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date: 19 June 2021

Managing Vulnerability During Cascading Disasters: Language Access Servicesfree

Managing Vulnerability During Cascading Disasters: Language Access Servicesfree

  • Federico Marco FedericiFederico Marco FedericiUniversity College London, Centre for Translation Studies


Communication underpins all phases of disaster risk reduction: it is at the heart of risk mitigation, by increasing resilience and preparedness, and by interacting with affected communities in the response phase and throughout the reconstruction and recovery after a disaster. Communication does not alter the scope or severity of a disaster triggered by natural hazards, but the extent to which risk reduction strategies impact on affected regions depends greatly on existing differences inherent in the society of these regions. Ethnic minorities and multilingual language groups―which are not always one and the same―may become vulnerable groups when there has been little or no planning or no awareness of the impact of limited access to trustworthy information when the disaster strikes.

Furthermore, large-scale disasters are likely to involve personnel from the humanitarian sector from both local and international offices. Communication in most large-scale events has progressively become multilingual; from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it is expected that large disasters see collaboration between intergovernmental, governmental, local, national, and international entities that operate in different ways in rescue and relief operations. Regardless of linguistic contexts, communication of reliable information in a trustworthy manner is complex to achieve in the aftermath of a disaster, which may instantaneously affect telecommunication infrastructures (overloading VOIP and GPS systems). From coordination to information, clear communication plays a role in any activity intending to reduce risks, damages, morbidity, and mortality. Achieving clear communication in crisis management is a feat in a monolingual context: people from different organizations and with different capacities in multi-agency operations have at least a common language, nonetheless, terminology varies from one organization to another, thus hampering successful communication. Achieving effective and clear communication with multilingual communities, while using one language (or lingua franca), such as English, Arabic, Spanish, or Hindi, depending on the region, is impossible without due consideration to language translation.


  • Risk Communication and Warnings
  • Vulnerability
  • Policy and Governance


Conveying accurate and accessible information to affected populations is challenging even when there are no language barriers. It becomes extremely complex and difficult to handle when no resourcing efforts (human or funding) go into planning support for language-related issues. These issues pertain to all aspects of risk reduction, from measures to mitigate and reduce risks via measures that enhance readiness; to educating communities to know the local natural hazards that cause risk; to response, reconstruction, and recovery when disaster strikes. If the disaster-affected population is multilingual, multicultural, multi-faith, and only partially integrated within the broader society, language needs increase their vulnerability. Communication underpins all phases of disaster risk reduction: it is at the heart of risk mitigation, by increasing resilience and preparedness, and by interacting with affected communities in the response phase and throughout the reconstruction and recovery after a disaster. Communication does not alter the scope or severity of a disaster triggered by natural hazards; however, the extent to which risk reduction strategies impact on an affected region depends greatly on existing differences inherent in the society of the these regions (Blaikie et al., 1994). Ethnic minorities and multilingual language groups―which are not always one and the same―may become vulnerable groups when there has been little or no planning for language support. Limited awareness of the importance of accommodating language needs to avoid limiting access to trustworthy information when the disaster strikes increases vulnerability. Access to reliable information has been discussed in a human-rights based paradigm (Greenwood, Howarth, Poole, Raymond, & Scarnecchia, 2017). Reports from humanitarian aid organizations have increasingly emphasized that there is a nexus between accessible information in a language one understands and its potential to save lives (Quintanilla & Goodfriend, 2012), reduce morbidity (Crouse Quinn, 2008), and increase engagement with disaster-affected communities (IFRC, 2018).

This article argues that language barriers increase vulnerabilities in different ways depending on other social factors, playing a significant role in cascading the impact of disasters (Alexander & Pescaroli, 2019; Pescaroli & Alexander, 2016). Discussions of language translation (here intended all forms of written translation and oral interpreting across two languages, including sign languages) become relevant to debates on risk reduction in connection with discussions on other forms of vulnerabilities, determined by social and economic factors, that have been better studied. There are correlations between poverty, ethnicity, and other discriminants and the language barrier; however, there are also complex multilingual contexts in which language-related issues in accessing reliable information in a language that can be understood can also be dependent on local multilingualism. The article shows how dominant perceptions of language-related issues of risk communication in disasters have associated language needs to simplified paradigms that might have discouraged more extensive attempts to develop emergency plans and governance policies to accommodate language needs. It presents some areas in which such policies have been devised as a result of region-specific events and how their effectiveness in terms of managing language-related vulnerabilities continue to seem limited in reports on the “perennial issue” of the “language barrier.”

Several studies in disaster science consider the issue of language translation in terms of risk communication with a predominant focus on the response phase. This article focuses on reasons why language translation does not appear to have the same prominence in relation to readiness, resilience, recovery, and reconstruction whereby opportunities remain unexplored. Aligned with hazard science and disaster risk reduction perspectives that consider the social dimension of vulnerability (see Wisner et al., 2003), it provides an overview on contributions that discuss language barriers in relation to natural hazards and risk reduction. Underpinned by the notion that access to information is a human right in disasters (Greenwood et al., 2017) and that lack of accessible information in a language that affected populations understand is discriminatory (see Ferris, 2017; Uekusa, 2019), the article focuses on the different impacts that language barriers have on vulnerability in terms of preparedness, response, and recovery.

Language Translation in Disaster Science

Understanding vulnerabilities heightened by multilingualism connects with the current understanding of the role of communication in all areas of disaster science (readiness, resilience, reduction, recovery, reconstruction) and for all stakeholders. Sellnow and Seeger’s work on communication, including disaster-related communication, avers (2013, p. 10): “Crisis communication could simply be understood as the ongoing process of creating shared meaning among and between groups. Communities, individuals and agencies, within the ecological context of a crisis, for the purpose of preparing for and reducing, limiting, and responding to threats and harm.” From predominantly one-way conceptualizations to the current notion that communication is multidirectional, all perspectives agree that in the response phase communication is linked to urgent and potentially life-changing decision-making (where do I go, what should I do, who should I speak to). Therefore, when attempting to communicate in disasters, language barriers potentially magnify existing or connected vulnerabilities—culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities tend to be marginalized or involved in gradual processes of integration. As such, they delay attainment of any goal connected with Priority 1 of the Sendai Framework “Understanding Disaster Risk” and in particular with its objectives (l) and (o):

(l) To promote the incorporation of disaster risk knowledge, including disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and rehabilitation, in formal and non-formal education, as well as in civic education at all levels, as well as in professional education and training;

(o) To enhance collaboration among people at the local level to disseminate disaster risk information through the involvement of community-based organizations and nongovernmental organizations.

(UNISDR, 2015)

Such collaborative mechanisms rest on efficient communication at the local level with populations exposed to the natural hazards of their region. The collaboration pivots on decision-making informed by clear and efficient dialogue between all the actors involved in humanitarian and disaster response and the local groups, communities, and individuals. Responding to disaster-related information when educating multilingual groups to the natural hazards of the region implies different forms of communication and reactions to communication. The responses are influenced by social and cultural values (for the Australian context, see discussion in Howard, Agllias, Bevis, & Blakemore, 2017, p. 140). The issue of trust is equally dependent on the quality of message and reliability of the messenger (for a discussion on trust and language in the aftermath of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake, see Cadwell & O’Brien, 2016). Humanitarian and disaster response operations have become more composite in response to large-scale disasters triggered by natural hazards; they include local institutions and emergency services, as well as NGOs, intergovernmental agencies, and international organizations.

Several messages pertain to healthcare. The linguistic and cultural constraints of healthcare communication in multilingual populations have been considered for many years in countries more than others. Extensive experience of its significance exist in literature about the United States (Andrulis, Siddiqui, Stelter, & Turner, 2016; Schwei et al., 2016), with illustrations also coming from the emergency services in Australia (Coles & Buckle, 2004; Ryan, Abbato, Greer, Vayne-Bossert, & Good, 2017; Slade et al., 2011), the United Kingdom (El Ansari, Newbigging, Roth, & Malik, 2009), the European Union (Angelelli, 2015c; Cox & Lázaro Gutiérrez, 2016; Valero-Garcés, 2005), and New Zealand (Zorn, Comrie, & Fountaine, 2016). Acts of translation happen as part of normative social practices and are dictated by social and language behavioral rules that continuously evolve; these factors have different impacts in disaster-related communication depending on their focus (increasing readiness, risk reduction, response, or recovery). These very few examples from a range of studies of the “emotional and psychological impact” (Baistow, 1999) of these forms of mediated healthcare communication serve as a reminder that cross-fertilization of crisis communication in disaster-related events in which languages increase vulnerability is yet to happen.

Furthermore, the multi-agency dialogue among these stakeholders requires effective access to information as well as efficient exchange and sharing of information. These communicative interactions presume understanding of one (or multiple) languages accepted (lingua francas) and used by all the stakeholders. These interactions must have recourse to language translation, thus delaying and altering the message. For the populations at risk, it is crucial to understand and react to relevant messages—from evacuation warnings to drills and training exercises to build resilience and reduce risk by increasing preparedness. These interactions hinge on continued and sustained two-way engagement between all the stakeholders when working on risk reduction as well as when responding to the disaster and later cooperating in the reconstruction phase. Languages can only transmit crucial and life-saving concepts once the terminology and its use are culture-specific; in the interactions between local and international stakeholders, the warning systems used before the 2013 (Haiyan) Yolanda typhoon referring to “storm surge” rather than a destructive wave delayed evacuation and caused thousands of casualties. This is a quintessential illustration of how multilingual and multiregister communication becomes an absolute barrier to risk reduction (Field, 2017).

Arguably, the assumptions that lingua francas and limited translation efforts are sufficient in international multiagency contexts have prevailed in practical and theoretical terms. The role of multilingual communication as a tool for increased resilience, risk reduction, better response, and better inclusion in reconstruction did not hold a very central position in debates regarding vulnerabilities until the late 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. In 2018, Commitment 6 of the Sphere Project on its Humanitarian Charter and minimum standards disaster response seemed to herald a phase of increased awareness. It advocates in no uncertain terms the needs to:

Respect the use of local language(s) in meetings and other communications. . . .

Communicate clearly and avoid jargon and colloquialisms, especially when other participants do not speak the same language.

Provide interpreters and translators if needed. (Sphere, 2018, p. 71)

In disaster science, two traditions exist of conceptualizing the relationships between culture, language, and heightened vulnerability to natural hazards for CALD communities. The first sees culture as a determinant of vulnerability; the role of culture was recognized in the 1980s, within two decades of Quarantelli’s early work in shaping many discussions in disaster science (Quarantelli, 1978), and assumed further prominence in the landmark work of Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, and Wisner (1994, Wisner et al., 2003). The second sees language access as a practical obstacle to overcome. Language is closely connected with culture, but it might be argued that the increased understanding of the cultural factors involved in defining societal vulnerabilities has not seen a similar increase in terms of widespread analyses of the linguistic factors in dealing with such vulnerabilities. When the language barrier is considered, it is considered instrumentally, as a tool to optimize logistics and response in disaster prevention and management. More holistic conceptualizations of language-related issues that diminish effectiveness in risk communication appear in health communication (especially in studies focusing on pandemic, public health response, emergency medicine, etc). This area is growing in significance within crisis communication; it is, however, relevant in discussing language as a vulnerability in relation to disasters. These two directions will be discussed in the next two sections.

Culture and Risk

In 1983, Douglas and Wildavsky put forward an influential new argument (1983, p. 186) that “public perception of risk and its acceptable levels are collective constructs, a bit like language and a bit like aesthetic judgment.” They considered this conclusion of their work Risk and Culture as “hard to take.” They focused on a range of risks as perceived at the time by the general public and institutions in the United States. The comparison with language as a social construct immediately speaks to those involved in intercultural mediation and language translation. Yet this connection was not picked up consistently for several decades. In Hewitt’s edited volume Interpretations of Calamity: From the Viewpoint of Human Ecology (1983), the contributors consolidated the conceptualization of cultural factors as influential elements in societies’ interactions with disasters.

Two decades later, Cannon (2008b, pp. 350–351) summarized the cultural dimensions of vulnerability very efficiently by stating that “Disasters may be triggered by natural hazards, but can be considered largely a product of processes involving economic, political and social factors (which for convenience will be called simply social factors).” People affected by disasters caused by natural hazards are not “victims” but the first agents of response and recovery. In his writings, Cannon has expounded the crucial point that not all vulnerabilities affect groups because of poverty and social constructs. For Cannon “power relations” need to be interpreted as one of the possible social constructs of risk: they “have led to a situation in which some people are more likely than others to be affected by a natural hazard. This is a ‘strong’ version of socially-constructed vulnerability” (2008b, pp. 351–352). Not all definitions of vulnerability are relevant to a discussion focused on language. However, language can be considered as a vulnerability predominantly within the “strong” version of the concept. This vulnerability emerges due to extended multilingualism (e.g., polyglot African countries) or political segregation (e.g., ethnic groups in Indonesia who do not speak the main languages) or temporary or long-term immigration (which does not always automatically create vulnerabilities, see Uekusa and Matthewman, 2017). In this perspective, references to accessible information seem to be too generic in high-level policies and more documented in reports for their absence. As considerations on language as a vulnerability are either grouped with or obfuscated by discussions of their role in relation to ethnic, racial, or migration-related factors, this association tends to simplify the role of addressing language needs in this grouping with other social vulnerabilities. (Fothergill, Maestas, & Darlington, 1999; Santos-Hernández & Hearn Morrow, 2013; Thomas, Phillips, Lovekamp, & Fothergill, 2013). Groups who need language-related support may (tend to) be marginalized within some cultures and some developed countries; however, multilingualism is often the status quo in many parts of the world, and elites as much as socially deprived groups may need language support in disasters within these different contexts.

Worldwide linguistic contexts vary considerably. Hence, despite the likelihood of discriminated social groups to potentially have language needs to access information (e.g., Hispanic-American communities in the United States), caution must be exercised when conflating language needs with poverty and positions of social discrimination or exclusion. In large multilingual countries, disaster-affected communities in need to interact with international responders are more complex to analyze within the paradigms of exclusions and marginalization derived from poverty, literacy, race, ethnicity, and other social factors. Disaster-affected communities may include educated multilingual groups, who may not speak one of the international languages of responders. Although not socially vulnerable, these groups may remain as excluded from access to information in a language they understand, as CALD communities do in developed countries. Pairing language with other factors of social discrimination creates oversimplifications that risk affecting policies for language access in intergovernmental agencies and international aid organizations. Furthermore, the increase of vulnerability due to language-related issues is one that could be addressed far more comprehensively than vulnerabilities due to other widespread and far-reaching factors. Hence, known language needs can be factored in risk reduction measures more extensively than they have been factored in the implementation of policies and commitments to community engagement since the inception of the Sendai Framework.

The link with the cultural dimension became more extrinsic in frameworks that aim to measure vulnerability in holistic ways, such as the MOVE (multi-dimensional and holistic framework for assessing vulnerability). In the local scale, culture is embedded within the elements of susceptibilities and fragility as shown in Figure 1 (Birkmann et al., 2013).

Figure 1. The MOVE framework for vulnerability, risks, and societal dimensions of disaster risk reduction (Birkmann et al., 2013, p. 199).

The cultural dimension is considered a “key thematic component” as it attributes “potential for damage to intangible values including meanings placed on artefacts, customs, habitual practices and natural or urban landscapes” (Birkmann et al., 2013, p. 200). If language is to be considered as an implicit part of culture in this paradigm (Krüger, Bankoff, Cannon, Orlowski, & Schipper, 2015), the lack of evacuation following the 2013 (Haiyan) Yolanda typhoon and the resulting casualties must be seen from the perspective of the local culture: the literal translation of storm surge led to non-evacuation of local residents, habituated to/accepting of the risks of large storms, who did not fear the terminology in the way they feared catastrophic tsunamis.

In a way, the recognition of the cultural dimension within disaster science represents the necessary antecedent to considering the language barrier, as discussed in the next section. There is a case to be made for further cross-disciplinary research that combines measurable impacts of disasters on local vulnerabilities and the recognition that language needs tend to be more prominent in recognized areas at risk. By means of illustration, a comparison of socioeconomic resilience to risks with language distribution can be used.

Figure 2. Regional map of multi-hazard socioeconomic resilience to disasters (Walsh & Hallegatter, 2019, p. 20).

Figure 2 is a regional map of hazards drawing upon the World Bank Report on socioeconomic resilience of the different regions in the Philippines (Walsh & Hallegatter, 2019). Figure 3 is a pilot project to support humanitarian aid organizations disseminated before the 2018 Super Typhoon (Ompong) hit the Philippines in September 2018; the project is run by the NGO Translators Without Borders, who collate and validate data relating to language distribution to enable international responders to manage language needs. By comparing the two maps, the connection between main languages and resilience is visible, with the least resilient area corresponding with the fourth-most-spoken language, which is neither the official language of the government (English) or the constitutional official language, Filipino.

As the 21st century has seen a growing recognition of the challenges posed by the cultural dimension, the debates have included considerations on enhancing community preparedness, cultural groups’ resilience, and culture-aware responses to cascading disasters. Also, regarding models of disaster recovery, Davis and Alexander’s landmark study (2016) identifies the significance of social dynamics of recovery when expertise combines with local knowledge, including cultural beliefs, as those that are more likely to produce sustainable recovery in the long term (2016, pp. 312–315). The linguistic dimension could be profitably included in these models to facilitate all parts of disaster risk reduction and also to induce cultural change by enabling better integration of CALD communities in their society.

Language as Barrier

Interest in the language barrier slowly emerged from international, multilingual relief and response efforts of the late 20th century. One of the earliest direct and comprehensive discussions of the complexity of language translation in international relief operations as a factor increasing vulnerability pertains to the field of translation and intercultural studies. Bulut and Kurultay (2001) focused on the interactions between Turkish interpreters and international relief organizations (including speakers of English, Japanese, etc.) after the 1999 İzmit earthquake in Turkey. During the first decade of the 21st century and especially in the U.S. context, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and the 2007 southern California wildfires served as catalysts for disaster science to recognize “the perennial language-related issues that pose challenges to limited English proficiency (LEP) communities before, during, and after a disaster” (Purtle, Siddiqui, & Andrulis, 2010, p. 379). The makeup of the U.S. population whose ethno-linguistic communities of LEP tend to be of immigrant background entails a presumption of vulnerability. This position is reflected in the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of December 19, 2006; LEP groups qualify “for the same antidiscrimination protection as that for race, color, or national origin” (Lundgren & McMakin, 2018, p. 434).

In fact, the United States has developed a strong tradition of considering LEP communities and language needs in policies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reviewed several language plans until it developed a resource-based plan for disaster recovery the Language Access Plan (FEMA, 2016), in which access to federal funds for disaster response is linked to provision of accessible information for the entire population. Debate exists on whether the policy is implemented and to what extent (O’Brien, Federici, Cadwell, Marlowe, & Gerber, 2018). However, the focus on CALD groups stems from a strong tradition of emergency communication in terms of Public Health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has developed a paradigm to communicate with the public during a crisis in the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication handbook (CDC, 2008; Reynolds & Seeger, 2012).

At the international level, the 2010 Haiti earthquake was a pivotal moment, as its reports on lessons learned on language translation brought to the fore of international disaster science “translation” as the “perennial issue” (Crowley & Chan, 2011, p. 74). This prominence was soon followed by reflections on risk communication, language, and trust after the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake (Kaigo, 2012; Naito, 2012; Pacific, 2012; Sato, 2013; Tsuruta, 2011) and the 2010/2011 Canterbury and Tohoku earthquakes in New Zealand that drew more attention to the language barrier (Marlowe & Humpage, 2016; Uekusa & Matthewman, 2017). Such NGOs as Internews and Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities equally emphasized the importance of culturally appropriate messages, delivered in a language that could be understood. One such example is the Internews report entitled When Information Saves Lives (Quintanilla & Goodfriend, 2012); another is evident in the growth of activities of the non-profit organization Translators Without Borders (TWB, founded in 1993). TWB rose to prominence from the beginning of the 21st century for providing crisis translation services and established long-term partnerships as a translation service provider for humanitarian organizations.

Among the first studies to consider concerted solutions to support international responders to disasters are those carried out in Turkey by a group of interpreter trainers who have been collaborating for over three decades with Turkish responders following the 1998 earthquake and who instituted the ARÇ (Afette Rehber Çevirmenlik, “Guide-Interpreters [sic] at Disasters,” also known in earlier literature as IAD (Interpreters in Aid at [sic] Disasters). The ARÇ’s initiative stands out, as it embeds life-long training refreshers for a stand-by group of academically trained interpreters who also undergo regular refresher training of their skills in first aid and in crisis management support in collaboration with emergency responders (Bulut & Kurultay, 2001; Doğan & Kahraman, 2011). It is the most long-standing approach to increase preparedness in response (where interpreting is most needed); this approach is a unicum within interpreting (focusing on a lingua franca, English, as the means to collaborate with international responders). Other forms of ad hoc interpreting include the pioneering online training of interpreters in disasters of the InZone Centre of the University of Geneva (known as the Interpreting Department Virtual Institute from its foundation in 2004, until it was updated to the TR@IN platform.

No other discipline studies the interrelations established between message senders and receivers to create meaning through the interactive social context as closely as sociolinguistics; this discipline underpins any form of language translation in interactional social contexts. The same focus on how the factors influencing this interrelation organize meaning represents a priority for any language mediator. From the creation of machine-readable controlled texts to ad hoc interpreting in the aftermath of an avalanche in a mountainous destination for international tourists, few processes are as concerned as translation and interpreting are with register, channel of communication, tenor, field, function of the message, and social relationships between interactants. These tend to be more complex than in cases of monolingual communication, since the sender of the message is typically from a different speech community than the receiver, although the two may have several similarities in terms of sociolinguistic features that make it possible to achieve the task of mediating between cultures and languages, difficult though it may be. Research focused on the links between the sociolinguistic dynamics of communication and risks as socially constructed could expand the comparison between put forward by Douglas and Wildavsky (1983). Language-related issues in risk reduction cut across many dimensions of disaster science and its application in humanitarian and response operations, as discussed in the second part of this article.

Language Translation After the 2015 Sendai Framework

The 2015 Sendai Framework (UNISDR, 2015) established a new focus on collaborative disaster risk reduction. By espousing positions such as those expounded in the Building Better (WHO, 2013), the revised commitments and priorities reflected the new challenges posed by extreme alterations in weather events due to climate change and growth of human-caused vulnerabilities to natural hazards. Its guiding ethical principles of engagement with the affected communities and accountability of responders took central stage. Among its guiding principles, one is crucial to frame considerations on language-related vulnerabilities. This is Principle (d):

Disaster risk reduction requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted. In this context, special attention should be paid to the improvement of organized voluntary work of citizens.

(UNISDR, 2015, p. 13)

Non-discrimination by language is already enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights, which underpins most UN activities (1948). The double reference to non-discrimination and to culture underpins any discussion of language needs in disasters. The principles of engagement and accountability were further explored in a meeting among humanitarian organizations that are core stakeholders in global disaster relief operations (WHS, 2016). After the first two decades of the 21st century, lacunae remain in directly connecting these expectations for engagement and accountability with multidirectional communication and the centrality of language in multilingual contexts of response, reconstruction, and recovery.

Global partnerships (section VI) depend on language translation. The emphasis on global collaboration to support vulnerable groups and in particular developing countries still presents some of the top-down imposition of approaches from international bodies and their lingua francas to local communities. Cultural and linguistic needs in disasters are expected to become more prominent as the guiding principles translate over time in national and international commitments. In the Sendai Framework, general consideration 38 (p. 24) establishes dependencies between countries in relation to their development:

Given their different capacities, as well as the linkage between the level of support provided to them and the extent to which they will be able to implement the present Framework, developing countries require an enhanced provision of means of implementation, including adequate, sustainable and timely resources, through international cooperation and global partnerships for development, and continued international support, so as to strengthen their efforts to reduce disaster risk.

To avoid the global support falling into top-down programs imposing solutions to local communities, the reduction of vulnerabilities needs to occur via a dialogue with the local populations. Extensive, multidirectional communication is required to understand the needs, priorities, and objectives of the local populations in areas more frequently exposed to disasters. To create this dialogue with local communities, responders are expected “to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable groups considering gender, age, ethnicity, language and special needs are heard and acted upon” (WHS, 2016, p. 10).

In this section, the themes of language-related issues in disaster risk reduction are organized by connecting reflections from disaster scientists and practitioners’ report that focus on language as vulnerability in relation to (1) readiness and resilience; (2) response; and (3) recovery and reconstruction.

Readiness and Resilience

Risk reduction requires stakeholders to learn lessons from previous situations in which multilingual communication caused disaster-related language problems. However, stakeholders in cascading disasters are many, their communicative priorities differ, and so often do their languages and specialized terminologies.

Global-scale systems of warning are a technological point of departure for increasing readiness to deal with natural hazards. Communicating imminent danger (tsunami, earthquakes, storms, etc.), such large-scale warning systems as the Global Disaster Alert Coordination System (GDACS) offer timely information to trigger the emergency plans put in place in the geographical areas subject to the warning (where those plans exist). GDACS expects its database to include information on local languages (GDACS, 2014, p. 20). The UN agency overseeing GDACS, UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), includes in its field handbook that it should provide “logistical arrangements for international relief teams and in-kind contributions (transport, fuel/lubricants, translators, warehouses, maps, etc.)” (UNDAC, 2013, p. 13).

UNDAC is also responsible for collecting primary data (UNDAC, 2013, p. 17) in which provision is made for “translation”—with no distinction between interpreting and translation. Preparation for a multilingual context is crucial in international responses in order to facilitate multidirectional communication and to collect appropriate primary data (interviews, documents, local legislation). Inadequate preparation may lead to the processes of data collection endangering the very quality of data on the basis of which social and cultural dimensions of the disaster response and recovery are analyzed—the impact of translation in collecting geolocalization data is identified in Mulder et al. (2016), without discussing its wider implications. Nevertheless, the multilingual nature of these operational contexts is known before the disaster strikes, and that dimension could be addressed by harnessing technological solutions—such as machine translation engines or translation memories, which are databases of human translations.

There is evidence that research in disaster risk reduction has been affected by language barriers in developing its own understanding of the impact of disasters on local communities (Gaillard, 2010; Mercer, 2012; Mercer et al., 2012). Vulnerabilities also depend on cultural perceptions of risk and whether cultural backgrounds align with the international (often Anglophone) concepts of preparedness and risk reduction (see discussions in Wisner et al., 2003; Krüger et al., 2015). Lack of integration, lack of participation, and lack of access to information represent vulnerabilities for CALD communities. Language translation would mitigate some of these pre-existing vulnerabilities. However, as Grin (2017, p. 156) puts it “[t]ranslation sometimes evokes the image of a Cinderella confined to humble domestic chores while her elder sisters, that is, communication strategies like ‘lingua franca’ and second/foreign language learning, enjoy all the attention and visibility” when discussing disaster-related issues of communication. Managing language needs means engaging with the language barrier as a vulnerability. As Lundgren and McMakin’s work on risk communication emphasizes, “Planning for communication before, and during an emergency is especially important for vulnerable or at risk populations” (2018, p. 433). Language barriers widen the cascading effects of disasters (Pescaroli and Alexander, 2016) inasmuch as they widen existing vulnerabilities or engender new ones by means of miscommunication.

The World Disasters Report 2018 of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) highlights these consequences in no uncertain terms: “Speakers of minority languages who are not fluent in the official national language(s) are at a structural disadvantage in many countries. . . . However linguistically diverse the affected population, humanitarian responses are usually coordinated in international lingua francas and delivered in a narrow range of national languages” (IFRC, 2018, p. 103). As a result, language translation rarely, if ever, features among plans to increase resilience, but its absence increases the cascading effects of crises. Pescaroli and Alexander’s definition of “cascading disasters” (2015, pp. 64–65), with its potential limitations in dealing with intertwined and inseparable causalities (Kelman, 2018), persuades us that new evidence-based research into language translation and the effects of poor language access on communication in crisis management is much needed. Poor or culturally inappropriate communication undermines trust in responders and institutions. Failure to address effective communication for CALD communities generates further social disruption, one of the cascading effects. This, in turn, risks affecting and endangering respondents who may deal with crisis-affected populations, whose limited understanding of the instructions or cultural mindset may make them appear as non-collaborative.


Despite the rise in awareness of the impact of cultural factors on vulnerabilities, risk, resilience, and response, full realization of the impact of language needs on readiness, reduction, recovery, and reconstruction has not yet been achieved. No structured data have been collected to understand the impact of poor communication due to the language barrier on morbidity and mortality. The drive toward better accommodating language needs reflects the efforts of such organizations as IFRC, Internews, Communicating with Disaster-Affected Community Network, Translators Without Borders, and WHO in raising awareness that language-related vulnerabilities matter. There is evidence-based confirmation besides the information gathered on the basis of lessons learned (Federici, Gerber, O’Brien, & Cadwell, 2019; Quintanilla & Goodfriend, 2012). Reports on initiatives introduced changes to readiness practices (Federici & Cadwell, 2018; Shackleton, 2018) after considering the impact of the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes on the local population, including the emotional fatigue on local interpreters and translators (Wylie, 2012). At a practical level, interpreters, and lack thereof, are more visible than the lack of multilingual solutions for preparedness (radio messages, leaflets, and training courses can all be translated in advance and contribute to building readiness over time). Hence, language needs have been linked predominantly to the response phase; their role in increasing readiness is predominantly limited to healthcare risk communication. Yet access to information is a key indicator of vulnerability, as well as of inclusion or exclusion from the activities aimed to enhance readiness, reduce risks, and offer solutions to language-related issues in response operation (Altay & Labonte, 2014, p. S60). In-depth understanding of inclusion and exclusion practices is required in terms of participation in training, cluster, and planning meetings for members of the affected population who do not speak the main language of the responders or of the humanitarian organizations. In this dimension of preparedness, lack of awareness of language needs enlarges existing vulnerabilities and will have an impact on stakeholders when responding to and aiding in recovery from disasters.

Furthermore, increased people displacement and economic migrations (or the visibility thereof) across the world causes major concerns for their adaptability to disasters (Guadagno, 2016; Guadagno, Fuhrer, & Twigg, 2017; Khan & McNamara, 2017; MICIC, 2016). The 2015 Sendai Framework emphasizes that risk reduction measures include collaboration to disaster preparedness of migrant communities (UNISDR, 2015, pp. 10, 18, 23; see discussion in Guadagno, 2016; see also Weerasinghe et al., 2015). These are difficult aims to achieve in highly resilient societies; recently displaced groups are vulnerable in ordinary circumstances, they do represent a growing concern in terms of building more resilient multicultural and multilingual societies with high-level planning for risk reduction. In fact, “Experience has shown that migrants often present specific patterns of vulnerability in the face of disasters, linked to language and cultural barriers, lack of local knowledge (including hazard awareness), reduced availability of social networks, physical and social marginalization, and legal obstacles to accessing relief and recovery assistance” (Guadagno, 2016, p. 32).

Reports such as TWB’s Words of Relief initiative (TWB, 2015) and the Listening Zones project (Footitt, Tesseur, Crack, Brehm, & Delgado Luchner, 2018) associate the issue of managing language translation to its role in mitigating vulnerability in cascading disasters from the point of view of humanitarian and developmental organizations. Increased awareness of language translation results in higher levels of effectiveness in the measures that engage with local communities. For risk-related communication (especially for health content), there has been greater realization of the ominous consequences in terms of social trust, morbidity, property damage, and mortality brought about by language barriers. Further interest in disaster-related language issues can be found in reports published from the 2010s, after the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and its impact on ethnolinguistic groups such as Hispanic-Americans (Muñiz, 2006). In the same decade, the prominence of the language barrier increased through lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake (and tsunami), the 2015 Nepal earthquake, as well as the 2017 storms in the Atlantic and the Pacific. These events brought greater focus on international rescue teams and long-term humanitarian relief operations (involving intergovernmental organizations, such as UNICEF, OCHOA, WHO, as well as international non-governmental humanitarian organizations such as IFRC, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Red Cross).

In fact, the relationship between means, channels, and language of dissemination of health-related content in areas at risk of contagion of Ebola or cholera in regions subject to conflict, as much as to natural hazards, has seen a slow yet gradual increase in attention to the language barrier as a factor increasing the impact of disasters. Furthermore, a range of situations (conflicts, flooding, genocide, persecution, etc.) that are increasing people displacement have generated additional attention to the sudden increase in vulnerability of hosting populations. Refugee camps and temporary accommodation for displaced people expose them to local natural hazards. For instance, the 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the Turkish resort of Bodrum of 2017 affected Kos in Greece, where 800 migrants had recently found temporary settlement, as well as migrant camps in Lebanon and Turkey. Poor communication undermines trust in responders and institutions. Failure to address effective communication for CALD communities generates further social disruption, one of the cascading effects of disasters (Pescaroli & Alexander, 2015, 2016). This, in turn, risks affecting and endangering respondents who may deal with a crisis-affected population that has not received accurate or language-appropriate instructions or plans. Lingua francas have been used in training for internationally coordinated responses to crises (Howe, Jennex, Bressler, & Frost, 2013) and collecting data from disasters (Mulder et al., 2016), even when such simulations take advantage of technological solutions for language translation. Where English assumes the role of the language of international humanitarian institutions, it becomes both a solution and part of the problem. Broken crisis communication has an impact both on the transfer of information on risks between operators and responders (Wray, Rivers, Whitworth, Jupka, & Clements, 2006, pp. 46–47) and on risk communication with the public (Andrulis, Siddiqui, & Gantner, 2007; Andrulis, Siddiqui, & Purtle, 2009; Reilly & Atanasova, 2016; Steelman & McCaffrey, 2013), thus undermining trust in messages and messengers at the crucial point when information should be reliable, efficient, timely, and accessible by all parties (Cadwell, 2015b).

To be trusted, interventions need to show that affected populations are listened to. To be effective, trusted information needs to be in a language that affected people understand. The issue of trusted information in multilingual disaster situations is crucial for operationalizing emergency evacuations plans. Without a cultural and linguistic understanding, any performative information (expecting receivers to act in some ways) is more likely to ignored due to potential lack of trust (Cadwell, 2015b). However trustworthy the source, if information circulates in a language that people do not understand or, worse, one that can be associated to positions of dominance and colonial influence, messages become less trustworthy; people’s reactions to warnings less prompt and the impact on response can be catastrophic (as shown in Field, 2017; Roth, 2018). Language-related lack of trust causes delays in action, proliferation of rumors, non-compliance to warnings, and waste of goods (Cook, Shrestha, & Htet, 2016). Communication breakdowns in the aftermath of disasters are a reason for concern for raised vulnerability in terms of public health. As the disasters can cause disruption to communication, unchallenged rumors spread quickly and public health officials struggle to collate information to respond to figures emerging from local epidemics as “different languages are not equally represented in the news media or addressed by electronic search engines” (Bisen & Raghuvanshi, 2013, p. 54). Accommodating language needs increases trust and avoids spiraling rumors or confusion as experienced in the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake (Cadwell, 2014, 2015a, 2015b; Naito, 2012). Personal safety and public health depend on disaster-related communication in a language fully understood by those affected as much as it depends on clear communicative strategies (as discussed in Reynolds & Seeger, 2014; Reynolds & Lufty, 2018).

The literature indicates that there is no systematic data on morbidity and mortality directly attributable to disaster-related language issues; the general agreement of the studies cited here is that the impact is perceived, albeit obliquely. Sociological studies have considered how disaster communication is affected in producing delays and cultural barriers by increasing the likelihood of rumors spreading instead of correct information. An illustration of these devastating effects is the 2014 Western Africa Ebola outbreak, considered by the WHO as a lesson in community engagement (also from a linguistic and cultural point of view) as language-related issues badly harmed the response to this health crisis (Bastide, 2018; Burki, 2016; Chan, 2014; Shrivastava, Shrivastava, & Ramasamy, 2015). The continued disconnect between the notion of community engagement and an extensive approach geared to support language needs within emergency plans, particularly focusing on engaging communities at the stage of readiness, allows for similar devastating outcomes in other situations. In terms of “prevention and control,” trustworthy information avoids some of the effects of rumors on contagion and “[f]ailure to explain (in a simple language that is understood by the patient and his or her family members) the need for prolonged treatment and possible side effects” (Bisen and Raghuvanshi, 2013, p. 143). To interrupt the “chain of transmission,” Bisen and Raghuvanshi expose the factual need to communicate with the population in emerging epidemics in no uncertain terms: “The population at risk need information (in the locally used languages) on symptoms of the disease so that if they experience similar symptoms, they will seek medical help” (2013, p. 214). Although their focus is on exposure to health risks, the same increase of vulnerability appears when shelter, sanitation, food, and evacuation information is provided in a language that cannot be fully understood by vulnerable groups.

As terminology is a well-known problem even among Anglophone audiences within disaster researchers, the highly debated term “vulnerability” is not the focus here—the concept is used referring to the UN definition and to Cannon’s work (2008a, 2008b) aimed at dissipating mono-dimensional notions of vulnerability. However, long-term permanence of culture-based and language-based vulnerabilities must be considered as forms of discrimination (see also Uekusa, 2019). Access to disaster to information is a human right (Greenwood et al., 2017), and The Grand Bargain. A Shared Commitment to Better Serve People in Need (WHS, 2016) represents a commitment to ensure this right is (at least) considered in disaster response. Hence, being denied access in a language one understands creates a vulnerability by discrimination. Albeit a high-level abstract commitment, the Sendai Framework sets out principles of disaster risk reduction to which many countries have committed. When ethnic and linguistic differences are well documented in a disaster-affected population, language barriers can be part of risk reduction programs targeting increased preparedness in the community, and such discrimination can be avoided. When linguistic difficulties emerge among uncommon groups of international responders working together in association among themselves and in collaboration with local groups, new issues emerge that cannot always be predicted. Relying on a local lingua franca is not enough and can color response efforts and exacerbate risks, as happened with the dissemination of information about the measures to avoid Ebola contagion in 2014–2015 (Bastide, 2018). Providing information in a language that local populations can understand also plays a socio-cultural function in disaster risk reduction. Language-appropriate communication becomes less of an imposition from alien bodies (those institutions from which partially integrated social groups may feel very distant, or international responders operating in an unfamiliar environment): it can empower CALD communities to begin recovery processes grounded on participation and equality, as having access to the same information provided to all affected members of the populations in a language they can understand is a principle of linguistic justice (Mowbray, 2017; van Parijs, 2011) and a human right (O’Brien et al., 2018).

Recovery and Reconstruction

In the recovery and reconstruction phases of a disaster, language diversity remains a vulnerability if no effort is made to accommodate language needs. Davis and Alexander’s Recovery from Disaster (2016) puts forward evidence-based recovery models that analyze the results of different approaches to recovery. They observe that “Recovery without essential information (on hazards,, impacts, consequences, stakeholder needs and resources) is like ‘driving blind’ ” (2016, p. 312); the needs of CALD communities go unnoticed or remain unanswered for a long time. One illustration is the time taken to provide translations into the 18 languages of displaced residents after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London; information about accommodation and support was provided online and in writing from the day after the fire in English; however, the most vulnerable residents in the building included CALD families with need for translation which, according to the U.K. emergency plans, should be available by the institutions within 48 hours (see discussion in O’Brien et al., 2018), but they were provided only after an NGO proactively suggested they may be needed (vulnerable families had been housed in the tower, by social services, who would have a record of interpreting needs) and essential information on accommodation continued to be needed for a month (Fortescue, 2018). In developed countries, communities are often multicultural and multilingual as part of people displacement; in developing countries, internal multilingualism is often the status quo. Regardless of the economic distinctions, for affected populations to provide feedback, thus having a voice following a disaster, requires language translation. Without it, they are excluded and remain vulnerable. This type of vulnerability is entirely avoidable.

In their analysis of case studies of recovery, Davis and Alexander (2016, p. 311) refer to Comerio’s approach to assess models of recovery (2013), against which they map recovery performances after large disasters. Figure 4 shows how strong community involvement in collaboration with a strong role for the government are quintessential factors for successful recovery. If one were to plot the best disaster-related practices for multilingual communication, these would be found at the top right (perhaps, unsurprisingly, from lessons learned New Zealand has moved to a proactive approach to readiness, including language support for CALD communities; see Shackleton, 2018; Wylie, 2012).

Figure 4. The Mary Comerio comparison of recovery management approaches, Model 21 (Comerio, 2013; Davis & Alexander, 2016).

Looking at recovery models, Davis and Alexander (2016, p. 313) emphasize that “strengthening, rather weakening, the critical role of national governments in managing disaster recovery, at both the central and local government levels” bears better results in the long-term recovery. In disaster-related multilingual communication, this perspective must be juxtaposed with a caveat on global and international humanitarian relief operations. In these, language translation has an important role to play to ensure that communication is not used as a tool to exclude marginalized groups or ethnic minorities because of national politics. Davis and Alexander (2016, pp. 140–156) discuss the rights of disaster-affected populations in recovery, and their argument on accountability and cultural sensitivity is core: language diversity can be an obstacle. CALD communities without access to recovery information remain more vulnerable to future disasters and de facto are victims of discrimination—in contradiction with the principle of the Sendai Framework. In this sense, including CALD communities in the feedback loop is an instrument of disaster risk reduction and an opportunity for cultural change (Hoffman, 1999). It also enshrines in recovery plans the need for multidirectional communication to ensure representation of and accountability to all communities, including CALD groups.

Crucial Debates

Established paradigms recognize how natural hazards create risks, but vulnerabilities are the results of social factors. Disaster-related communication in multiple languages creates additional vulnerabilities, as any communicative act is sociolinguistic, and thereby its cultural, social, and situational dimensions from the simplest transfer of meaning in a warning signal to the planning of protocols for training of emergency responders impinge on the meaning-making. This happens monolingually across different stakeholders whose terminologies may not be fully shared (Čemerin, 2015; Panizzon & Zhao, 2015; Reuter, Pipek, Wiedenhoefer, & Ley, 2012; UNISDR, 2016; Zhang & Khurshid, 2014). Logically, these vulnerabilities multiply in multilingual disaster-related communication. Studies and reports that have noticed the impact of the linguistic dimension predominantly focus on interpreting in the response phase. The crucial point is that different ways of accommodating language needs could be linked to the various disaster risk reduction activities besides those used in the response phase (for a preliminary discussion of phase-based language translation solutions, see Federici and O’Brien, 2019). In creating these links, more resilient communities can be developed and more effective reconstruction can take place after a disaster—an illustration is given in Figure 4.

Figure 5. Schematic representation of language translation options in disaster risk reduction.

As such, language mediations through interpreters and translators in disasters ought to pivot around the crucial notion of training. Training depends on knowing the language needs of the region and the potential for commercial or non-commercial needs of language translation between local languages or between local languages and lingua francas. On the one hand, the highest level of professionalism and experience are ideal for delivering accurate and trustworthy information in disaster-related communication. On the other hand, local languages and dialects may not necessitate professional linguists to switch across local languages or between these and the responders’ lingua francas in ordinary circumstances. No career could be had from some language combinations suddenly needed in regional disasters; or, even when professionals exist locally, they may have been affected directly by the disaster. Planning for likely situations in which certain languages are needed is currently difficult as no system exists to map local language needs in areas exposed to natural hazards—the crisis language maps of TWB are a pilot project fulfilling a need for increased readiness (a succinct introduction to the NGO’s crisis language maps is available online).Often, the preferred option of using trained professional is not viable (see discussion in Federici & Cadwell, 2018). Untrained, or poorly (rapidly) trained, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to establish boundaries of neutrality among the speakers involved in the communicative act (Angelelli, 2004, 2015a, 2015b, 2015c, 2016, 2017; Angelelli & Baer, 2015; Moser-Mercer & Bali, 2007; Moser-Mercer, Kherbiche, & Class, 2014). Ad hoc interpreters are more prone to or at risk of taking sides, thus reflecting existing power relations and influencing the act more explicitly. A degree of influence in any act of language transfer remains, even within automated translation systems, but professionals are trained to avoid bias as much as possible. Language translation that reflects existing power relations does not give a voice to CALD communities who may be marginalized and vulnerable.

Technologies, including mobile phone apps and automated machine translation systems, present problems in offline contexts, rely on access to power (electricity or batteries), and have limited accuracy. Machine Translation systems were tested in simulations in the 2000s (Oard & Och, 2003), before they were actively used in a disaster to capture text messages regarding location and health of affected population in the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Lewis, 2010; Lewis, Munro, & Vogel, 2011; Munro, 2010, 2012; Munro & Manning, 2012). In the same decade, the major international simulation of technological live communication included a live, machine translation system integrated in a chat room used by international participants to exchange information (Howe et al., 2013). Authentic deployment of machine translation followed by human post-editing helped responders to capture impact and geographical distribution of damage in the 2105 Nepal earthquake (Mulder et al., 2016). Fully or partially automated translation technologies are part of a broader toolbox, they are not standalone holistic solutions.

Concluding Remarks

Managing language needs becomes a vulnerability in disasters when multilingual populations are affected, and language-related issues are only considered as part of the response. Disaster science considered cultural constructs (Blaikie et al., 1994; Douglas & Wildavsky, 1983; Ferris, 2017; Gaillard, 2010; Hewitt, 2012; Krüger et al., 2015; Mercer, 2012; Mercer et al., 2012; Wisner, Gaillard, & Kelman, 2011) and is now considering linguistic barriers. The gradual acceptance that disaster and crisis communication is multidirectional signified a new realization expressed by intergovernmental organizations, INGOs, and local NGOs in their reports and in their Grand Bargain commitments of the World Humanitarian Summit 2016. Communication in a language that disaster-affected populations do not understand can be and probably ought to be defined as a form of discrimination, or ‘disaster linguism’ (Uekusa, 2019).

This article suggests that the realization that these limitations exist and have bearing on risk reduction in all disaster phases must be followed by new research and assessments of current actions. Increased emphasis on community engagement with CALD groups achieves more organic ways of embedding language translation in readiness (Federici and O’Brien, 2019; Shackleton, 2018), which in turn need to be supported by implementable policies, so as to reduce the risks of poor and ad hoc solutions. Managing language needs increases trust in the messengers (responders) and establishes better communication among all stakeholders. Hilhorst (2013, p. 5) notes that “Crisis response often appears to be a matter of science, technology, and the appropriate resources. However, under that surface we find that crisis response is social and highly political.” As linguistic diversity often reflects lack of integration, complex multilingualism, and conditions of poverty or political discriminations of groups in societies, unwillingness to reduce and manage the language vulnerability is likely to lie in social and political choices. Ad hoc solutions for language translation in the response phase of disasters are significantly more expensive and also less effective than policies of readiness. This is ever more important as mass migrations enlarge existing CALD communities, or even create new ones.

Language needs increase vulnerability even when the populations move from less developed countries to (potentially) more developed parts of the world as migrants. The displacement exposes them; they become socially and linguistically marginalized. In turn, they may become at risk for health conditions—WHO has published extensive evidence that migrants arriving in the European Union during the peak of migratory flows of 2014–2016 suffered from above-average health issues in refugees camps (Puthoopparambil & Parente, 2018). From this macroscopic dimension, it is possible to deduct that few intergovernmental organizations fully realize that language represents a potential obstacle to managing vulnerabilities. To be effective, disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies need to be understood by residents to support the decision-making of local and international humanitarian responders, as well as to develop, before and after disasters, the residents’ resilience to the natural hazards affecting their regions. After all, the UN itself defines vulnerability as “the conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes which increase the susceptibility of an individual, a community, assets or systems to the impacts of hazards.” Obstacles to accessing information increase the susceptibility to the impact of hazards; yet most of the goals of the Sendai Framework to reduce risks depend on preparedness and planning. Preparing more resilient societies rests on education and dissemination of information, not only on scientific knowledge and usage of new technologies, but also on local protocols for increased security (building, shelters, evacuation, drills, warning and messaging channels, etc.).

When speakers of marginalized languages (for political or social reasons) are cut off from central channels of communication, known needs of ethnic minorities are ignored. Their preparedness levels tend to be lower, hence they become more vulnerable (Howard et al., 2017).

When ethnic differences are well documented in the affected population, language barriers can be part of DRR programs targeting increased preparedness in the community. When linguistic difficulties emerge because uncommon groups of international responders work together in association among themselves and in collaboration with local groups, new issues emerge that cannot always be predicted, but international relief responders (from intergovernmental agencies to international NGOs) could develop language policies targeting higher levels of readiness to engage with local communities (Federici et al., 2019). Relying on a local lingua franca is not enough; it may endanger response efforts and exacerbate risks (Bastide, 2018; Field, 2017; Howard et al., 2017). Providing information in a language that local populations can understand plays a socio-cultural function: the information, warnings, communication is not an imposition from alien bodies, it is a tool to empower affected communities to return to normality by informing their own decisions on the basis of the same information provided to all members of the affected communities. The notion of language justice, that is the possibility of accessing information in a language any member of the society can understand, is considered a question of equality, and it becomes crucial in avoiding the oversimplification of affected individuals and groups as passive recipients of help.


The research for this chapter has been supported by funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 734211—INTERACT, The International Network in Crisis Translation. Intellectually indebted to Sharon O’Brien, Patrick Cadwell, Brian J. Gerber, Jay Marlowe, and David E. Alexander, the author acknowledges that some of his observations included here emerged from stimulating conversations with them. Discussions, email exchanges, and co-authored work with some of these colleagues further influenced his thinking on language translation in disaster risk reduction. However much the chapter might show these positive influences, the author remains solely responsible for any remaining defects, errors, and oversights.


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