ver a year ago I wrote an article for this publication regarding the scope of language use and the need for translation practice in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Aside from trying to explain the complex nature of the native languages of the region and their seemingly endless variants, a main point of that article was to explicate how war and strife had changed the cultural and linguistic landscape of that region. In much of my work and research, the effects of war and other forms of disaster have been primary concerns in investigating novel approaches to bettering the localization and communications processes at hand in areas that have, for a variety of unfortunate reasons, been the victim of great hardships. When I wrote about the post-Communist reforms in Mongolia in the early 1990s, it was a situation where there was no war or bloodshed, yet the outcomes were much the same in that language-use was under strong reforms motivated by a public desire to move away from the immediate past and its overshadowing Soviet influence. The pain and the resolve that peoplesometimes entire governments and entire nationsexhibit when they need, or desire, to reform their application of language in dire times can be truly powerful.
Now, as a community of language professionals, we face the horrible disaster that Haiti and its people suffered due to an earthquake that wrought extensive damagepossibly damage and death beyond what most of us can even comprehend in these supposedly modern times. The depth and scope of disaster, no matter how bad, we still expect to have some end in sight and we do not expect to encounter such obstacles as non-functioning seaports, roads that are filled with buildings which crumbled over into them, and bridges that have cracked and broken beyond use. We hope, that in any nation's time of greatest need, we can, as an international community, as translators, as doctors, as engineers, and as simply fellow humans, offer our expertise and help. With these hopes, we expect to be able to provide the most-needed of services in a manner that most strongly aids those who need a hand in pulling their lives back together. In Haiti, despite the many brave and willing people offering help, the obstacles have been very frustrating and difficult at times. As Haiti has two official languagesCreole and Frenchthe need for translators has been very acute, as most other professionals such as those in medicine, lack the language capabilities to directly communicate with many people in need of their expertise. As other professionals are needed, especially those from the United States and from Latin America where French is not a common language and Creole is expectedly even less-common, we will have a continued need for translators on the ground in Haiti but also working via the Internet and otherwise from remote locations. Doctors, nurses, architects, engineers, contractors... the list of people from outside of Haiti who will sooner or later need to come in and offer help is nearly endless. Few of them will speak either Creole or French fluently, with the exception of those coming from France and those born in Haiti and returning to their native land in its hour of need.
As the rebuilding of Haiti moves along, a lot of older legal, architectural, and policy documents will need to be consulted and probably translated.
To be of the most use in situations like this, translators need to change their operational approach just as other professionals do in such instances: after all, disasters are not, thankfully, our everyday working conditions. Most translators deal with documents from a source language that are wordsmithed and ready to move into a target language, while in a disaster many documents will be memos, emails, and other informal communications and some will not even have started out as written documents in any case, but have been transcribed for the purpose of translation alone. On the other hand, as the rebuilding of Haiti moves along, a lot of older legal, architectural, and policy documents will need to be consulted and probably translated and this will again present novel problems as their target readership for translation will be often an expert readership insofar as technical details are concerned, but one that is not versed in the history or context of the original documents. The translator, with a language-based understanding of such documents even if lacking a technical understanding of the same, may be best prepared to place them in the current context in light of the disaster's aftermath.
For translators on the ground, actually working in Haiti, they also can become not simply translators of language, but of culture, helping other international professionals at work here better understand the culture and society of Haiti. This, of course, applies to any place where there is war, disaster, or other reasons for there to be an immediate influx of a lot of outside people who are there to perform specific technical jobs. Yet in Haiti, a nation where history is complex, memory is long, and outside intervention has often been neither effective nor always kind, cultural understanding takes on a multiform aspect that is dynamic and a key challenge in making efforts to help this country actually work. There is a chasm between what efforts towards aid can provide in an immediate, pragmatic, manner and what people expect: of course, everyone in dire need of the most basic of life-sustaining items cannot see why water or food or medical treatment is taking so long to come, and the same will probably be said of efforts to rebuild public engineering aspects once we get to that stage. However, the scope of damage to Port-au-Prince, the loss of functionality in its seaport after the earthquake, the small size of the airport, the damaged streets and lost hospitals and other key buildings, all has taken a toll not only on the people directly affected but also in the logistical agency of getting help to those people. Helping everyone understand the obstacles faced and the great need to be patient but also innovative in this trying time is someone that the translator, as the professional with an ability to communicate in more than one language, can perhaps best foster.
In writing this article, I had to approach a two-leveled mission: to provide immediate suggestions to those who were entering the fray of Port-au-Prince following the earthquake in an attempt to help with efforts there and secondly, to record and learn from the experiences of these same professionals so that their experiences could in turn help others in the future, in other instances of disaster. We never know where disaster will strike, what its form will be, or what its total damage will do to a city or entire nation in the short or long term. With Haiti, the loss of Port-au-Prince's seaport was a major obstacle in the days just after the quake insofar as getting much-needed supplies in-country. Best intentions not withstanding, disaster planners quite often miss projecting all possible manifestations of how a disaster could wreck the normal avenues of transportation, health care, and other key services in great demand after a disaster strikes. With that in mind, one of the greatest lessons from Haiti is that people who were living in Port-au-Prince, whether natives or vistors, were left with a jumble, a muddle, of a city in both physical and metaphorical terms. The immediate needs of finding people and pulling them from the rubble, of providing medical care, of getting fresh water and food into the city were predicated on communication foremost. The ability to use such communications technologies, many of which were damaged in the earthquake themselves and secondly, to have translators who could communicate to other nations, people working outside the realm of French and Creole, was both imperative and complex.
Haiti, though having a long tradition of close ties to its Latin American neighbors, the United States, and France, also has been unique in the Western Hemisphere for being one of very few nations where French, and Creole, are the primary languages. I stress French alongside Creole here because even though Creole is in terms of demographics the main language, French is the language that is used most for international communications beyond English. Given that Haiti's neighbors mainly speak Spanish and English, the ability to find a common language was just another obstacle after the quake for many within Haiti who needed to conduct communications outside of their nation. Thus, many communications over the first week following the quake were conducted via friends and family who lived in the United States and acted as informal translators for people in Haiti, even those with official business in some cases. Creole, expectedly, had never become a language for which there was a great demand for translators. Instead, as is the case with most developing nations, a lot of important business was conducted in English and other languages of those outside ventures which provided services and goods to Haitian clients. Such is the same in many parts of the world that could be struck next by a horrible disaster, such as a hurricane or an earthquake.
If, in example, Bosnia was victim of an earthquake, the ability to communicate with leaders and most professional classes (physicians, engineers, police and military leaders) could be met via English, Russian, and German in most cases. The more educated people (and those who need to travel often for business) of any nation where the native language is not shared by a great many people in the international community do of course often learn English and other languages that are more commonplace. This is a fact, and not one that should in any sense belittle less-spoken languages: after all, Danish is a less-common language though Denmark is a major industrial power, and most Danes who need to conduct international business of any stripe speak several second languages. However, even if the immediate ability to communicate with a disaster-torn nation's leadership can be established via non-native languages, the ability to communicate on the ground with ordinary people is also essential and for this the native language will be best mechanism. Where, though, does one locate in short time enough translators of Creole, or of Bosnian, or even Russian or French? In the case of Haiti, the outpouring of concern and offers of kind help from the international community of translatorswhether they worked in Creole or French or notwas powerful and swift.
People within the translation industry who could not directly help in providing translating services were useful in offering pragmatic logistics such as placing people in need of translation services in touch with associates who could offer those services and also in copying, sorting, and relaying documents when needed. We tend to think of, in situations such as Haiti, the dire need for translators of a specific language however we must also realize the logistical nightmares associated with doing this vast amount of work under poor conditions and with less than the best communications technology. The level of experience in moving documents, finding innovative means for patching stubborn or broken communications routes, and otherwise doing the daily business of wordsmithing over an expanse of miles and languages is unmatched in the international localization and globalization fields. Who else would have this experience? Who else but language professionals who work day in and day out with the nuances of communicating over various languages, various cultures, could step into the fray of disaster and quickly find mechanisms for opening lines of discourse, moving texts in and out quickly, and bringing people in touch with each other even when a common language was wanting?
As the community of Creole-speaking translators is fairly small, the experience of translators and companies that have wide expertise in working in rapid translation and localization services provided very useful in the Haitian experience. Machine translation has evolved at a lightspeed pace in the past five years, and a strong indication of this is that Google, on its web-based, computer translation page recently added an alpha version of Haitian Creole to its already robust selection of languages. While this service cannot replace expert translations provided by persons versed in Creole, of course, nor can it even rival a more sophisticated software set, it allows people who do not have these immediate resources to consult a free machine-based service and also is useful to the translator perhaps working in French who has come across some documents or portions thereof in Creole. What most impressed me about Google though, aside from its dedication to providing this service quickly in the wake of the earthquake, was how this type of effort could foreshadow future abilities in cases of disasters bringing a certain language to the international forefront and Google, or other service providers, stepping in and ensuring real-time machine translation for that language. With minority languages, ones less-spoken, covering a smaller geographical range, and less-taught in the United States and elsewhere, such a service would be a boon to rescue and restructuring efforts as Google's gesture here has been. What is most exciting is that in a decade from now, perhaps the level of sophistication of such services will be high enough to provide very powerful machine translation to a wide array of customers.
My own efforts to help Haiti have thus far been focused on bettering technologies that enable translators to communicate quickly with not only end-clients but other language professionals and thereby use the Internet to maintain broad-ranging, multilingual, communication. Drawing on pervious work on parallel array programming languages, I am currently investigating means for quickly building databases useful in translating less-common languages in the event of a disaster affecting regions where such languages are found and where such databases and communication systems are not already extant. I cannot stress enough that the question that kept coming home to me during the entire process of working on the post-earthquake situation in Haiti was "how much better prepared could we have been insofar as communications and translation systems and contacts are concerned?". The next question, once again, was "where next might such a disaster strike and what language could be affected?". If, in example, an earthquake struck an area where Tartar or Turkmen is the main language spoken, would the international community be any better prepared to help ensure continued (in fact, heightened) communication than we were in the case of Haiti, where Haitian Creole was to many people outside Haiti just a historical footnote of a language? Haiti illustrates a number of truths about how developing nations, not the least these being that less-commonly spoken languages sometimes are nonetheless the primary languages of public discourse in many nations, and cannot be substituted for in the scope of a disaster.
The overall outpouring of the international community of translators and other language professionals in Haiti's hour of need has been powerful and heartwarming. The lessons learned in the Haitian experience though are dynamic ones that require us to once again consider how we offer aidboth in times of disaster and more normal timesto nations less fortunate. Haiti has every right to be very proud of its Creole and French legacy and to work to continue the aspects of these proud languages in society and government. Perhaps if there is any silver lining to the awful aftermath of the worst earthquake to strike the Western Hemisphere in modern times, it is that the unique culture of Haiti will garner greater worldwide attention. Perhaps also, we will as translators see that as useful as we were as a collective whole in Haiti's case, we need to be even more prepared, to ensure our computer-based means of communication are as fluid as possible, and be ready to pitch in wherever, and whenever, disaster strikes.