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The Role of Translation in Fighting Climate Change

January 9, 2018

When the world faces a global threat such as climate change, an all-hands-on-deck approach is required. Evidence of the problem can occur anywhere, and any realistic solution must make sense everywhere.

The Paris Agreement

The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change — called by some “the world’s greatest diplomatic success” — was published in all six official United Nations (UN) languages: English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic and Russian. Its intended reach is clear, as is the importance of translators in implementing its proposals.

Translators were critical to every phase of the project. Before meaningful discussion among international parties could even commence, documentation from around the world describing the evidence and effects of climate change had to be transcribed into numerous languages. Interpreters were vital in negotiations and for translating the many speeches given, and there was a Herculean amount of multilingual transcription required for the work documents, including meeting notes and position papers.

Eyewitness reports in all languages

Global warming’s role in creating the extreme weather behind any single specific disaster can be hard to pin down, but the overall trend is clear, and the reports coming from all over are both heartbreaking and important for everyone to see. It may be the decimation of Caribbean islands from super-hurricanes, epochal flooding in southeast Asia, mudslides in the Andes, or the death of a solitary biker overcome by unusual heat in Australia’s Beerburrum State Forest. Wherever the calamity, witnesses in all languages provide critical first-hand reportage.

Multilingual dissemination of research

While long-term responses are being developed, there is a dire need to learn how to live with the effects of climate change now, and multilingual dissemination of research has become an increasingly critical factor in keeping people alive.

For example, when the Bolivian Mountain Institute NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) completed a study of glacial lakes in the Andes and discovered that 25 of them now pose risks to local populations, the English- and Spanish-speaking researchers made sure their report was produced in both languages. Importantly, it contained transcriptions of eyewitness accounts of glacial-outburst flooding that could help local governments effectively respond should similar catastrophes occur in the future.

Translation benefits

In order to help ensure that their studies are of optimal value to parties working on climate change, NGOs have been utilizing teams of translators who understand the languages they serve as well as their intrinsic cultural perspectives, economics and politics – which are critical for convincing local populations to implement changes.

For example, when the Mountain Partnership submitted research for discussion to the United Nations, it provided carefully translated copies in all six U.N. languages. The investment paid off when the U.N. established three mountain-oriented targets in their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A new academic field

There is even an emerging academic field called Ecolinguistics that investigates the role of language in the development and possible solution of ecological and environmental problems. For example, scholar Kjersti Fløttum wrote this paper titled “A linguistic and discursive view on climate change discourse” and, at the University of Bergen, students can now register for a PhD research course titled “Climate Change Narratives: Language Use in the Circulation of Climate Knowledge.”

Subtitled star power

Multilingual dissemination of climate change information is an area that private climate advocates are also taking greater advantage of. The reach of persuasive English-language content such as Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth has significantly expanded its impact thanks to versions subtitled in over 30 languages. Leonardo di Caprio’s English-language Before the Flood is available with subtitles in 12 languages. These Hollywood stars have realized the obvious: engaging people around the world in resolving the climate change challenge requires speaking their language.

Translation is part of the solution

As the conversation about climate change moves from persuasion to action, the international presence of NGOs and other advocacy groups continues to make them invaluable partners in the search for solutions. The information they collect is the foundation upon which climate change strategy must be built, and their innovative thinkers help move the discussion forward. As a result, the need for accurate, timely translation services across many languages has never been more important: They make possible the most global conversation we’ve ever seen.