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When Hurricane Warnings Are Lost in Translation

When Hurricane Warnings Are Lost in Translation
The Atlantic (DC) (09/08/17) Bell, Terena

During the past three weeks, emergency management organizations have found their resources severely tested, especially when it comes to providing crucial information to those who do not speak English.

For example, 2.6 million residents in Miami-Dade County, Florida, were in the path of Hurricane Irma. According to the most recent American Community Survey, 72.8% of the area’s population speaks a language other than English at home—for 64%, that’s Spanish. When a language community is this large, the easy answer to “How will they get lifesaving information in a language they understand?” is “From each other.” But while Spanish may be the language of choice in Miami, it’s not in Washington, DC, where the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other first-responder and aid organizations are based. These organizations operate primarily in English, which can be an added challenge to getting the word out.

To communicate in Miami-Dade, the American Red Cross partnered with Translators without Borders, an international non-governmental organization based in Danbury, Connecticut. According to Amy Rose McGovern, Translators without Borders’ director of External Affairs, 200 volunteers around the world translated tweets and Facebook posts from English into Spanish, Haitian Creole, French, and both Brazilian and European Portuguese. Translators without Borders has been around since 1993, so the organization is well prepared to help in any crisis. But they’re stretched thin right now, working with the British Red Cross to help Irma victims in the Caribbean, with the Mexican Red Cross to assist after last week’s earthquake, and with the International Federation of Red Cross for everywhere else.

These recent disasters have also affected the availability of translators and interpreters. Melissa Gillespie, a spokesperson for the translation marketing research firm Common Sense Advisory, says between 6-10% of America’s translators and interpreters live in areas impacted by Irma. And don’t forget about all the translators and interpreters in Hurricane Harvey’s path who handle not just Spanish, but Haitian Creole and Brazilian Portuguese. “The challenge is that local translators and interpreters are just as affected as everyone else,” says Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages. “In major disasters, relief agencies need to find additional folks to help out,” Rivers says.

As with the diminished supply of translators and interpreters, what people plan for before a crisis and what reality looks like during one can’t always align—no matter how hard translators, interpreters, and responders try.

Article taken from the ATA Newsbriefs from 9/15/2017.


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