The language ‘question’ and the refugee crisis

by Αbed Αlloush for The Language Project

Today, let me take you to the lands of interpretation. Specifically, I’d like to share with you an opportunity given to me by The Language Project: my recent experience as a social interpreter in refugee camps (known to all of us as ‘hotspots’) in Thessaloniki, where I interpreted from Arabic to Greek and vice versa. Tons of ink have been spilt on the refugee crisis. Analysis after analysis, on economics, politics, geopolitics.. However, a very important piece of the refugee crisis, which, in my opinion, hasn’t received the attention it deserves, is the ‘language question,’ which has to do with communication with refugees – an area covered by interpreters. My goal is to focus on how the work of the interpreter is understood by ‘colleagues’ on the one hand and by refugees on the other.

The first point that I’d like to make in introduction is that few in my team – psychologists, lawyers, social workers, doctors, even police and the army – understand exactly what being an interpreter involves. What do I mean? For example, if someone needs your services, they will ask for a ‘translator.’ No, I am not a translator, I am an INTERPRETER. It is very common to confuse the role of translator with interpreter. You might say, wait, is it possible for something like that to bother you? This simple example is, in my opinion, indicative of chronic malaise and gaps in interpreting in Greece, and which is even more intense in social and legal interpretation, which in Greece is still at a preschool level (in terms of training, certification, pay, recognition, etc). This situation has inspired several new ‘professions’ – especially ‘interesting’ in terms of their expediency – such as ‘intra-cultural mediators’ that have appeared in some NGOs, offering interpretation services. Still, the murky landscape allows various ‘interlopers’ to appear, making a problematic situation even worse.

To avoid misunderstanding, and to not dwell too long on the subject, I’d like to clarify the following: I know that there are few Arabic speakers in Greece who speak Greek, and even fewer – you can count them on one hand – who have studied translation or interpretation. As a result, there is huge demand to cover the immediate needs for interpretation services, due to the high number of refugees and the low number of interpreters. Of course, I’m not saying that we should get rid of anyone working with experience but without certification. The opposite in face. I believe there are many working very successfully and who, with some guidance – maybe in the form of training from some state body, which could result in some certification –could offer even more to community interpreting.

On the other hand, it’s even hard for the refugees to understand what you’re doing. Since you’re speaking their language, they consider it somehow logical that you can also solve their problems, as if you had Harry Potter’s magic wand. For them, you are not just a means of communication, but someone with whom they feel at home, since there is no language barrier and they can tell you their story, their requests or even their frustration. For example, after the team that I work with explained the services we offer to a refugee, he approached me and asked me to help with a series of requests that we had just explained were out of our hands. I explained to him because I’m a member of the team and it’s not ethical for me to work on my own, it wasn’t possible for me to help. Despite that, he insisted for some time. This, as you can see, creates a series of challenges for the interpreter – first of all, you have to set some boundaries and explain that you are at the camp to lift existing language barriers, putting aside your emotions and feelings. Nevertheless, as you can imagine, it becomes especially difficult for an interpreter at an emotional level when dealing with children, who approach you and ask you to ‘mediate’ so they can have a normal life. There have been more than a few times when they come up to me and ask for a car so they can reach the country they were heading for before the borders closed.

Managing emotions for an interpreter is very difficult, especially on a psychosocial support team. This means that the interpreter has to listen to refugees’ very difficult circumstances and experiences – from abuse and torture, to everything you could imagine. The question that arises is how to deal with everything you’re hearing, and to interpret this from and to the refugees. The way to manage it is simple. You have to distance yourself and turn off your emotions. This is the only way you can truly help not only your team but also the refugees. Believe me, as many times as you’ve heard in your classes that you will have to work in extreme and difficult conditions, that the pressure is part of the profession, you can never be ready for it. In such instances it is very important to appropriately deal with the psychological and emotional part. And naturally, this is on the one hand to be effective and on the other to avoid bringing all of the stress into your personal life.

What does all of this leave me with? I have taken two things away with me. First, that the language element of the refugee crisis is very significant and it will be a part of the solution to which we are unfortunately not giving enough attention. Second, that social and legal interpretation in Greece has a long way to go to become effective. I think that these two things are inseparable, because only with good interpretation services can we take the ‘language question’ of the refugee crisis seriously.

by Αbed Αlloush for The Language Project

Translated by Katherine Poseidon & phot by Nadir Noori

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