On many occasions during my city walks, I came across REFUGEES WELCOME posters and stickers placarded throughout neighbourhoods of Copenhagen. My initial thought was, why not write this in Arabic or in other languages from the countries where many of these refugees come from if we want to make them feel welcome? Immediately after that first impression, I came to the realisation that this message was not aimed at refugees but at the general public. To raise awareness on the plea of these people escaping a place where they cannot remain alive.
Being in Copenhagen, I did wonder why this message wasn't in Danish. Wouldn't it have a higher impact? Most Danish people know English you might argue. Which is true. These posters and stickers are also not only aimed at the passers by, but also to wider audiences across the internet, especially through the use of social media.
That message that is now spread across Europe and beyond, and it is understood by most, refugees and non refugees alike. No matter your level of knowledge of the English language.
Then zooming into the photograph, I see Danish texts surrounding the English REFUGEES WELCOME. The ANTIFASCISTISK - 1 MAJ above, which I don't really need a dictionary to understand.
And this sentence above, Ingen flygter for sjov! I could decipher the word "flygter" because of my knowledge of Dutch ("vluchteling" means "refugee"), but still needed further investigation to make sure I understand it:
No escape for fun.
A clarification on why REFUGEES WELCOME.
I started to think about the reason for this redundancy: the very definition of a refugee contains that understanding that they are not "escaping for fun". But, as we now more than ever -and especially our leaders- need to be reminded that refugees are indeed welcome, we are also in desperate need to be reminded of why, in all possible languages. So that we understand. Clearly.
As the recipient of these messages, placarded in our cities, hash-tagged in our timelines, I analyse and translate the words in my mind, and yet I remain powerless. The meaninglessness of this exercise daunts on me like a slap.
No escape for fun. No escape for fun keeps resonating in my head. I think about the emptiness of this exercise then I stumble upon an extraordinary initiative "The Refugee Phrasebook" to help create a multilingual phrasebook for refugees and people who wish to help them. Translation is only one step forward, but it is a major one. It has the power to link people from different places, with different levels of knowledge. Looking back at my first reaction of why isn't this message rendered in the languages the refugees understand, I had in mind a person fleeing persecution and death, I imagined her wandering the streets of any European city, looking around, lost in translation. Even the other languages she may know wouldn't help, like Dutch sometimes helped me with understanding Danish. Having access to such a phrasebook can be a life saver. These people have enough burden to carry emotionally, physically. Offering them the possibility to interact through translation instead of being lost in it is the very least we can offer.
Translation is never only about words or just communication, it is about connection at the deepest humane level.