News | 20.04.2010

Demand for interpreters and translators sky rockets as volcanic ash continues to rise

Interpreters ‘sit in the shadow of the powerful’*, they are inconspicuous yet indispensable for international communication. But recent events caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland have meant an increased visibility for such linguists. On 19 April 2010, a contingent of EU transport ministers held a multilingual video conference to discuss the current state of affairs and with millions of passengers stranded in airports worldwide, demand for language services has substantially increased.

Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas – responsible for transport – issued a pre-conference press release setting out objectives to deal with the current crisis. He stressed passengers’ entitlements to access language services through ‘the right to information – to be informed about their rights and the situation as it evolves’. And for professionals involved in the airline industry, moving forward involves ‘national civil aviation authorities, national air navigation providers’ and ‘representatives of the airline and airport industry’ along with national experts and scientists. High-level talks are also taking place in Kenya where its agricultural industry has already experienced a $12 million negative impact. In all cases, professional translators and interpreters are vital elements in the process.

The fall out from the volcanic eruptions means that successful coordination of these language support services is paramount. Translators are required to provide additional multilingual signage for airport buildings; medical interpreters need to be on-hand for a myriad of situations – emergencies; contact with local service providers, fulfilling passenger requests for their usual medicines and certain foods for those with specific dietary requirements.

In Germany, a multilingual crisis intervention team has been created to this effect, as in Frankfurt airport alone there are around 800 passengers stuck in transit. Visa restrictions prevent them from leaving the airport and their luggage remains inaccessible. German website reports that around 50% of the original 1,500 passengers caught in transit have been granted temporary visas, but those from Africa, Asia and Russia have been denied such documentation. Linguistic services include the aforementioned crisis team, but airport staff have also been doing their bit to ease the situation by providing tours and film screenings.

The global implications of the European flight ban are evident and it would seem that proper and full access to language services is high on the agenda. Translators and interpreters from all sectors are being called upon as holiday makers and business travellers are finding that their language needs become more specialised and complex than those generally catered for by the tourist and airline industry. Successful provision of these services requires an international recourse to professional linguists in all sectors: from working on the ground providing multilingual assistance to passengers and staff, to ministerial meetings with national experts, scientists and EU representatives.

Extraordinary times have certainly called for extraordinary meetings, in a multitude of languages the world over.

* (The Whisperers)

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