Learning about Language: TWB’s support for humanitarians to overcome language barriers in the Tigray refugee response

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Photo: Danish Refugee Council

In a decade working in humanitarian emergencies, I haven’t before been so challenged by the language barrier as humanitarians are in this response in eastern Sudan. Over 60,000 people have fled from Tigray in northern Ethiopia and are currently living in basic conditions in camps in Gedaref state, Sudan. Language and communication between humanitarians and crisis-affected people are key to delivering a useful, quality response. It is crucial to have a proper understanding of people’s needs, by asking questions in an appropriate language and format, as well as ensuring people are able to provide feedback and hold responders to account, in the language they prefer. To ensure programme quality, we need also to communicate about the programmes – providing information that people understand, so they know what to expect, and can comment on it, helping shape the design to whatever works best for them. Everyone needs to be able to participate in these conversations – not only a few people who happen to speak English, for example – and Translators Without Borders (TWB)’s focus is to enable responders to make sure this happens.

Communicating without a shared language

Tigrinya is the first language for the majority of Tigrayan refugees in Sudan. The main second language is Amharic, and the third language, for those who have one, is either Arabic (older people who have often been displaced to Sudan before) or English (secondary school graduates, mostly younger generations). Coordination meetings are in English, for the international humanitarian staff to understand, and the information they generate to share with the camp residents is primarily in English. Most discussions between the majority Sudanese humanitarian staff is in Arabic. Some camp-level meetings are in both English and Arabic, but not Tigrinya, which excludes most community members from attending and limits the possibilities for participation. Often, in a group discussion, there are two steps for interpreting – Tigrinya to English, then English to Arabic. It has made it very difficult for people to understand each other and created a barrier to access information because people are nervous to approach humanitarian workers in case they didn’t understand. It also means less information has been shared because humanitarian organizations weren’t sure how best to share it, or how to accurately translate it to the appropriate language.

I travelled to Sudan last month under a TWB project funded by the H2H network mandated to find out more about the language barriers and support the humanitarian community to overcome them -- an essential step to building back trust with the refugee community, helping responders understand better the needs and opinions of the people living in the camps, so that their voices could be heard and acted upon.

I worked with the lead agencies of the response and of technical sectors to identify the key actors. With the local project team, we conducted a rapid language assessment to provide language support to assessment and accountability processes. A key part of our work was to raise humanitarian workers’ awareness and understanding of the language challenges and ways to address them. As part of this, we provided training for frontline responders on how to consider the importance of language in accountability mechanisms and assessments, and how to mitigate language barriers to ensure quality outcomes.

I heard from so many people living in Um Rakuba camp that it was impossible for them to get information from humanitarian workers, that they didn’t understand what services were available, and they felt that nobody wanted to provide them with information. I also heard from some frontline workers that they just didn’t know what they could do about this inability to communicate.

It was worrying to see how this communication hurdle affected trust and availability of information in the camp, several months into the response. A lot of aid has been delivered and people now have food and shelter. But they don’t know how to complain when they don’t get aid, and don’t know what they’re entitled to. They’re told things in Arabic, which not all Tigrayans understand. To improve communication, they need information in Tigrinya. There’s very little written information about services in any language, which means people rely on snippets of translated or stilted conversations with people who may not have reliable information anyway.

Understanding the problem is the first step to finding solutions

Having witnessed humanitarians’ struggle to communicate well with refugees in other contexts, I knew it was important to get people talking about the language issue and integrating it into their communication strategies. After our training-of-trainers session on language in accountability, it was great to see participants motivated to build on the adaptations they’d already started within their programmes, and to share experiences.

Amina*, a programme manager with an INGO, said,

“This training really opened our minds to a new topic. We haven’t talked about language in our approach to communicating with affected communities, even though we know it will be a big challenge. During focus group discussions, everything takes longer with translation. As well, people talk for a long time in their language, and then the interpreter translates just the summary. In my job, I need more detail and analysis. So I have to discuss with several different groups in order to check I have the right information. It’s really a challenge.”

Amina works in the prevention of and response to gender-based violence. As an expert in this area, she’s very conscious of power dynamics in society and has been interested in how language plays into that. In TWB’s training, we talk about the relationship between language and power; we discuss how we have to listen to everyone and not reinforce power imbalances in a community. Amina has been more aware of this since TWB’s training:

“I and others find it easier to talk to people in Arabic, and we know some refugees we work with who do speak good Arabic. But now we are more aware of making sure we listen to people who speak only Tigrinya.”

One of the documents we discussed was the protection referral pathway, which had been translated from English. This document helps service providers to understand which services vulnerable people, such as survivors of trauma and violence, are able to access and how to access them. Some of the camp residents who were tasked with using the pathway in their work as community outreach workers noticed some unusual terminology in the translation, which didn’t accurately reflect the intended meaning of the technical language around gender-based violence. Humanitarian workers then agreed on more appropriate terminology with some members of the community and revised the translation. This experience highlighted the importance of back-translating sensitive documents and using agreed terminology in translations. TWB has developed a glossary for the Tigray response to promote more consistent translations, particularly of technical documents.

Language is key to a more effective response – how can we build on this understanding?

It’s great to have people like Amina, with her renewed understanding and awareness of language, working in this response. The language challenge is clear and yet has not been considered in the response. For example, there is rarely dedicated funding for written translation. Most interpreters are untrained volunteers who don’t always understand the specific subject matter they’re translating, as it may relate to medical or other complex topics.

In addition, few complaint and feedback systems have been set up yet. Where they do exist, many people – often the most vulnerable – do not yet properly understand how to use them. The lack of structured information provision on services and rights adds to the problem.

But I feel hopeful listening to people like Amina, and others who participated in TWB’s training. People are talking about how significant the language issue is to ensure the programmes are effective, relevant and accountable. That is reassuring – it means future programmes may be designed with this in mind.

Humanitarians must think about how to talk to different parts of the community, who most needs to hear the information, and how they will be able to access it. They must plan for affected people to provide their feedback and input. It’s critical to work more with community volunteers who speak the same language as the programme participants. Understanding that people need access to both spoken and written information is key, so that they can be sure of accuracy and know how to follow up and hold services to account.

TWB’s glossary is now available online, and we will soon share training and guidance on accountability mechanisms informed by our rapid language assessment. Please do check out this package of resources and share it with humanitarian responders in eastern Sudan to generate more discussion, find solutions, and integrate language into programme design.

*Names have been changed