UCL Global


Training translators to save lives in a crisis

Partnering with the New Zealand Red Cross to train communities in translation to save lives

Federic Federici

28 January 2020

Dr Federico Federici, UCL Centre for Translation Studies (CenTraS), knew that local people were often used as translators by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities, but could standardised training help these citizens?

Working as a member of the INTERACT Crisis Translation Network led by Professor Sharon O’Brien (Dublin City University), Federici soon had the opportunity of testing this idea.

A large team of academics partnered with the New Zealand Red Cross to deliver training for community members to become translators, supported in part by Global Engagement Funding (GEF).

The project has received awards in New Zealand, including best practice paper at the Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) Conference 2018 and an award from the Minister of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, as well as generating papers and a current application for a related Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant.

Using translators for a crisis

As recent crises in New Zealand have shown, such as the earthquake in 2011 and terrorist attack in 2019, it is vital that all residents receive emergency information, regardless of their linguistic ability.

New Zealand has a culturally diverse population, with over 260 languages spoken, so a need for multi-lingual information is growing.

Local people acting as translators play an important role in supporting the activities of many charities, since professional translators are often hard to find or are too expensive.

The New Zealand Red Cross has been at the forefront of creating resources and volunteer networks so that non-English speaking communities can access the same resources for emergency preparedness. Building a community-based approach to managing disaster risks and the capacity to translate life-saving messages has been key to this.

Founded in April 2017, the INTERACT team conducts interdisciplinary research across sectors related to translation studies.

As a member of the team, Dr Federici completed his first multidisciplinary research secondment in Auckland, working with INTERACT partners Professor Jay Marlowe (University of Auckland), Professor Sharon O’Brien (Dublin City University), and Dr Patrick Cadwell (Dublin City University), and supported by Dr Minako O’Hagan (University of Auckland).

During this secondment, an opportunity to apply INTERACT’s preliminary research results in this area arose when the New Zealand Red Cross wanted to improve crisis communication in their country.

Training citizens to be volunteer translators

To enable bilingual citizens to support their communities, Dr Federici and Dr Cadwell developed a training programme for the Red Cross, which ran in 2017 and 2019.

The researchers delivered workshops called “Basic Principles of translating for citizen translators” which focused on translating printed disaster preparedness messages from one language and culture to another. They delivered a second workshop which focused on audiovisual materials, including subtitles.

Having trained over 50 citizens so far, the project intends to provide further training and advice on improving disaster management communications in the country.

The Red Cross has reported a significant impact on communities’ capacity to translate emergency information and building community engagement and awareness about emergency preparedness.

“This has helped us to develop a new type of Red Cross volunteer – volunteer translators – which is highly valued in attracting people with diverse skills-sets into Red Cross”, said Jamuna Rotstein, Disaster and Resilience Manager, New Zealand Red Cross.

Dr Federici and the INTERACT team are continuing to work on specific demands for translators in crisis settings and ensuring the “Basic Principles of Translating” reaches audiences lacking professional translation services.

Global funding to develop training materials

Global Engagement Funding enabled Dr Federici to invite Dr O’Hagan to London for two weeks to work on the training materials together after their initial training session in Auckland. This allowed them to analyse the first cycle of training together and refine the teaching materials.

Dr O’Hagan also had the opportunity to present their additional research on ‘Crisis Translation Trainers’ at a conference in Europe House, focusing on training students of translation and interpreting as Crisis Translation Trainers.

Their work, which is the direct outcome of the initial GEF investment, is now expanding:

  • Dr Federici is working with Oxfam and the Red Cross, with advice from UCL Institute for Global Health and UCL Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, to identify ways to produce specific training contents focusing on supporting cross-cultural communication in connection with public health and risk prevention when lack of support for language needs hinders both humanitarian and developmental work.
  • He is working on Crisis Language Maps with Translators without Borders to produce another solution to enhance prevention and risk reduction. Working with Masters students from his “Crisis Translation” module, and from Geographic Information Science (GIS) in the UCL Department of Geography, the work carried out with the students will appear in a UCL report to be published in July 2019, an INTERACT official public report, and an open-access article to appear in December in the peer-reviewed journal Cultus.

Dr Federici said: “The Global Engagement Funding (GEF) support was instrumental to consolidate my working relationship with Dr O’Hagan and we further developed training materials to use in support of activities of New Zealand Red Cross. The GEF award was extremely helpful to enable our research to cascade in so many directions.”



Multilingual resources help keep communities safe (Press release from the New Zealand Government)

The University of Auckland https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en.html

Dr Federico Federici academic profileUCL Centre for Translation Studies (CenTraS)

Paper published: Training citizen translators: Design and delivery of bespoke training on the fundamentals of translation for New Zealand Red Cross

New Zealand Red Cross 

INTERACT website