Clarifying meaning in quotes

By Mike

For today’s Feature, Resilience 101, it seemed clear to me that the best way to get across the sense of success and struggle for small businesses in Nairobi was simply to let each person talk entirely in their own words. The piece needed a short stand-first from me to put what followed in context, but then it worked well just to let the quotes flow.

This highlighted one of the key challenges in reporting from foreign countries – to clarify quotes or not. There are myriad versions of English spoken across the world, and Kenya’s is a charming mix of modern street slang and slightly-antiquated proper diction.

Most times, quotes read as comprehensibly as they sound. But occasionally there is a quirk of language which would cause you to stumble as your eyes scanned the line.

Here’s an example, from Evalin Aoko:

She said: “Since I started my business, I have been thinking that by now I must be very far from where I am. Everything has not been good, I see I am not moving the way I thought I would.”

Here’s how it’s ended up: “Since I started my business I have been thinking that by now it should have progressed very far. But everything has not been good, I see I am not growing the way I thought I would.”

Minor changes, yes. But to my mind it was important to make her meaning clear by substituting “progressed very far” for “I must be very far from where I am”. It was obvious as we talked that Evalin did not mean she “had to be a long distance” geographically from where she was. Similarly, “moving” was swapped to “growing” to clarify the meaning that she was talking about her business, and using the common Kenyan phrase “moving” for business development.

Is this wrong? Technically, yes. Quotes are sacrosanct and you should never fiddle or finesse them to fit your sentence structure or writing style. But at the same time, as long as the meaning of what your interviewee was saying is not altered, to my mind it’s acceptable to add or change a word to make sure the reader fully understands.

But it’s a very gray line, and one to be approached with caution. What do you think?

3 Responses to “Clarifying meaning in quotes”

  1. Juniper says:

    This is a great site, I really enjoyed Resilience 101, the photos and text were all very moving and inspiring. I hope the people you featured keep going and it’s fabulous to hear their stories. Keep it up!
    Thanks very much.

  2. Awesome work! Keep posting good material.

  3. peter says:

    The audience for the site and project is Western and particularly American, so I see no problem with ‘clarifying meanings’. As you’ve noted the English spoken here is not the same as English in the US or even the UK so some translation is certainly allowable. If you were reporting from a non-English speaking country the English translation wouldn’t be literal so why fret about it in this case.
    You list prices in USD and in “You have to be faster” exclaim that the matatu ‘beat the lights’ to make it to Upper Hill on time knowing that no matatu driver (or any other driver) pays the traffic lights in Nairobi any mind. You’re taking small liberties to get the story across to a land that is very different linguistically and culturally and thats OK (or sawa sawa).