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Working as a Layout Designer for Lesley’s “Science Stories”

I had been a cashier for almost three years, and dealing with the grumps and the oftentimes not-so-bright people that came into my line on a weekly basis had all but incinerated any faith I had left in humanity. That doesn’t even include my short-lived stint stocking shelves. Soda cans left in the cookie aisle, seafood with the cheese, you would think a tornado had ravaged the place – but no, – people just couldn’t be bothered most of the time. So when it came to finding a job on campus, any customer-facing positions were considered strictly as a last resort. Besides, I’m an art major here at Lesley; I preferred to find something more tailored towards my interests. And then I came across an opening for “Ethiopia Science Story Layout Designer”. It seemed like the perfect fit; definitely art-related, with no cranky customers to leave their brains and coupons at home. I was relieved to have finally found a source of income for myself, but none of that really mattered after learning that the work I would be doing would be something truly worthwhile.

Founded by Liz McGovern in 2011, Water, Education, Economic Empowerment, Medical and Alliance – or WEEMA – is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people in Ethiopia. Although WEEMA’s aid covers every letter in their acronym, The Science Stories I would be working on are a part of “education”, one of many things we take for granted in the United States. Maybe it’s because we already have millions of books printed in our language; with over eighty local languages spoken throughout Ethiopia, it can be near impossible for one to find a book printed in their distinct “mother-tongue”. A majority of Ethiopian books are printed in the national language of Amharic, or in English. Imagine trying to learn geography from a textbook printed in German. That’s what a majority of Ethiopian students are experiencing.

To combat this, WEEMA has partnered with Lesley University, specifically the graduate students in Professor Susan Rauchwerk’s Science Methods course. Since 2015, the students have teamed up to write and illustrate educational books for early readers, with subjects ranging from different animals, to volcanoes, to growing coffee. The books are then translated into three languages: English – which is the primary language used in schools after grade 7, Amharic – the national language of Ethiopia, and Tambarsa – the local language of Ethiopia’s Tembaro region. Books distributed outside of the Tembaro region do not have a local translation but provide the space for educators to translate the text by hand. The translation process, made possible by WEEMA staff and African Studies professors at Harvard and Boston University, is a lengthy one, as translation is not word-for-word; “This is a translation by meaning, so it really takes time,” says Rauchwerk.

But before any text can be translated, it needs to be edited and approved in our own language first. Aside from the traditional accuracy of spelling and punctuation, the text needs to be appropriate for the reading level at hand; but most importantly, to be relatable for those who will read it. In America, for example, it’s much easier to give a character a name than most people realize. The name Bob is notoriously common; It transcends nationalities, regions and time zones. There are Bob’s in Louisiana, New Jersey, California, everywhere. The same applies to names like Jack or Emily. A name that’s common in Massachusetts is bound to be common among the other forty-nine states as well, but this isn’t necessarily the case internationally. Ethiopia may be one country, but a name that is common in one region may be unheard of in another. For this reason, character names had to be erased altogether, and titles like “Debre Gets Water” and “Ezra and Goatee” had to be altered to “We Get Water” and “Taking Care of Goats,” respectively.

Communication is critical for a project like this, all of which is handled by Professor Rauchwerk or Lesley student Brianna Fougere, who is interning as project manager since this past fall. This makes my job look incredibly simple by comparison: I merely compile all the text and images into InDesign files, adding translations once they’re finalized and making any edits as I receive them. Most of these are quick grammar fixes and name changes, but the books themselves, particularly the illustrations have continued to evolve thanks to feedback from the schools that receive them. Some comments include “In Ethiopia, the farmer holds the reins of the ox in one hand, not two, when plowing”, and “the story of Running to Bekoji does not talk about all of the other important running clubs and runners in Ethiopia”. However, most of the feedback has been nothing but positive, with statements like “It is good for children to see themselves in these books”.

To date, Lesley University has distributed over fifty different titles to children across Ethiopia – not counting the two batches of books being prepared this year – and that number will only continue to increase. I thought I had lost my faith in humanity at the hands of a cash register, but if my layout designer job has taught me anything (besides a wealth of knowledge about Ethiopian culture), it’s that there are still passionate, caring people here… and we are making a difference.


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