What is the role of translators and translation technologies in crisis situations?

When a global crisis hits, help needs to arrive quickly – which usually requires coordination and the flow of information between people who may not speak the same language. In crisis situations, people need immediate access to crucial information.

Therefore, translators and interpreters can play a vital role in supporting the activities of responders involved in crisis communication scenarios. The Covid-19 crisis, for example, 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 focusing on translation as a crisis communication tool is emerging.

Crisis Translation

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

Together with Federico Federici, Professor of Intercultural Crisis Communication at University College London, they began to examine the need for and use of translation and interpretation 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, respond immediately after and during a disaster, and take action to recover from it.

Crisis communication being a well-established field, it was logical to take inspiration from it to create the parallel term “crisis translation” (i.e. any form of linguistic and cultural transmission of messages allowing access information in the event of an emergency, whatever the medium).

The fundamental premise behind the concept of crisis translation remains the same: in today’s era of globalization, increased urbanization and migration, communication before, during and after a crisis must be multilingual and multicultural. . This communication is made possible by translation and interpretation.

Training for citizen translators

As O’Brien says, “professional translators and interpreters are an asset in crisis communication”. But will there be a sufficient supply of this asset in times of crisis?

Translation and interpretation are not established in the same way around the world, and translators and interpreters can also be affected by a crisis and therefore temporarily unable to provide their usual level of service. “When people are faced with a crisis, the luxury of a trained professional is often just that – an unattainable luxury,” O’Brien observed.

In a crisis situation, a translator can be “anyone capable of mediating between two or more linguistic and cultural systems, without specific training or qualifications”, according to Federici. Therefore, volunteerism is seen as a “legitimate means by which people can participate in the activities of their community” and, as such, deserves recognition and respect.

These volunteers, however, may not have 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 Masters level module for translation studies at the University of Auckland, University College London and Dublin City University on the topic of crisis translation. The objective of these continuous modules is to enable translation students to develop a set of skills in support of multilingual crisis situations.

Machine Translation in Crisis Response

Machine translation (MT) could be considered the most appropriate technology to respond to crises given the speed of production it allows and its online availability in an increasing number of languages.

“When translation is needed at high speed, machine translation is, at first glance, the most logical tool,” O’Brien pointed out. The most recent evidence of the use of TM in crisis response has been the rapid development of TM engines to help Ukrainian citizens.

The use of machine translation in crisis translation, however, has technical, operational and ethical limitations according to a 2020 study. Since TM is not yet a perfect technology, its use for crisis communication can be very problematic. Getting the wrong message in crisis communication can have serious consequences.

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

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

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

Another significant obstacle: those involved in emergency response may not be aware of the pitfalls of MT technology. Using a free online tool can seem like an easy decision when saving lives is the priority and resources are limited. The need for basic literacy training in TM is clear.