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When Hurricane Warnings Are Lost in Translation

With Irma looming, organizations are hitting some roadblocks in getting information out to Floridians who don’t speak English.

In any crisis situation, there’s preparation and then there’s reality. First responders and government agencies can train volunteers, put an action plan into place, and get everything as ready as it can possibly be. But then the hurricane hits.

For many of Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million residents, one of Hurricane Irma’s very present realities is language. According to the most recent American Community Survey, 72.8 percent of the area’s population speaks a language other than English at home—for 64 percent, that’s Spanish.

When a language community is this large, the easy answer to “How will they get lifesaving information in a language they understand?” is “From each other.” But while Spanish may be the language of choice in Miami, it’s not in Washington, D.C., where the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other first-responder and aid organizations are based. These organizations operate in English first, which can be an added challenge to getting word out.

To communicate in Miami-Dade, the American Red Cross has partnered with Translators Without Borders, an international NGO based in Danbury, Connecticut. According to Amy Rose McGovern, Translators Without Borders’ director of External Affairs, 200 volunteers around the world are rapidly translating tweets and Facebook posts from English into Spanish, Haitian Creole, French, and both Brazilian and European Portuguese.

Translators Without Borders has been around since 1993, so the organization is well-prepared to help in any crisis. But they’re stretched thin right now, working with the British Red Cross to help Irma victims in the Caribbean, with the Mexican Red Cross to assist after last night’s earthquake, and with the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) for everywhere else.

All these recent disasters have also damaged the translation industry itself. Melissa Gillespie, a spokesperson for the translation-marketing research firm Common Sense Advisory, says between 6 and 10 percent of America’s translators and interpreters live in Irma’s path. And don’t forget about all the translators in Hurricane Harvey’s path—not just for Spanish, but for Haitian Creole and Brazilian Portuguese, as well—says Bill Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages. When hospital workers, shelter volunteers, and others don’t speak someone’s language, they’re trained to work with on-site or telephone interpreters. But “the challenge is that local translators and interpreters are just as affected as everyone else,” Rivers says. “In major disasters, relief agencies need to find additional folks to help out.”

The language barrier is between Miami and everybody else.

Fortunately, even if Houston and Miami’s translators are out of pocket, their work still contributes to the plan. “As part of our preparedness measures,” McGovern says, “we are gathering what hurricane-relief content we already have in our repository that can be repurposed, while the teams are translating simple messaging on hurricane preparedness.”

In the translation industry, this is called “translation memory”: prior words and phrases that a computer program remembers from work you’ve translated before. When the program finds overlap with a new document, tweet, or post, it provides existing translations. During Hurricane Matthew, Translators Without Borders translated information about flooding and aftermath disease into Haitian Creole, and has since shared these translations with IFRC. From Matthew and Typhoon Haiyan, there’s translation memory for flooding, rebuilding, and landslides. From the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, there’s a Nepali crisis-terms database for first responders with phrases like “Are you okay?”, “What hurts?”, and “Do you need help?” Translators Without Borders is currently expanding this database into other languages.

While translation memory helps first responders with recurring concerns, everyone in Irma’s path still needs to know where to go, when to go, and how to go. With past mass evacuations, a lack of translation has cost lives. During Hurricane Katrina, the National Council of La Raza, now UnidosUS, claims that in Gulfport, Mississippi, evacuation updates never went out in Spanish or in Portuguese. As a result, 70 to 80 limited-English-proficient people didn’t know that they needed to leave and died.

Again, the fact that Spanish is so widely spoken in Miami may prevent a similar occurrence here: Univision and Telemundo are disseminating information. For Haitian Creole, in-language radio stations are doing the same. But the problem isn’t that the people of Miami don’t understand each other. The language barrier is between Miami and everybody else.

To bridge any barrier with the State of Florida itself, FloridaDisaster.org, the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website, has weather updates in English, French, Spanish, and German. But try to find a shelter, and it’s English only: Somehow, the current translations have left Florida’s shelter-location list out. The site’s non-English versions are also riddled with broken links. Systran, a Seoul-based company that has translated FDEM’s site since 2006, says the problem comes from the site’s use of iFrame, a common HTML-coding method used to layer information on a page. (FDEM was not yet able to provide further details at the time of publication.)

To Systran’s credit, iFrame is common but difficult for any automated translation software to take words from. The industry is looking for a fix, but it won’t be here before Irma. As with the diminished supply of translators, what people plan for before a crisis and what reality looks like during one can’t always align—no matter how hard translators and responders try.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.


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