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by Eva Gudbergsdottir

Interpreter Brigade Mexico 2017
A volunteer interpreter holds the hand of an earthquake victim while speaking with her during Professor Esther Navarro-Hall’s recent trip to Mexico. (photo credit: David Hall)

When Mexico was hit with the strongest earthquake in a century on September 7, Adjunct Professor Esther Navarro-Hall MACI ’85 searched for effective ways to help victims. Navarro-Hall, who is originally from the state of Chihuahua, was headed to Mexico City to attend a conference and could not shake the feeling that she should be doing something. Before she arrived, the deadly second earthquake shook Mexico City. After that she knew she had to take action. She collaborated with other professional interpreters and translators to form an “interpreter brigade” and donated services (and money) to the cause of helping people in indigenous-language-speaking areas deal with the aftermath of the destruction.

“As interpreters and translators, we are a vital link in the communication chain which is so essential to all aid efforts,” says Navarro-Hall. She extended her stay to two weeks, convinced her husband of 27 years to join her, and served as liaison and interpreter, most importantly supporting the work of indigenous language colleagues in relay mode.

Navarro-Hall says she saw some of the “best and worst in people,” and that the experience has had a profound influence on her. In Mexico she worked with other professionals she had made connections with in her long career. She organized interpreters with the right language combinations to connect with people in areas where there was little Spanish spoken.

“We discovered that while aid organizations were delivering food and water, people desperately needed other things such as toilets, something to cook in, and hygiene products. Those things we bought from local vendors directly, with the goal of keeping all the funds we raised in the local economy.”

Everywhere they went, she says people were ready to do the work needed to recover. “They just needed help with materials.” With limited funding, Navarro-Hall says she learned a lot about making difficult decisions and the importance of tailoring humanitarian assistance to the actual needs of the population.

She was surprised to learn that there is often not a central place for interpreters and translators to get information about how they can help when disaster hits. When fires ravaged in Northern California last week she contacted emergency services in many locations to ask if they could use professional interpreters but got no response. “My amazing husband said, let’s just go! – and we did. This is a calling now.” Navarro-Hall now plans to focus on ways to continue her work in both disaster areas, as well as to explore ways to organize interpreters who want to offer their professional services where the need is greatest.

For More Information

Jason Warburg
jwarburg@middlebury.edu
831-647-3516

Eva Gudbergsdottir
evag@middlebury.edu
831-647-6606