluation, but it was minimal. So there was no money to translate or print the cards- I just did it off my own back. I was interested to see how it would work in another context.

That segues nicely into the translation process. Translation is quite a difficult skill, how fluent are you in Spanish? 

Oh, that's a difficult question to answer. I function professionally and personally, both in Spanish and English perfectly fine. I make mistakes all the time, but I'm now making mistakes in English, which is interesting, I’m starting to lose some of the fluency and the nuance in English as well. With Spanish, I would say fluent, but it's not something that's clearly defined.

I still notice quotes in COTT, and quotes are pointed out to me, that use really specific language. Not even UK-centric, sometimes even more specific or specialised than that. They're taken from real people saying real things so that’s to be expected, but some of the language is off-putting for some people. One very clear example of culturally specific language is “tea and biscuits”. When “tea and biscuits” is not in a UK context it either doesn't mean anything or it doesn't mean the same thing. Maybe there are translations, but they’d be cultural translations as much as linguistic ones. It’s not simply a case of translating the words “tea and biscuits”. With that in mind, were there some quote cards you just couldn’t use, or had to change significantly? 

I removed a lot, to be honest. I read through and removed ones that felt either very specific to a cultural, or organisational context or just weren’t reflective of the people that I was going to be working with. I can't remember how many though, maybe as much as a third of the quote cards were taken out. 

“Tea and biscuits” is interesting, I could have gone down the route of trying to adapt them to a different context. So in Mexico, that would be coffee and bread, because people might have a ‘pan dulce’ literal translation ‘sweetbread’ and coffee mid-morning or in the evening. That tends to be a moment where people share and talk. Or you could even make it like pulque which is a fermented drink made from the agave maguey cactus and that's very typical in certain regions of Mexico. 

But I didn't go down that route, I made some changes in terms of language, with words that only exist in English. Like “burnout”, there is no translation in Spanish for that, in fact, the English would usually be used, but its use would assume players had a high level of English, which would exclude the majority so I didn’t use it at all in the end. Also, although burnout is becoming more recognised as a common experience for many Mexicans (in fact, there is some recent research that claims Mexicans are some of the most stressed people on the planet), it’s rarely discussed as being problematic. 

There were other words that I chose to not directly translate but find a better fit, for want of a better word, within the context of what the game is trying to achieve. An example is ‘friendship’ which I translated as ‘compañerismo’, a word that refers to a horizontal connection, relationship or mutual support/reliance between people or ‘compañeros’. I suppose it’s much closer to the word ‘comradeship’ or ‘fellowship´ in English but essentially it has no direct translation. I carried out the first draft of the translation and then got my partner, who is Mexican, to look at it. He's translated various things and although he's not a translator he's fluent in English and Spanish and was able to say “people won't understand that”, or “that doesn't quite make sense” or “that's gonna be misinterpreted”. He basically helped do a final translation draft.

I guess part of the issue is that it's a certain kind of English. Some of the cards use a certain kind of professional English. As much as a native Spanish speaker, do you think you need a native Mexican to really make a properly useful translation for the context you were using it in? 

Yeah, my partner's very direct. So he’d just say “that's a stupid quote” and I’d ask why and he’d say, “it just doesn't make any sense in the Mexican context” or “people just won't interpret that in that way”. Some words are given a certain importance within a British context and that significance won’t translate to a Mexican context. “Burnout” was an example of that. Either we translate it and it doesn’t make sense, or leave it in English which is problematic because then we're using an English word within a Mexican context and people are either going to understand it or not fully understand it, or pretend that they understand it. 

There's a word in Spanish which comes up a lot when I’m working in a Mexican context, which I think is interesting because it's the absolute opposite of burnout. The word is 'aguantar’ and it means to put up with, to bear or to withstand something or someone. Mexicans use it all the time when things are going tits up, or life is shit. It’s like saying, just get on with it, you know, just suffer it, suck it up, that's life. My partner said, you know, Mexicans are probably likely to go down the “Suck it up - that’s life!” route if asked to consider the word burnout in relation to a project they might have worked on with others, although who knows if that’s really true. Perhaps I should have used the antonym and seen what kind of reaction I got. 

You were there when the cards were first made, and there are reasons they use verbatim quotes. When translating, did you feel any ethical qualms in translating or altering the language previous participants had used? 

I don't feel like the card game is precious in that way. It's become its own thing, those quotes have become something else. They're so anonymous, I doubt even the people who originally said them would recognise their voices on the cards anymore - time has passed. The original participants might have changed their ideas about what they felt about some of those topics but the quotes have become so abstracted that I didn't have any qualms about messing with them. The bigger issue was not having the time to think about what might be good replacements for some of them. Honestly, I think a complete translation would be an interesting project in and of itself. Trying to create quotes for the Mexican context, perhaps drawing on quotes that came out of the games played using my transition. The NGO organisers said such interesting things, we could draw on those conversations to create a Mexican version.

Did you have reservations about taking an English game, even if translated into Spanish, into a context where some indigenous languages are going extinct?

It couldn't be played with a lot of the participants due to linguistic barriers and the challenges of using something text-based when the use of written Spanish was limited. There were ethical concerns around that. The group I played the game with (from the NGO) were diverse and from mixed educational and class backgrounds. Some people had finished university, some hadn't finished secondary school. One person was working as a professional journalist, another as a photographer, in addition to doing work on this project. Regardless, though, that group engaged very enthusiastically with the game. It was helpful to think about what their experience was. They were so excited about it, it was probably one of the most enthusiastic games of Cards on the Table I've ever played. I'm still sort of trying to work out why that is, why it was so effective for them.

I don't think there's any doubt that the specific quotes and other words are not as important as the structure of the game. 

I do think the format in and of itself offers something. The games in Mexico were some of the clearest examples I've had where the playful aspect came to the fore. The group knew each other really well, I'm sure that makes a big difference. Some of them are romantic partners, apart from working together over many number of years on various things. There's a level of confidence and trust that enabled people to have fun with the game. For the first time, I got a real sense that when people turned over their cards - the ones that they could't choose I mean - there was a real sense of potential in terms of where the discussions could go, or the card combinations seemed to be made for each other. There were a lot of “Oohs!” and “Aahs!” when the cards were revealed followed by real excitement to hear where a fellow player would take them. It’s like everyone saw the potential together in that moment but also perhaps the group were fit to bursting in terms of what they needed to discuss/get off their chests about their experience of the project. Ultimately, I got the sense that it was helping the group think and reflect in a way that they've never done before. The format just lent itself beautifully to that particular group of people at that particular moment. They wanted to reflect deeply and without a great deal of fear about what that might mean for them as an organisation or as a group of individuals and the cards were the perfect way for them to do that.

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