Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Translators are the unseen hands of intercultural brilliance

On the occasion of International Translation Day, let us not forget the wordsmiths that pick up on the smallest of linguistic nuances to allow us fruitful convergence with different cultures

An interpreter translates as U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York. Shannon Stapleton /  REUTERS.
An interpreter translates as U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York. Shannon Stapleton / REUTERS.

Did you know that translation used to be the lifeblood of Arabic culture? During the first millennium, libraries in Cordoba and Baghdad absorbed the wisdom of the cultures that prevailed in this region, from science to mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and much more, as legions of scholars and scribes translated ancient knowledge and wisdom from and into Arabic.

Through time, that impetus was lost. While several universities and countries in the Middle East strive to keep the wheel of translation turning in order to maintain dialogue between the Arab region and the rest of the world, conflict and war have got in the way.

Translators are the scholars and scribes of our times. Today, a computer screen, mouse and keyboard replace the quill. Some have adapted to the needs of our times and sit behind a microphone, in a booth, invisible, yet as essential as ever. They are interpreters, or the voice of the often little known and misunderstood "other".

In today’s interconnected world, where most conflicts are induced by a lack of understanding and a misinterpretation of words, translators and interpreters bridge linguistic divides using their carefully crafted skills. They are key players in efforts exerted behind the scenes in international organisations like the United Nations.

This year marks a historical milestone for all professional translators, interpreters and terminologists. On May 24, the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution A/RES/71/288, recognising the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development. It also declared 30 September to be UN International Translation Day.

Though information may appear to flow instantly across most national boundaries on the web and on social media networks, there are unseen hands of brilliance making a lot of this possible behind the scenes. Indeed, translators or interpreters are often responsible for breaking linguistic and cultural barriers, re-narrating and reconstructing information while taking into account the most minute of linguistic nuances. In short, this essential role is the gateway to other cultures, breaking linguistic obstacles to give access to culture-specific material on our behalf.

Be it localisation, the translation of literature and other writings, the dubbing and subtitling of films, the interpretation of conferences or official meetings, translators and interpreters are the messengers of cultural and linguistic diversity. But they also carry a message of tolerance and humanity based on mutual respect, a message of faithfulness and acceptance, shedding light on what makes each language and each culture unique.

In the UAE, several endeavours highlight the role of translation in bridging gaps. About a decade ago, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage launched the Kalima project, to translate modern literature from other languages into Arabic and vice-versa. Recently, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai, launched an initiative that aims to transcribe and translate over 5,000 videos from English into Arabic, to give pupils and students throughout the Arab world access to free instructional material in their mother-tongue – a language that was once one of the great languages of learning.

From here on in, on September 30 each year, the UN will celebrate those who have long stood in the shadows of authors and speakers, lost in the pages of their books, dictionaries and notes, behind microphones and computer screens, maintaining a perennial dialogue between cultures and countries. Above all else, this will be a celebration of diversity, tolerance, acceptance and the sheer power of language.

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