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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 hurricanes in the Caribbean, Florida and Texas, earthquakes in Mexico, as well the wildfires in California, 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 volunteer 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 a second language could prove extremely taxing or impossible if the person has a limited grasp of English. On-site or even remote video or telephonic interpreting can be of tremendous help during disaster relief efforts.

Every interpreter is extremely critical in these situations. It could truly be a matter of life and death, and could mean 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 patients and doctors.

In the wake of a disaster, especially one of such 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 a great example of a nonprofit organization capable of providing such linguistic support during a disaster. After Hurricane Irma hit the Miami-Dade area in Florida, for example, TWB immediately partnered with the American Red Cross and requested volunteer translators around the world to help assist with things such as translating tweets and Facebook posts.

However, during times of multiple natural disasters, TWB can be spread very thin. 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 in order to ensure the aid is provided correctly and efficiently. Having a language service team on call and prepared for your organization can help immensely leading up to and in the wake of these types of disasters. Is your organization prepared?