Language is bound up with power: we all know that from our own experience.
If you can express yourself in the right way for your audience, you can open doors and gain access to opportunities that would otherwise be closed to you. And that’s in your own language – imagine trying in someone else’s.
In many countries, speakers of minority languages who aren’t fluent in the official national language are at a structural disadvantage. Not only in their capacity to influence people in authority, but because the geographical region or ethnic group they belong to is less prosperous or powerful. And it is in marginalized, impoverished regions and among marginalized, impoverished sections of the population that conflicts are most likely to arise and disasters cut most deeply.
When the fighting starts, who is unable to get away in time?
When the rains fail or the floods come, whose crops are lost? Often those who are poorer, less educated, less well connected.
To ensure they are hearing from and communicating with the most vulnerable people in an emergency, humanitarians need to know which languages those people speak and understand. They need to be able to call on trained translators and interpreters working with those languages – languages where often the pool of trained linguists is small at best. They need information on literacy, existing information channels and access to mobile phones and the internet in order to determine the options open to them for relaying information and receiving feedback from communities.
Above all, perhaps, they need an awareness that language can be a factor of vulnerability – and knowledge that there are tools available to aid communication.
Translators without Borders is scaling up its support to communities and aid workers in humanitarian emergencies, with support from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) backed by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To find out more, read my blog on the HIF website:
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By Ellie Kemp, Translators without Borders Head of Crisis Response