Bot Towan! #InterpretersMatter

Rohingya interpreter at work

Today was a bit grueling. We went to interview people who have newly arrived at Balukhali makeshift camp about cyclones and cyclone preparations. We did that, and in the process confirmed what I already knew: specific skills are needed to act as a translator or interpreter in a crisis. After today, I am more convinced than ever that language services - translating, interpreting, simplification and training - are an essential part of this crisis response. TWB has a vital role to play here

TWB's first Rohingya interpreter

Our very first semi-trained Rohingya interpreter accompanied me and the two co-leads of the Communicating with Communities Working Group (CWC WG) to run a focus group discussion with ‘model mothers’ (women trained by UNICEF to help people in the community with basic needs), and to interview various members of the community – young, old, and leaders. The day was hot and long, but manageable. What was difficult was talking about cyclones to traumatized people, many of whom told of horrible stories and cried as they recalled what they left behind. The threat of cyclone damage is very real in the camps, especially with the makeshift shelters, but on a sunny day with no wind, it felt trite when set against the horror of gunshot wounds, burnt homes and lost family.

Rohingya interpreter at work on Cox's Bazar
TWB's first Rohingya interpreter interpreting at a focus group discussion with ‘model mothers.’

Yet Rafique, the first Rohingya interpreter who has received some training, handled it all very well. Rafique is a long-term resident of Cox’s Bazar. He is Rohingya by birth, born in Myanmar, and very committed to helping the new arrivals. For years he has run the Rohingya Youth Association, an unofficial group in Cox’s Bazar that teaches long-term Rohingya camp residents some basic skills, especially reading and writing English and Bangla (the children in the camps are not officially allowed to go to school). A number of the kids whom he and his team have taught have gone on to universities around the world, and many of them will help us with our language work from afar.

Training Rohingya interpreters in Cox's Bazar

Rohingya is Rafique’s mother tongue. He had done some ad hoc interpreting for various journalists in town, but he had never been trained. Like many unskilled interpreters, he made classic mistakes. He summarized a person’s long explanation in just a few words, and he very often editorialized what the person said – adding his own explanation. He also would not always properly understand what the English person asked him to do, nodding that he understood when he actually was not quite sure.

Training interpreters like Rafique is one of Translators without Borders’ major goals in Cox’s Bazar. While locals will say that the new arrivals understand Chittagong, the local Bangla dialect, just fine, we keep finding that that is not the case, especially in areas of health. Today we found that is also not the case in simple explanations about cyclones.

Prior to going to the field, I worked with Rafique over several evenings, giving him basic training on how to interpret. We worked with videos of new arrivals talking about their harrowing trips to Bangladesh. He practiced interpreting their explanations, working on the full meaning, but only the meaning – not his additional thoughts. We also discussed the ethics of interpreting and did some basic work on how to operate in a humanitarian context, including how to speak directly to the person being interviewed and how to work with the international staff.

I also worked with the two international team members about the interpreter relationship. While humanitarians who work in the field intuitively know that the interpreter is a vital link that has the power to help the situation greatly, they are often under a lot of stress, working long hours, and possibly unaware of how to ‘get the most’ out of the interpreter relationship and role. This particular situation was a good place to start because the two CWC WG co-leaders are communicators themselves, so they were engaged and willing to learn, focusing on changing their instructions to accommodate the interpreter, asking him to work with the interviewee to give information in small chunks, and encouraging him to sit at the same level as the interviewee to build trust and engagement. The final preparation included giving Rafique all of the field questions in English and Bangla before the interviews. It is surprising how often those working with interpreters do not educate them beforehand on what they will be talking about. Rafique reviewed all of the questions ahead of time so he could practice in his head how to interpret to the interviewee and then could focus during the interview on providing the information back to the interviewer.

Rafique did a fabulous job. He worked really hard all day, as a team with the interviewers. There was very little misunderstanding, and when once or twice Rafique started to add information, I reminded him that that was no longer ‘interpreting’. He quickly corrected himself.

Why words matter

The real reward came toward the end of the day. Sitting around on a mat with the model mothers, we began discussing the Rohingya words for ‘cyclone.’ In helping the CWC WG evaluate best communications about cyclones, I want to make sure that communications are truly understood by the new arrivals, especially those who are illiterate (9 out of 10 of the model mothers were illiterate and did not understand basic Bangla or Burmese). In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about the miscommunications in the Philippines prior to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The English language radio stations reported a ‘big wave’ coming; to the Tagalog listeners, this did not seem threatening because it was not called ‘typhoon’ – as a result, many did not leave their homes and were lost once the storm hit.

Rafique asked the model mothers what a ‘big storm with wind and lots of rain’ would be in Rohingya, and they sang out, simultaneously, ‘BOT TOWAN!’, while a very large, stormy cyclone would be ‘boyar awla towan,’ and a lesser storm would be ‘towan.’ In Bangla, a cyclone is ‘tofan,’ which is not far from ‘towan.’ But a very large stormy cyclone is ‘boro dhoroner tofan’, which is significantly different.

Even more importantly, in Bangla, the word ‘Jhor’ denotes a storm with wind and is often used for a cyclone. In Rohingya, ‘jhor’ only means rain without being a real storm and without wind. Similar to the Philippines in 2013, that simple misunderstanding, if broadcast from Bangla weather and warning systems, could be the difference of life and death, especially in camps where word of mouth is the main mode of communication, and winds will blow off roofs and drop shallow-rooted trees.

Words matter. I am very proud of Rafique – it was particularly gratifying when the model mothers, through the one woman who could speak some English, told me that he was the best interpreter with whom they had worked. I think it had a lot to do with him being Rohingya and really listening to how they communicate. I am looking forward to more trainings in the coming days.


Follow the TWB team's journey as they respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis - TWB's most challenging response yet.

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, TWB's Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

$50 contributes to assessing the real language needs, allowing TWB to interview five refugees and contribute that information to an ongoing and major report on language.

$150 helps TWB develop an audio glossary app of essential phases in Rohingya for aid organizations to use while communicating with refugees. Common medical vocabulary and phrases are recorded and played back on phones. This is a desperate need right now that we need to fund!

$500 trains a Rohingya or Chittagong speaker to interpret or audio translate vital messages about cholera prevention, and how to recognize water-borne diseases.

$1000 trains a community interpreter, like Rafique to work with aid organizations in the camps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.