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The Importance of Language Services during Disaster Relief Efforts

When a city or country is hit by a natural disaster, such as the recent earthquakes in Nepal, many volunteer agencies send people and groups to assist with providing aid and relief to those who are coping with the aftermath. These groups are instrumental in providing food, water, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for those affected by the disaster. However, they are not always equipped with the basic language skills to communicate effectively with these individuals, which could hinder the relief efforts immensely in certain cases. For that reason, volunteers assisting with language translation and interpretation can be just as important as any other volunteers assisting in providing aid. Communication in the native language of those suffering from a disaster is crucial. Many victims could already be disoriented and panicked during the aftermath, and trying to understand instructions, documents or alerts in the language of first responders could prove either extremely taxing if the person has a limited grasp of that language, or completely impossible if not. On-site or even remote video or telephonic interpretation can help tremendously if someone is available.

Every interpreter is extremely important in these situations. It could truly be a matter of life and death, and the difference between someone being administered emergency medication that he is allergic to versus one that is safe for him. It could also have an impact on whether doctors are treating the correct symptoms, as an interpreter will be able to correctly convey what the person is experiencing instead of relying on limited communication capabilities between patient and doctor.

However, in the wake of a disaster, especially one of a large scale, it may not always be possible for an interpreter to be available for everyone’s needs. Translators can also step in to ensure proper translation of alerts and emergency documents for those in the disaster area. Translators Without Borders (TWB) is one example of a nonprofit organization capable of providing such linguistic support during a disaster. After receiving word of the recent earthquake in Nepal, for example, TWB immediately requested volunteer translators to help assist with things such as translating documents issued by the first response teams, as well as first aid documents. They have also provided translation services for the Red Cross to assist with their missing persons program, translated Twitter messages with crucial information and updates, and have even created a text-to-speech tool that the first responders have been able to use to communicate with those they are aiding.

Because of the critical nature of native-language communication during disaster relief efforts, providing language services during these times is just as important as providing many other types of aid during this time, to ensure the aid is provided correctly and efficiently.

On-site or remote interpreting: Which is the best fit for you and your organization?

Something we've noticed with a lot of our interpreting clients, especially those here in Columbus and Central Ohio, is that they want to know which route to take when it comes to oral interpreting for their organization. Many who call as first-time language service buyers are not sure which is the best option for them. So, we make sure to ask them some key questions first in order to assess the situation before we can recommend an option or a combination of the two. Here are some options if you are in need of oral interpretation. Remember, you may decide that you need to choose more than one option to fit your interactions with clients, colleagues, patients, etc.

On-Site Interpretation This type of service offering is probably the most commonly sought in our industry. Interpreters are hired to perform this service in person at the time of an arranged appointment or meeting where an LEP (Limited English Proficient) individual or group of people is present and requires an interpreter. Once the interpreter arrives and meets the LEP individual, s/he will explain to all those involved that s/he will interpret everything that is spoken during the meeting.

Remember, a good interpreter will interpret everything that is said, even the side conversations that take place if within earshot. The reason for this is that the LEP person should be on equal footing with the rest of the individuals in the room, i.e. the interpreter's job is not to select what is or is not important for this person to hear.

Telephonic Interpreting Another very effective form of interpreting, telephonic interpreters are hired when an organization may not need an interpreter on-site or when certain languages are required that are rarely spoken in a geographic area, among other reasons. Although there is a disadvantage in that the interpreter cannot see the gestures and movements of those involved in the appointment, there is not always a need for an interpreter to physically be present to interpret, particularly if the interaction is brief or very simple.

One of the most common reasons our clients contract us for telephonic interpreting is for short, simple communications, such as those that take place in the workplace almost daily (think greetings and quick interactions like depositing a paycheck, scheduling a future appointment, etc.). Many clients like to use dual-handset phones, which allow both you and the LEP individual to each hold a receiver while the call takes place. This way, you can both hear the entire interaction with the interpreter and talk directly to one another, avoiding "he said, she said" conversations. Video Remote Interpreting Another type of remote interpreting, video remote interpreting (VRI) is often used for sign language interactions, as telephonic services would not be effective. You will need to have video conferencing equipment, or at the very least, a webcam, speakers and a microphone. The interpreter may be working from a call center or from home, much like a telephonic interpreter. However, you and the LEP individual will be able to see this person, and s/he will listen to you through a headset. If the person who needs the interpreter is not deaf, but rather, speaks another language, the interpreter will speak through his/her microphone in first person (using pronouns like "I", "me" and "you" to reflect the speakers' words accurately).

Sign language interpreters will also interpret in a similar way, but this is often referred to as "in person" interpreting. They will speak through the proper signs directly to the deaf individual as if s/he were the one originally speaking.

Hopefully these explanations will help you to decide what is the best option or set of options for you and your organization. If after reading this you are still unsure, contact a professional company that provides these services and request more information. An important thing to remember is that interpreters should always interpret the entire message and do so in first person. This not only creates a more personable and authentic interaction, but it ensures a more accurate interpretation as well.

What types of interpreting have worked for you? Which would you like to see utilized within your organization if you do not already have one of these services available?