What Is the Role of Translators and Translation Technology in Crisis Settings?

Translation in Crisis Mediation

When a global crisis strikes, help must arrive fast — which usually demands coordination and information flow among people who may not speak the same language. In crisis settings, people need immediate access to crucial information.

Therefore, translators and interpreters can play a critical role in supporting the activities of responders involved in crisis communication scenarios. The Covid-19 crisis, for instance, has shown how essential it is for people to have access to information in a language they understand. As a result, a considerable body of research investigating translation as a crisis communication tool is currently emerging.

Crisis Translation

In her recent article, Crisis Translation: A snapshot in time, Sharon O’Brien, Associate Dean for Research at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Dublin City University, defines crisis (or disaster) as “an unexpected event, with sudden or rapid onset that can seriously disrupt the routines of an individual or a collective and that poses some level of risk or danger.”

Together with Federico Federici, Professor of Intercultural Crisis Communication at University College London, they have started to examine the need for and use of translation and interpreting in crisis response, as well as the role of translation as a risk reduction tool in the disaster management cycle. That is, the ongoing process by which governments, businesses, and civil society plan for and reduce the impact of disasters, react immediately following and during a disaster, and take steps to recover in the aftermath.

Since crisis communication as a field is well established, it made sense to build on it to create the parallel term “crisis translation” (i.e., any form of linguistic and cultural transmission of messages that enables access to information during an emergency, regardless of medium).

The fundamental premise underlying the concept of crisis translation remains the same: In today’s age of globalization, increased urbanization, and migration, communication before, during, and after a crisis must be multilingual and multicultural. That communication is enabled through translation and interpreting.

Training for Citizen Translators

As O’Brien put it, “professional translators and interpreters are an asset in crisis communication.” But will there be an adequate supply of this asset during a crisis?

Translation and interpreting are not established equally around the world, and translators and interpreters may also be affected by a crisis and, thus, temporarily unable to provide their typical level of service. “When people are faced with a crisis, the luxury of a trained professional is often just that – an unattainable luxury,” observed O’Brien.

In a crisis situation, a translator might be “any person who can mediate between two or more language and culture systems, without specific training or qualifications,” according to Federici. Hence, volunteerism is viewed as a “legitimate way in which people can participate in the activities of their community” — and, as such, deserves recognition and respect.

Such volunteers, though, may not have any formal translation training. It is for this reason that a group has produced materials to help train “citizen translators.” The group is called INTERACT (International Network in Crisis Translation), a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

In addition, the INTERACT team co-developed a master’s level module for translation studies at the University of Auckland, University College London, and Dublin City University on the topic of crisis translation. The aim of these ongoing modules is to enable students of translation studies to develop a skill set in support of multilingual crisis settings.

Machine Translation in Crisis Response

Machine translation (MT) might be regarded as the most appropriate technology for crisis response given the speed of production it enables and its availability online in an expanding number of languages.

“When translation is required at speed, MT is, on the surface, the most logical tool,” O’Brien pointed out. The most recent evidence of the use of MT in crisis response was the rapid development of MT engines to help Ukrainian citizens.

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The use of MT in crisis translation, however, has technical, operational, and ethical limits according to a 2020 study. Given that MT is not yet a perfect technology, its use for communication in crisis settings may be highly problematic. Getting the message wrong in crisis communication can have serious implications.

According to the same study, aside from the quality problem, some issues that need to be addressed are

  • the lack of big linguistic data to build translation engines
  • the lack of coverage for languages that may be required in crisis response
  • the lack of domain-specific engines that cover crisis content
  • the need for power and infrastructure to run the technology
  • the lack of linguistic expertise to edit output

The MT R&D community continues to tackle these challenges and is looking for ways to improve language coverage for low-resource languages, among other things.

Another significant hurdle: those involved in emergency response may be unaware about the pitfalls of MT technology. Using a free online tool may seem like an easy decision when saving lives is the priority and resources are strained. The need for training in basic MT literacy is clear.