Connecting Worlds: The Importance of Translation in International Development

Little research has been conducted on the intersect between language and international development so far. However, given the fact that cultural understanding plays a crucial role in international development, such intersection is worth exploring. Faced with this phenomenon, here are three examples of the importance of translation in international development with a particular focus on the connection between the principal actors in this field.

First, the use of translation plays a vital role in fostering collaboration among multilateral funding organizations. Today’s development challenges – including climate change, food security, trade, and migration – are complicated and interconnected, which puts forward higher requirements on multilateral organizations to collaborate with each other in the pursuit of global development. The response to the Ebola pandemic provides an excellent example of this trend, where the mobilization of $285 million to support the three countries that were hit the hardest by the crisis was contingent on the French translation of a 28,000-word document.

Translation also plays an instrumental role in fostering exchanges between international aid organizations and the recipients of aid. According to UNESCO, “as demonstrated by the failure of individual projects underway since the 1970s, development is not synonymous with economic growth alone. It is a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence. As such, development is inseparable from culture”. Given this new paradigm, the use of translation has become critical in ensuring the success of project implementation.

Lastly, as shown by the recent growth of the nonprofit Translators without Borders, multilingual communication has become an essential element of the humanitarian response. In addition to facilitating necessary information sharing between actors on the ground, the use of translation has become a critical tool for data gathering from social media sources during times of crisis. For example, during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the development of a platform designed to enable the crowdsourced translation from Haitian-Creole to English and geo-location of incoming text messages reporting affected areas played a key role in launching a crisis map of the country.

From securing multilateral aid, to responding to a crisis, translation is playing an increasingly significant role in helping international development actors overcome key challenges. As our world is becoming more interconnected, it is safe to predict this year’s International Translation Day theme will hold true for many years to come.