Translator's Tales: An unorthodox approach to international translation

Posted: Sunday, August 01, 2010

Editor's note: Part 2 of this column will appear in the Aug. 15 edition of the Juneau Empire.

Racing down the street like a bat out of hell, horns blaring wildly, swerving around cars like a 16 year-old fresh out of the DMV, I was positive we were going to die.

I glanced over at Radwan next to me, who seemed rather unfazed by the whole ordeal, casually taking drags on his cigarette and blowing them out the window.

"Umm... are we almost there?" I asked Sahal meekly.

"Oh yes yes, any min- TURN! TURN HERE! LEARN TO DRIVE!" Sahal cried at his driver.

I whimpered to myself, and said a silent prayer as I gripped the van like my life depended on it - because, well, it did.


My primary work in Djibouti was teaching English, but when you're one of very few Americans in the area you find yourself falling into various other projects. Most notably: serving as an English translator for the Djiboutian National Radio and Television Station (RTD). This role came about when I was sought by Sahal Waberi, the jovial and garrulous "top" journalist of the station, to do an English voiceover for a documentary.

Our agenda for today was to spend all day aboard the Norwegian battleship, HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen, for an international press conference concerning Operation Atlanta, the European Union's Naval operation to counter the growing presence of Somali pirates in the region. The press conference was marking the one-year anniversary of the operation, and also served as their effort to appear more transparent.

Despite the title, translating is not always as glamorous as you may think. My first job with Sahal involved showing up at an air force base for an interview, only to be turned away because no one in Sahal's team (including Sahal) brought identification. Sahal gave it a good shot though, procuring what looked like a gas club card that he casually flipped toward the surely French guard. The guard however, was not amused. Sahal attempted the logic that as the card has his name, clearly it counts as his ID, which resulted in a terse back-and-forth with the officer. Eventually, Sahal turned around looking rather deflated, grumbling, "The French are so complicated. Lets go," as if it were the guard's fault. He then added, under his breath, "This is the second time I messed up this interview." Fortunately today our agenda was more solidified.

Pirates on the High Seas

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a growing epidemic ever since the early 90s when Somali fisherman, angry over illegal fishing and waste-dumping taking place in their waters, began uniting to form their own vigilante-style law enforcement. Piracy has since grown into a full-fledged industry for Somalia, which has come at the expense of the national shipping industry. Operation Atlanta was launched by the European Union as a means to protect the shipping routes by bringing order and safety back to these waters.

Djibouti finds itself in a bit of a quagmire: on one hand housing the main port for Operation Atlanta's naval ships, which range from countries European to Asian to African, while on the other hand sharing a border with Somalia. Moreover, half of Djibouti's population is ethnically Somali, with many family members in Somalia. You can begin to see the conflict.

Unorthodox Methods

We screeched to a halt in front of Djibouti's swanky five-star hotel, the Kimpinski, where the rest of the participating European journalists and guiding naval officers were waiting outside. Of course the van's side doors weren't working (which, considering the state of this rotting unmarked apparatus, wasn't much of a surprise), so we all had to climb over the front seat and squeeze out the front passenger's door like we were exiting a clown car. I imagine we were quite a sight to our onlooking European peers: three Djiboutians in sandals and sun-hats, and this one odd young white guy. Giving us a pitiful look not unlike one gives somebody who just tripped over their own shoes, the officer cleared his throat and gestured us toward the ship.

Though sometimes frustrating, and others time a bit quirky, translating for the Djiboutian media is never a dull endeavor. And while most of my jobs with Sahal have usually necessitated a little humor, I have learned they always proved to be terribly interesting. And also always, always bring identification.

•Philip Dierking is from Juneau, Alaska. Formerly a volunteer for the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, he now is pursuing his M.A. in Teaching English at the University of Washington. He can be reached at:

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us