There are about 7000 living languages ​​in the world: 6% of them are spoken by 94% of the population. Spoiler alert: Akha language is not part of the 6%…

Hello Objectives, have you met my friend Reality?

On the road to Muang Sing

Heading to Muang Sing in Luang Namtha province, we were planning to visit one or several Akha villages and meet women willing to talk to us about their traditions… A goal that will remain unfinished; but this expedition allowed us to share with you the testimony of Khamkeo and Phor Ya in our video Letters from the elders.

Of course, we made a lot of mistakes along the way -and gained experience in return! Let’s have a good old feedback session…

Mistake # 1: lack of time

For many reasons we had only 4 days to spend in Luang Namtha. With 2 hours drive to Muang Sing and the need to catch a bus to Luang Prabang on the last day it left us with only 2 to 3 nights to spend in Muang Sing. Way too short … and because Muang Sing is not well developped for tourists, no remote organisation was possible: we had to come on site to get informations.

Mistake # 2: lack of information

After a complicated shooting in Kyrgyzstan, we knew that it could very well be impossible for us to find a bilingual Akha-English interpreter. But given the high number of Akha villages around Muang Sing, we thought we could find in town at least one person speaking Akha and having some notions of English. Then we could always manage with Lao Google Trad on our phones to clarify questions and answers.

No, even that was too much to hope for. The reason is that Akha people do leave their villages for work or studies but they go for the big cities, not the small towns like Muang Sing -which by the way is turning to a Chinese concession under the mass influx of workers from the nearby border.

Muang Sing Chinese-owned banana fields

So despite the proximity of all this Akha villages around town, we draw a blank. Fortunately, as we were told in town, some Akha people in the villages speak a little Lao, and that’s what saved us… Or so we thought.

Turns out, each region has its own Lao dialect, and a person living in Vientiane will not necessarily understand what a resident of Luang Namtha says. You can imagine that it’s even more complicated when you’re talking to an Akha who was never properly taught Lao…

But we would only find out about this later.

Mistake # 3: lack of professionalism

It is the one that will cost us the most. We are not professional in documentaries (yet!) and we defenitely don’t have neither the contacts nor the funds to hire professional interpreters…

Having found no one speaking both Akha and English in town, we decided on hiring a tourist guide to visit the villages. We knew that we would need to spend a full day with a serious translator afterwards anyway to get a proper transcription and translation, so we thought a guide would do to ask the questions.

This guy’s fee for the full day was 100,000 kip -half of our translation budget, which we had to extend afterwards anyway. The guide’s work usually consists of lugging tourists to 2 or 3 villages, then showing them some monuments and view points around before returning in town for lunch – and that’s it.

Children are almost always happy to see foreigners, here in another Akha village near Muang Sing

He did know how to speak a few words in English, but most of the time he simply recited the same speech day after day. We explained at length what we expected of him for that special job: translate our questions, then wait for the person to finish speaking before translating the answer. Whenever possible make sure that people speak in complete sentences -try not to ask closed questions that would lead to “yes”or “no” answers.

Above all, we asked him not to intervene or emit any sound while the interviewee was speaking. Very willing to help, his silence was exemplary during the interview of Phor Ya in the morning.

The translation, on the other hand, was sometimes fanciful: he explained to us that Phor Ya’s father had died when he was 10 years old, a piece of information that was nowhere to be found in the proper translation. This could however be explained by the fact that the guide probably didn’t all of Phor Ya’s words… and was to proud or afraid to tell us.

Phor Ya poses with his grandfather’s turban

Things started to go wrong as the day passed: all women were working in the fields and we visited 4 or 5 villages without finding any willing to talk to us. The women who remained -the elders- were all too shy to talk in front of the camera.

Our guide was getting hungry -so did we, it was way over lunch time- but we knew we wouldn’t get an other shot at this and insisted on continuing to other villages. His good will was visibly blunting.

Khamkeo’s gentle smile

After countless refusals, we ended up meeting Khamkeo who gladly agreed to talk to us. The guide saw his chance to finally end his day and bring these disobedient tourists back to town -so that they could pay him a good meal.

Any good will had turned to a strong desire to end the job soon, and the easiest way to achieve that was to just tell the tourists what they wanted to hear, no matter the interviewee’s actual words. Here are some excerpts from the final translation:

Us: “Is she Akha?”
The guide: “Yes, Akha.”
Khamkeo, a little bit later: “We Leu have similar houses to the Lao.”

Khamkeo is Tai Leu, an ethnic group entirely different from the Akha -I guess we could have noticed from the very different shape of her face but we are no experts…

Us: ”Do you still have your traditional wedding headdress?”
The guide in Khamkeo: “By the way, are you cultivating rubber trees?”
Kamkheo, a bit confused: “No … we used to plant cotton …”
The guide, to us: “No, she no longer have her herdress because she gave it to her daughter living in Vientiane.”

You get the idea.

Our lucks

Akha woman, not willing to speak to us…

It could have been a total fiasco, but you can’t just always get it wrong.

When looking for a proper translator in Luang Prabang we got lucky enough to end up meeting Ka. Ka is a Lao videographer, he is fluent in English and he agreed to help us even though we were unable to match his regular hourly rate.

The interview of Khamkeo was easy to translate… Getting over our disappointment when we discovered the stories made up by the guide took us longer, but the translation work itself was done in less than 2 hours and a half.

Things got more complicated when we started to work on the interview with Phor Yaa. Ka felt overwhelmed: too many Akha words had slipped into the speech -hence the translation errors from our guide. Fortunately resourceful Ka had an Akha friend in town, Kamphone, who agreed to join us the next day -on a Sunday!- to help us complete the translation.

Altogether the interviews required almost 7 hours of translation work, and we are extremely grateful to Ka and Kamphone for their priceless help.

The second stroke of luck was to find out what Phor Ya and Khamkeo had really told us when we asked open questions about their lives -in the case of Phor Ya, he even started talking without stopping for nearly 4 minutes before we asked any question.

We discovered that these elders had witnessed radical transformations in their societies and lifestyles over the past decades. So we decided to refocus the video around this topic, keeping just a few lines about traditional costumes, our intended subject.

In the end Letters from the Elders is very different from what we were aiming for, but maybe that’s for the best.

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