Do we have enough (human) translators and interpreters to help vulnerable communities?

Refugee crises across the globe this year — from the European Union to Martha’s Vineyard — have highlighted the importance of maintaining a large, diverse workforce of human translators and interpreters.

The most recent instance has come to light via a recent report from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). According to the report from earlier this week, council officers at one UK locale struggled to meet demand for Ukrainian- and Russian-language interpreters this spring, resorting to Google Translate to help the refugees who’d arrived in the country. 

“We do throughout the authority have access to interpreters and translation services,” the North Tyneside Council’s welfare and tenancy support manager told the BBC earlier this week. “What we very quickly found was that whilst we do have access to those facilities, the numbers, particularly in April and May time, were just not enough. So, we used Google Translate.”

Although the report clarified that human interpreters and translators helped with particularly sensitive or “complex” cases, it’s unclear in which situations Google Translate was deemed appropriate. While Google Translate is not ideal in such instances, the council maintains that nobody complained in response to the app’s use and a handful of refugees with proficiency in English and Ukrainian or Russian were able to offer impromptu language services. 

[Related: Translit will provide free language services to Ukrainian refugees]

The recent waves of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the ongoing war in their home country have highlighted a critical weak spot in many host countries’ language services: The number of human interpreters and translators who can help new arrivals is simply too low, particularly in areas that historically did not have such high demand for these services. Back in August, for example, Translit’s CEO told MultiLingual that there were only about five interpreters in the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association registered to provide services in the Ukrainian language (and just ten who could provide services in Russian).

Other refugee crises have also highlighted these weak spots: Earlier this year in the United States, Venezuelan migrants were met with high school students in an Advanced Placement Spanish course in place of professional human interpreters.

As these crises continue to bring light to the limited number of interpreters and translators in certain host countries, efforts to train interpreters — for example, TransLit’s program to provide multilingual Ukrainian refugees with fundamental training as interpreters earlier this year — are becoming an increasingly important part of the language services ecosystem.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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