Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Linguistic support in disaster response – the accidental project manager

By Mark Thompson

The call came out of the blue in November 2015, when I was least expecting it. Thrown in at the deep end, I literally became a linguistic services project manager overnight.

First interpreter called in to the site of a mining dam disaster in southeastern Brazil, to assist English speaking executives and specialists flying in from all around the globe, I very quickly found myself relying on previous networking contacts to scale up the language support team as increasing personnel and resources were deployed to the emergency response effort.

This was a hectic, sometimes frantic period, with myriad interpreting and translation demands appearing around the clock, requiring enormous efforts of focus and flexibility in equal measure to ensure that the right linguist was deployed to the right job in the right place at the right time, while, necessarily, also being hands-on myself.

On any given day I had several interpreters working simultaneously around Brazil, in all the different imaginable modalities, and remotely, with document translators also providing support from their homes.

For me, as for many others involved, the learning curves (definitely plural) were steep, and I found myself drawing upon all my life experience to date to get the job done to the required standard, and to keep the sanity intact.

Forward thinking, flexibility, speed of response and a sense of urgency were paramount at all times, and with this extremely intense manner of working, self-care also became important.

After practically living near ground zero of the original disaster site for 18 months, and now that things there had calmed (although only slightly), I returned home and started to manage the document translation services for the project, and continue to do so more than seven years on.

Speed of response, a sense of urgency and dogged dedication are still up there as constant requirements, as are the subtleties of managing a remote team with firm, clear guidance and also a good deal of developing and motivating, all delivered with a gentle touch.

The takeaways from this amazing experience are, for me, far too important not to share.

Book your place at CIOL Online Conference 2023 to hear Mark's talk.