METM23 Chronicles: Federico Federici

Translating in acute crises – on texts, contexts, and languages

“A lingua franca is never enough.” Quite the opening statement for keynote Federico Federici’s talk.

Humanitarian work is not my bread and butter, but Federico left me with plenty to ponder. He took us behind the scenes of language and cultural mediation in crisis settings such as COVID-19 and the current Mediterranean migrant flows, with a focus on Italy, managing to tackle these thorny, emotionally charged topics with rigour and a delicate touch of humour. It was hard not to be moved by his message.

Translating in acute crises at METM23

“Translators and interpreters are more important than translations and interpretations in these settings.” Federico stressed that the human aspect carries more weight than the output, which he brought home to us with the example of an Italian government web page for asylum seekers with translated information hidden behind Italian file names. While the translation box has been ticked, the underlying human element has been left behind. More institutional understanding is needed for progress.

Humans need resources to work efficiently. Federico invited us to consider how difficult it would be to translate without our treasured terminology tools. But the political will (and budget) to build up much-needed resources for the future will continue to fall short as long as inflammatory cries of “crisis” and “emergency” abound in the media. Humans also need training, and that, too, takes time. In crisis settings, the situation is further complicated by a blurring of skill sets. When a migrant boat docks and people need urgent support, there is no longer a neat distinction between translation, modes of interpreting, and cultural and linguistic mediation. More resources and interdisciplinary training are needed for progress.

In Italy, the Constitution dictates that you cannot be discriminated against for the language you speak. Equal access to information is a right. Federico took us through the importance of this in healthcare especially. Here, translation is a form of social justice and language is a social determinant of health – our linguistic identity contributes to our general socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions. But how do you keep up with fast-changing COVID-19 rules? How do you reach communities who don’t use the lingua franca? How do you manage differing literacy levels? How can you provide access to essential information?

Federico introduced us to his research project, STRIVE (Sustainable Translations to Reduce Inequalities and Vaccination hEsitancy). The project explores inequalities in the vaccine uptake between migrants and the local population in Italy, using interviews and questionnaires to obtain data on the preferred languages of migrant communities in Rome and the Emilia Romagna region and create language maps. Linguistic identities are tricky to pin down, being variable by nature, but there are important issues surrounding trust owing to cultural and linguistic differences. More demographic data are needed for progress.

Federico also reminded us that minority and majority language labels are context-dependent. Stranded in an airport abroad, we can all find ourselves in a temporarily vulnerable state and require linguistic or cultural support. We all need access to information we can understand. And in a crisis setting, risk communication through translation, interpreting or mediation is an excellent value-for-money service. In healthcare settings specifically, even the World Health Organization’s own strategic communications framework includes “understandable” as one of its principles for effective communications.

Federico had much more to say than an hour could accommodate, but the work continues.

My takeaway is that humans, mediating culturally and/or linguistically, really matter in crisis settings. The work is interdisciplinary (like MET’s own principles), so when we collaborate, we can do great, human things.

Theresa Truax-Gischler summed up neatly on Instagram: “Federico inspires the best, the most human in us…” (shared with permission).

This METM23 keynote talk was chronicled by Hayley Smith.*

Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato; embedded photo by the author.

*Sign in to the MET website to view Hayley’s profile.

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