A follow-up to “Content and Crisis: Translators Without Borders,” this interview introduces Aimee Ansari, Translators Without Borders’ newly appointed executive director.
Translators Without Borders’ (TWB) capacity to deliver timely and professional-grade content translations across multiple language groups makes it a significant force in the deployment of humanitarian services. But the success of its operation rests on the quality and depth of its collaborative integration with other functionally diverse humanitarian agencies. In order to provide assistance during times of crisis, TWB must establish strong working partnerships with various organizations, all of which have different specializations, geographical interests, and organizational structures.
This matter alone can prove challenging. And hands-on experience working directly at the center of this type of environment matters, as it helps organizations understand the real-world challenges that such collaborations and regions entail.
This type of perspective is what Aimee Ansari brings to the table. With over 20 years of field and administrative experience providing humanitarian aid in crisis-torn regions, some of which were quite harrowing, Ansari brings invaluable perspective and approaches to TWB’s current and future projects.
TCW: You’ve been involved in humanitarian relief efforts with numerous organizations for the last 20 years. Tell us a little bit about how you got started.
Ansari: My start in humanitarian work was not planned. I studied the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, then those of us who spoke Russian had to go [to the Soviet Union] if we wanted to advance our careers. Because I had studied non-Russian republics, I applied for a job in Kyrgyzstan with the UN. I was lucky and got it. It turned out that part of the job was to work with Tajik refugees fleeing the civil war. After that, it was post-conflict Yemen (which has sadly, terribly re-ignited), disaster risk reduction in Bangladesh, and on and on.
TCW: What compelled you to remain in this line of work in light of the extreme risks that some of your environments presented?
Ansari: You had just driven in on LA freeways when we spoke. To me, driving in LA seems much more frightening than most of the places I’ve been—you have road rage, drive-by shootings, I mean, people pull guns out and shoot other drivers on the freeways in LA. That’s nuts: I’d be terrified.
In reality, I know it’s not like that—just like living in places that you hear about aren’t exactly like you see on the news. They are terrible situations, but you learn how to deal with the insecurity.
What’s more difficult is the trauma the comes with talking to people who themselves are traumatized or dying. Watching a child die from malnutrition when there’s nothing you can do, or listening to a woman talk about being gang-raped…that’s really hard. That’s what makes aid workers stop going back—because, personally, it’s difficult to hear that, see it, talk about it and only be able to do so much. Aid workers can provide food, water, shelter, and some degree of protection. But we can’t stop the killing. And that’s hard to deal with.
But, you’re right, it is much harder to sit in my house and do nothing than to use my knowledge, skills and experience to at least do something. It does take training and understanding, though. We’ve learned the hard way that giving assistance can sometimes put people more at risk. It takes experience and understanding of the context—it takes professionals—to make sure that we preserve people’s dignity, help save lives, and at the very least, do no harm.
TCW: Tell us about your experience in taking on a leadership role in a crisis hot-zone. What did you find were the biggest challenges and responsibilities?
Ansari: There are a lot of challenges in leadership roles. They are very lonely, first of all. In many places, because of the risks, you can’t take your husband, or wife, or kids. They stay behind and never really understand what’s going on in your life every day.
In really insecure contexts, though, you have to help your team manage these conditions, too. They are also alone and without their families; they are also seeing and experiencing trauma. And, as the leader, you have to always be in a position to be able to support them. For me, this meant making sure that I was healthy and as mentally strong as I could be and, as I became more experienced, learn to be able to recognize signs of trauma in myself and knowing how to deal with that. That’s probably the most difficult—being able to say that you can’t handle it any more—and being able to have the confidence to do that as a sign of strength and leadership.
TCW: What contributed to your decision to take on the executive director role at Translators Without Borders?
Ansari: TWB is a wonderful organization. And what we do is so needed in the humanitarian community. One of the biggest problems humanitarians have is communicating with people affected by crises—we speak the wrong languages, we don’t understand their cultures, etc. We often use our admin teams or drivers to help us translate simply because we don’t know where and how to get translators. When you combine this with the use of technology to make content simpler and more accessible—it’s exactly what humanitarians needs.
When I understood what the organization does, I couldn’t understand why we aren’t much bigger, helping more people. It’s very exciting.
TCW: Tell us about the future projects, direction, and goals you have planned for TWB.
Ansari: As I mentioned above, the organization has so much potential to do so much more. I would like to see us exponentially expand the number of languages—focusing on those that are spoken where disasters most often occur. I would like our library or catalogue of simplified documents (Words of Relief Digital Exchange) to include a wide range of information that every aid worker needs to communicate effectively—video, audio, recordings of simple messaging in 100s of languages and openly accessible to humanitarian organizations when they need them.
I want every humanitarian and development organization to recognize the criticality of effective communications and make it a priority in everything they do.
An example: The Ministry of Health in a francophone country would like a partner of theirs to conduct some training of community health workers based on materials that are currently in English. The partner has asked us to translate the materials into French. However, we know that only 20% of the people in the country speak French. So we have suggested to the partner (and the Ministry of Health) that we train translators to work in the two major local languages that they speak, and they can translate the health materials into those local languages. Once we do that, we can build a number of other tools that will help support on-going translation needs in those languages, making much more information available to the people in that country.
TCW: Content exists in multiple forms serving various purposes, and can be delivered through a wide range of formats and channels. Based on your past experience, what modes of content production and delivery were most effective in regions in which communications access and capabilities were tremendously hampered or lacking?
Ansari: Right now, in order to help those fleeing the Middle East to Europe, it’s all about technology—websites, blogs, information in languages and in places that a highly educated, tech-savvy group access. But, in South Sudan, even in the capital, there were only a few hours of electricity per day for most people. Outside the capital, few places had regular electricity. If we wanted to effectively communicate with them, then using complicated English and Arabic (the two “official” languages) via radio programs was going to have limited effect. We had to learn to communicate both in the local language (especially if we were trying to effect behavioral change) and in ways that those cultures traditionally learned. Working with anthropologists was crucial. For example, in some countries, people communicate “lessons” via fables. In West Africa, songs are used as a way to communicate information or to express opinions. In Bangladesh, dramas or plays were used by villagers to challenge elites. These are the lessons we have to work with humanitarians to adapt their communications if we want them to be effective.
TCW: Aside from professional translation services, what else can content strategists and content creators do to help TWB?
Ansari: Donating time and money is always welcome, of course. Running a fund-raising or awareness event is very much appreciated and we need that help. We are currently thinking through some new strategies around content creation and strategies. We also invite content strategists to join us in our effort to raise awareness of the importance of content in the right language in order to maximize relevance and effectiveness. So watch this space— there will be more coming soon!
TCW: Aimee, we thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. We wish you the best and look forward to helping you spread the word about the good work done by the staff and volunteers of TWB. Thank you for all you do.