Lost (and found?) in translation: key terminology in disaster studies

Ksenia Chmutina, Neil Sadler, Jason von Meding, Amer Abukhalaf

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Disaster Studies has emerged as an international interdisciplinary body of knowledge; however, similarly to other academic disciplines, its terminology is predominantly Anglophone. This paper explores the implications of translating disaster studies terminology, most often theorised in English, into other languages and back.
We chose six of the most commonly used (as well as debated and contested) terms that are prominent in academic, policy and public discourses: resilience, vulnerability, capacity, disaster, hazard, and risk. These words were translated into 54 languages and the meanings were articulated descriptively in cases where the translation didn’t have exactly the same meaning as the word in English. We then analysed these meanings in order to understand implications of disaster scholars working between dominant and “peripheral” languages.
Our findings demonstrate that many of the terms so casually used in Disaster Studies in English do not translate easily – or at all, opening the concepts that are encoded in these terms for further interpretation. Moreover, the terms used in disaster studies are not only conceptualised in English but are also tied to an Anglophone approach to research. It is important to consider the intertwined implications that the use of the terminology carries, including the creation of a ‘separate’ language; power vs. communication; and linguistic imperialism.
Understanding of the meaning (and contestation of meaning) of these terms in English provides an insight into the power relationships between English and the other language. Given the need to translate key concepts from English into other languages, it is important to appreciate their cultural and ideological ‘baggage’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-162
Number of pages14
JournalDisaster Prevention and Management
Issue number2
Early online date04 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Translation, Disaster Studies, Linguistic Imperialism


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