Glendon grad student organizes translators for Haiti

Above: Haitians search the rubble after the Jan. 12 earthquake, often sendng text messages that need translating for aid agencies. (United Nations Development Programme photo)

The photos, videos and stories of the devastation in Haiti following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that brought the country to its knees on Jan. 12 appalled Nicholas Ferreira. Almost immediately, he knew he had to do something to help.

Nicholas Ferreira

Right: Nicholas Ferreira

As a student in York’s Graduate Program in Translation at the Glendon campus and a practising translator, he decided to set up a Facebook group of concerned colleagues and interpreters from around the globe called “Together we can find 100,000 translators and interpreters”. The members offer their services to the people on the ground in Haiti who need help understanding the thousands of calls and text messages for help from victims – some using their cellphones from beneath the rubble.

In the first five days, more than 550 language professionals and students joined the group to help with over-the-phone interpretation or on-the-ground language assistance in Haiti itself. Since then, the number of group members has risen to 837, most offering to help with Creole, French, Spanish and English translation.

But it’s still not enough. “There are millions of people in need of aid and assistance in Haiti,” says Ferreira. “Medical personnel are arriving from around the globe and are desperately in need of language assistance from interpreters to provide decent care to the Haitian community.

“At first, we were getting messages from people still trapped in buildings,” says Ferreira. Now, he says, messages are coming from Haitian families trying to connect with loved ones in other countries or find aid for relatives in the hardest hit areas and surrounding countryside. “We’ve translated about 15,000 messages,” says Ferreira.

Although there are translators actually travelling to Haiti to assist with efforts by other aid organizations, there is a great need for people who are online to help process the thousands of text messages being sent by Haitians through a free SMS relief information service set up by government authorities and digital phone companies.

Ferreira says one message was particularly heart-breaking. “It was from a fellow trying to contact his family in the US. He said he had lost all his family and he was dying and he wanted someone to tell them what had happened.” In another case, Ferreira said he helped direct rescuers to a woman who was trapped in a collapsed hospital but was able to text out that she was still alive and needed help.

Left: Ferreira visits victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas

Volunteer translators from the Facebook group are directed to a Web site where they register and can get access to text messages in Creole. If the message contains enough information to relay to aid workers, it is forwarded to them for action. Ferreira says it is also quite likely that some of the group’s members have volunteered to serve on the USNS Comfort, a US Navy medical vessel that needs 34 new translators each month.

And the need for translators will remain even after the immediate crisis subsides and the rebuilding of Haiti begins. “We as language professionals need to ensure that they have the resources necessary. I won’t stop until there are 100,000 translators and interpreters ready and willing to assist not only in this crisis, but in many other situations like this that will play out across the globe,” says Ferreira.

This is not the first time Ferreira has been involved in a relief effort. He was living in Louisiana at the time of Hurricane Katrina, working as a youth minister. After the hurricane and flood, he spent the next 12 months recruiting 1,000 volunteers for relief efforts there.