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Interview with Lali Foster, Translators without Borders

  • by Startnetwork
  • 04 Apr 16

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We spoke to Lali Foster from Translators without Borders about their part in the Start Network’s European Refugee Response.

How does Translators without Borders work?

“Our translators are all professional translators and they're volunteering their time outside of their paid work to do humanitarian translations.’

 “In this crisis translation is fundamental. Sure, people need information translated into a language that they understand, but they also need it translated into the language that they're most comfortable with. It's not enough to just translate everything into Farsi if you've got Afghanis who can kind of understand Farsi but would prefer to read in Pashto or Dari.”

“Our translators take the pressure off the field staff on the ground. For Caritas for example, the work we do for them may seem very minor, it’s just changing a few sentences on their weekly newsletter. But before we worked with them, their staff on the ground were doing that and they’re such a precious resource. To pull that person working in the field inside and say “we need you to do the Arabic update now”, that doesn't make sense.

 “The kinds of things we do in this crisis: signage, information, guidelines, audio. If you go to the camps you’ll see how important audio is, posters and lots of medical information, it varies so much, just anything you can imagine that’s written.”

So what about your role at TWB?

“My role is basically to filter the work that comes in. For example, for Mercy Corps, we translated  ‘How to use an ATM’ instructions, because they're doing a cash program, which I think is part of this grant. The English document comes to me, then I'll do the back and forth: what languages do you want? How urgent is it? And then it goes to the project managers and they get it out to our Workspace which is our virtual translator space. My other role is a comms role: including coordinating between our partners, and bringing the broader TWB community a bit closer to what's going on on the ground.”

How else have you worked with the agencies in this programme?

“All of these agencies are desperate for interpreters, so they are bringing in anyone who's bilingual. But a big problem with hiring interpreters is that hiring non-EU staff is really difficult here and there aren't that many bilingual people around, Arabic/Greek maybe, but Arabic/Greek/English or Farsi/Arabic/Greek – it’s really tricky.

“So we do training for community interpreters – people working in two or more languages. All of the participants are staff and volunteers – mostly from the agencies within the Start group. The idea is that TWB’s professional translators can build the capacity of people working on the ground as bilingual interpreters. So our training is to bring these bilingual people into an environment where they’re learning about translator’s and interpreters’ code of ethics, confidentiality and privacy and all that sort of thing, but also to develop a standardised glossary. Consistency in translation is really important: if you’ve got fifteen different agencies using different terms for the same thing it can be really confusing for the refugees.

 “A major attraction of the training course was getting all of those people in one room together to talk to other interpreters. I'm calling them interpreters but a lot of them were protection officers, and some of them were nurses, it’s anyone using language in their role. But many of them hadn’t met one another because there is no forum for interpreters and translators to get together, which is something we would be really interested in developing.

“The trainer was an Arabic professional translator and we brought a Farsi volunteer along with us so they could do breakout groups and develop a glossary; because one of our objectives under this grant is to develop a standardised glossary for this crisis in Arabic and Farsi. So at the end they all put their heads together, it was really great. We projected the glossary onto a board with all of the words we’re using in this crisis specifically. Now we can circulate the glossary of this crisis around the humanitarian community, which is great. Again, totally from coordination through the [Start] Network.


“Our work with Internews is really interesting too: the Rumours project. They go out and gather the information and it comes to us for translation. We have to make sure we're not losing that original texture of a language at the beginning. On our recent trip to Greece, our translators got to talk to interpreters on the ground so they could tell us “no we're not calling it that”."

How is the Start Network programme different to organisations all working independently?

“For this response, going in we didn't actually have the network in place, nor did we know everyone who was going to be working on communications. So the Start Network has just been absolutely everything to us. We wouldn't be collaborating with all those partners if we didn't have it.

“We might have eventually made contact with them by being on the ground, but I went to the first Start meeting, got everyone's email addresses, and just went from there. Most of the people I met there started working with us straight away.  Being able to broaden a partnership base to all those different groups is owed to our involvement in the Start Network .

“It was about meeting people at that workshop, but it was also about learning what they are doing. We had activities where we put Post-it notes on maps of Greece and the Balkans to show where we’re working and what we’re doing, so being able to get that overview and thinking ‘wow ok those guys are doing a lot of, insert programme, they will have a lot of information needs in that area’ and ‘oh that person is the one I should get in touch with to get in touch with a colleague’. All of that happened in one day. It would have taken me at least a month just to find all this out.

“But in terms of coordination of agencies when they're doing similar stuff, the other day at a Start workshop I met a staff member  from Samaritan's Purse who said to me they need some translations of how to use an ATM, and I said “don't do them again I’ve got them here!” So we have this bird's-eye view of the comms going on. Of course I read the stuff that comes in to us in a cursory way and I can see when somebody is working on something someone else is working on and I can put them together."

Are you working with other organisations outside of this programme?

“I think a really interesting thing about this crisis is the volunteer community. We did a fair bit of work for volunteer groups because I was on Lesvos and connected with them.  We support very well-established agencies, but we have also supported organisations that didn’t have any funding at all, and they were the first responders to this crisis and they, in many cases, do not have any experience of making that kind of material. Is there a way as professional humanitarians we can offer more to that wider group? Capacity building grassroots organisations?"

This programme ends on 31st March, will you continue to respond to this crisis?

“Well we still have bilateral agreements [with some of the agencies]. And the need for our work is clearly still there, where the humanitarian need is, we know the information needs are a part of that too.”

The Start Network Eurpopean Refugee Response is funded by UK Aid.

Read more about the Start Network European Refugee Response.

Read more about Translators Without Borders.

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European refugee crisis

  • by Startnetwork

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