Translating the war in the Middle East and the refugee situation

The war in the Middle East continues to affect millions of people, causing many to flee their homes in search of a better life. Once again, 2016 was a year in which the international news was dominated by the refugee crisis.

Translation plays an important role in the management of this crisis, seeking to welcome refugees to their new countries and help them build a new life in a place that is often very different to what they are used to.

Translation also plays a very important role with the media and in the understanding we have of what is happening in the conflict zones. To what extent can translation help with this distant reality?


War and the refugee crisis: language as a witness

The world is confronted by wars and humanitarian crises in countries such as Syria and Iraq, which are being shattered by civil war and international intervention, and Libya in North Africa, where violent political agitation continues.

Fear and uncertainty are constants for those living in these war zones. Millions of refugees continue to flee their homes, to escape war, persecution and poverty and to improve their lives.

Those who remain try to survive and protect their families from the terror plaguing what was once their home – and which is now threatened by destruction and suffering.

There is a natural need for those affected by war to express their feelings, to share their experiences with the world, to tell their stories as they search for hope in a resolution and the end to conflict.

Writing and language become witnesses of war in countries such as Syria, where, for example, poetry prospers among the ashes and the horrors of the streets. Words also become a battle cry.

Arabic has become increasingly important in recent years, with a greater need to translate to and from this language. Learning it has become important as we seek to understand just what is going on in that part of the world.

As these writings become a mirror of our age and a historic document for the contradictory narratives they represent, it is also important to get to know other languages in addition to that most spoken in these countries.


Translating war and humanitarian crisis situations

The West’s greatest contact with this distant reality occurs via the media. Television channels and print and online news sources have correspondents in these locations reporting on the situation so that we can know what is happening.

To assimilate this news into our mother tongue we receive the information in a language that is different from the original – whether it be through reports from refugee aid agencies or from the international journalists who seek it out.

English is practically the lingua franca of the media and the Internet, often serving as the bridge between Arabic and other languages. Because it is well known and easily translated, it has become the main way of communicating information.

Translation is thus an integral part of our understanding of distant realities, helping explain history while offering a perception of the war and of the humanitarian crises in these countries.

In addition to this a posteriori translation, there are also many translators working in these war-torn countries who are responsible for witnessing events and for recounting the stories of those people in a new language, particularly English.

Lina Mounzer has translated many of these war reports from Arabic into English. She says she cannot get used to the violence of the stories and the desperation of the words: there is always something unexpected in the narrative she helps make known to the West.

The testimony and inaction of translation is a close reality, but one that is protected and which does not push one away from what one reads and translates: “to translate a text is to enter into the most intimate relationship with it possible”.

Particularly in situations of war or humanitarian crisis, translation is more than just transposing words from one language to another: it is “transplanting a feeling, a way of seeing the world, from one vocabulary of experience to another”, she adds.

Translation gains strength with this need to report a political and social crisis to the rest of the world. Journalism, photography and culture in general help us understand this reality – and translation helps amplify it to all interested parties.

Sources: LITHUB and LATimes

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