Abstract Problems of translation, where one word in a local African language may be used to cover two (or more) concepts for which separate words would be used in a European language, have created serious difficulties for the scientists who have been investigating the 1986 Lake Nyos gas disaster. The most obvious example, and the one which caused the greatest confusion amongst the investigators (and a long running dispute in the scientific literature), being the use in the languages of the people who lived near Lake Nyos of a single word to cover both smell and taste. Thus, reports that the gas cloud had a ‘bad smell’.could have been translated with equal accuracy as reports that the gas cloud had a ‘bad taste’. Had this been appreciated during the initial investigation many of the subsequent disputes over the origin of the gas and the mechanism by which it was released might have been avoided. A second example, and one which well illustrates the extraordinary differences between linguistic groups and the potential for confusion which is inherent in such differences, can be found in the lack of separate words for the primary colours in some African languages. This is further complicated by the use, in the Pidgin English of western Cameroon of the word ‘red’ to refer to all the primary colours! Thus, when the surface water of Lake Nyos turned a yellow-brown after the disaster the people who lived in the area would have said that it had turned ‘red’ and when the lake water cleared and returned to its normal bright blue the people would still have said that it was ‘red’.