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Challenges of Linguistic Accessibility for Nonprofits

Thoughts and Musings

Challenges of Linguistic Accessibility for Nonprofits


As some may know, I am involved with a Jewish community organization here in Seoul. One of the founding principles of our community is to involve our non-Jewish partners in Jewish life, so that our community is less disjointed. One of the key methods for achieving this has been translation.

As I have spent my entire adult life in diverse linguistic circles, I know that it is simply a reality that language affects our ability to feel comfortable in a group. It’s more pronounced when the activity involved is foreign, and you are the only one who does not know what’s going on.

As a tiny sliver of the diaspora, we have a unique challenge in Korea. Most of us marry/partner with locals. One of the most beautiful things I have experienced was Hakehillah’s first seder. We had a make-do Haggadah in English and Korean. The group was small but diverse. As each person read in their own language. For many of us who grew up hearing Hebrew during holidays, it does not bother us very much to mix it in with other texts, and many have common fixed phrases memorized despite not knowing exactly what they mean. But for many of our life partners and friends, compounding English, a language that comes with plenty of baggage for most Koreans, with the even more foreign Hebrew is overwhelming. It was clear that having translations and transliterations for our native Korean speakers had a positive impact on how the evening was experienced.

However, this Haggadah came at the cost of a few hundred thousand won and several hours of unpaid copy editing on my end. This was repeated at this year’s Seder planning stage. Not only is it exceedingly difficult to find a translator qualified to deal with the subject matter, it is also difficult to find someone willing to work on the project. This is because Jewish rituals are not something most English-Korean translators will be well-versed in. There is also the issue of transliteration from Hebrew. Korean has limited consonants, which is similar to Hebrew, but they do not align. Hebrew has plenty of sounds that do not exist in the Korean alphabet. So it is up to me to be the arbiter for how difficult sounds like ‘kh’ or ‘tz’ get transliterated. While we have a wealth of translated Biblical material, for us it is important to not follow the Christian tradition when building our library of texts. There is a need to work more in depth on this project, but I know I can’t do this on my own. [By the way, we’re still looking for an English/Hebrew-Korean translator who is also Jewish!]

Now let me get to the main point. All of the above requires a lot of time on the part of translators and linguists. In the world of business, we know that time equals money. The same goes for nonprofits. I see plenty of nonprofits such as ours, focused on community-building struggling to deal with the realities linguistic diversity. In the end in our rushed schedules we default to whatever is easiest for the organization’s overworked volunteers.

There are also issues regarding how languages are given differing levels of importance and implicit bias on the part of organizers and participants. In the Korean context, we know that 1) there is little to no understanding of our subject matter among Korean speakers, 2) English is held on a pedestal, and considered educated and cool, while also being a source of intense stress for many Koreans 3) English is the de facto lingua franca of the international community, including in Seoul, and 4) Hebrew is considered a universal language with regard to Jewish liturgy and many traditions (though this varies). All of these factors will influence how we consider the role of translation in our organization as it develops.

As we continue to plan for the future, preparing all sorts of materials and curriculum, translation is always at the forefront. I know that I, as a translator, have a heavy burden to make sure it remains a priority. While we have many obstacles to overcome, I hope that someday we can reach all of our translation goals, and in doing so, become an even more inclusive, beautifully diverse community.