From Chemical Engineer to Translations Coordinator: Bringing People Together Through Language
Translators work behind the scenes to facilitate communication and connection in a multitude of settings. Today, on International Translation Day, we want to bring professional translators to the forefront and honour their efforts to bridge differences and build understanding across cultures, communities, and countries.
Andrea Roach—or Andy, as we like to call her—is CAWST’s only Translations Coordinator on staff. But that doesn’t mean she works alone. Andy is surrounded by a team of language professionals based around the world. Translating CAWST’s resources makes it possible to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) knowledge in four main languages: Arabic, French, Spanish, and English.
I asked Andy several questions to better understand what it’s like to be CAWST’s Translations Coordinator, and why she’s so passionate about her line of work. You can read the full interview that follows:
Tell us a bit about yourself. Why did you get into language services/translation work?
I wanted to be a translator ever since I was a kid, studying in a French immersion program in an English-speaking part of Canada. I’ve always been fascinated by languages and how they work. I started learning Italian at the local college when I was 11, then Spanish when I was in university, then Portuguese when I was about 25. I even learned Haitian Creole before I went on my first trip as a CAWST staff to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2004. In my spare time, I often listen to language- or linguistics-themed podcasts (like The History of English and Lexicon Valley), read books about language (especially etymology), and sometimes I’ll even study bits of other languages. When I was working in other countries for CAWST, I loved seeing how different things were said in different countries, or even different regions. I learned a lot of different varieties of Spanish and Portuguese that way.
Andy delivers a workshop in Brazil.
Like a lot of translators, I have a varied background—I have a degree in Chemical Engineering, and I worked as an engineer in different fields and in different countries. My most interesting position was as a Global WASH Advisor for CAWST in Latin America, from 2004 to 2008, delivering workshops in Spanish, Portuguese, and French. This was often tiring because it involved not only translating newly-produced material the night before a workshop, but also working in all the different varieties of those languages. Despite that, it was so rewarding, and these experiences definitely led me to become a better translator.
Throughout my life, I’ve always had a passion for languages and for translating, and all of my previous experience informs the work I do every day now as a freelance translator, and as CAWST’s Translations Coordinator.
How did you come to work with CAWST? Why do you choose to support an organization like CAWST in your translation work?
Back in 2003, I came back to Canada after working with the Red Cross in El Salvador on a rural water project, I was looking for an organization that worked in water where I could contribute my field experience, my engineering knowledge, and my language skills. CAWST was the perfect fit. I spent four years as a Global WASH Advisor, and then I came back to CAWST in 2011 as Translations Coordinator.
How has translation changed for CAWST over the years?
In the early days of being a Global WASH Advisor, those of us who worked in Spanish or French all did our own translations. I personally loved this, but I admit it was exhausting to have to do on top of my “regular” work. And not all the other Global WASH Advisors loved it as much as I did. At some point, we started outsourcing translations to volunteers. By the time I took over as Translations Coordinator, we had a roster of about 50 amazing volunteer translators. It was wonderful working with them—the volunteers were all dedicated and loved CAWST’s work. But it took a lot of effort to coordinate so many people, and especially to keep the quality and terminology consistent. Later, we decided to start paying for all of our translations, so that we could concentrate the work among just a few people. This made things go a lot faster, and also increased our quality and consistency. A few years after I took over the role, we decided to implement a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool. Note that CAT tools are not to be confused with machine translation, such as Google Translate. Rather, a CAT tool stores every sentence we ever translate, so we never have to translate the same thing twice and making it easy to reference things. It also stores a glossary, which we are constantly adding to. The CAT tool we use is called XTM; it’s cloud-based so all of our translators have access to it, and they can see each other’s work and add entries to the glossary on the fly. That has been a game changer for us. It has improved our efficiency, quality, and consistency.
We translate all of our training materials into French and Spanish as a matter of course, but this year we also translated a good portion of our materials into Arabic, and some into Portuguese. With the addition of Arabic, we have been able to reach new clients in the Middle East, including NGOs working in Syrian refugee camps.
How has COVID-19 changed CAWST’s translation requirements?
When COVID-19 hit, all of our international trainers were grounded. They started working on developing new training materials for online platforms, which needed to be translated as quickly as possible. CAWST also entered into a partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to develop the COVID-19 Hygiene Hub, which was to be translated into French, Spanish, and Arabic. Because of the nature of the content, it all needed to be translated urgently, and we also needed to respond nimbly to changing recommendations. During that fast-paced time, the hours I worked for CAWST went from about ten a month to ninety. Our translators also sprang into action to translate all the new material that was being developed, much quicker than we would normally ask for it. I’m so thankful for how responsive and engaged they were then, and continue to be today.
How do you select your translators?
Andy takes a sip of water from a biosand filter in Bolivia.
One thing I would like to emphasize is that we don’t see translations as a “commodity”—it’s not just “here’s your translation and the invoice, thank you very much.” Rather, we have built up relationships with our translators over the years, and we’ll sometimes go back and forth on something to make sure the translator understands the source text, and can convey it in a way that our clients will understand. Some people think that anyone who speaks two languages can be a translator, but that’s not true in all cases. You can usually tell the difference between a translation done by an experienced translator, and one done by a novice—the one done by the experienced translator will sound natural, as though it had been written in that language right from the start, whereas translations done by someone who doesn’t have a vocation for translation might not sound “quite right.”
All of the translators we work with at CAWST not only have impeccable language skills, but they also understand and love our work. I know I can always count on them if we have something urgent; if something is really tight, they’ll work together to see who is available to take the job on.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognize our translators and the amazing work they have done for us over the years. I truly love working with them. They are: Mayra Cavilla and Cecilia Perretta (who both live in Argentina); Thibaut Demaegdt, Dominique Philippe-Suzon, and Michèle Mahler (who all live in France); and Ahmed Youssef, who does Arabic translations for us through Immigrant Services Calgary. Although our translators may work behind the scenes, we all collaborate together as a team.
What advice would you give someone planning to become a translator someday?
Be curious. Never assume your language skills are as good as you think they are—challenge that by learning from other translators; going to conferences; and taking webinars, courses, and exams. Read a lot and listen to music in your A, B, and C languages. It took me several years to become a certified translator. I studied, took practice exams, and learned from more experienced translators. I actually often say that it was harder to become a translator than it was to become a chemical engineer.
Andy and the translations team work closely with CAWST Global Services staff and partners, two of whom shared their perspective on why translation work is so valuable:
Translations are an essential piece for the work we do in Latin America. Our resources are generally created in English, but thanks to the passion and commitment of the team of translators that supports us in Spanish, CAWST significantly grows the potential reach to more than 400 million people. —Eva Manzano, Senior Global WASH Advisor, CAWST
CAWST’s translation team has provided rapid translations from English to Spanish, French, and Arabic across all the Hygiene Hub resources. Having these diverse resources available in all of these languages has regularly been cited by COVID-19 response actors as one of the main selling points of our work. At the beginning of the pandemic, our users faced numerous challenges because of the “English Infodemic” around COVID-19—CAWST’s translation work helped break down this barrier.
—Sian White, Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Today and every day, we are grateful for the passion, curiosity, and professionalism of our translators. The impact of translation cannot be overstated, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of translators, we are able to share WASH and COVID-19 resources with more people in more languages and more diverse contexts, to improve hygiene and health in the long run.
Thank you, Andy and all the translators, for your crucial efforts in sharing information, improving communication, and fostering relationships to make our interconnected world a better place.
Coffee with CAWST is a blog series, where we have coffee and conversation to connect our readers with some of the outstanding people behind CAWST. Please let us know what you think, ask questions and stay tuned for more!