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 night’s earthquake, and with the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) for everywhere else.
All these recent disasters have also damaged the translation industry itself. Melissa Gillespie, a spokesperson for the translation-marketing research firm Common Sense Advisory, says between 6 and 10 percent of America’s translators and interpreters live in Irma’s path. And don’t forget about all the translators in Hurricane Harvey’s path—not just for Spanish, but for Haitian Creole and Brazilian Portuguese, as well—says Bill Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages. When hospital workers, shelter volunteers, and others don’t speak someone’s language, they’re trained to work with on-site or telephone interpreters. But “the challenge is that local translators and interpreters are just as affected as everyone else,” Rivers says. “In major disasters, relief agencies need to find additional folks to help out.”
Fortunately, even if Houston and Miami’s translators are out of pocket, their work still contributes toward the plan. “As part of our preparedness measures,” McGovern says, “we are gathering what hurricane-relief content we already have in our repository that can be repurposed, while the teams are translating simple messaging on hurricane preparedness.”
In the translation industry, this is called “translation memory”: prior words and phrases that a computer program remembers from work you’ve translated before. When the program finds overlap with a new document, tweet, or post, it provides existing translations. During Hurricane Matthew, Translators Without Borders translated information about flooding and aftermath disease into Haitian Creole, and has since shared these translations with IFRC. From Matthew and Typhoon Haiyan, there’s translation memory for flooding, rebuilding, and landslides. From the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, there’s a Nepali crisis-terms database for first responders with phrases like “Are you okay?”, “What hurts?”, and “Do you need help?” Translators Without Borders is currently expanding this database into other languages.
While translation memory helps first responders with recurring concerns, everyone in Irma’s path still needs to know where to go, when to go, and how to go. With past mass evacuations, a lack of translation has cost lives. During Hurricane Katrina, the National Council of La Raza, now UnidosUS, claims that in Gulfport, Mississippi, evacuation updates never went out in Spanish or in Portuguese. As a result, 70 to 80 limited-English-proficient people didn’t know that they needed to leave and died.