Ariel Koren headshot
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   United States

Ariel Koren

Ariel Koren is reimagining how we fight for language justice by building a powerful collective of interpreters ready to provide high-quality, trauma-informed translation in urgent situations. Ariel’s…
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Ariel Koren is reimagining how we fight for language justice by building a powerful collective of interpreters ready to provide high-quality, trauma-informed translation in urgent situations. Ariel’s collective, Respond Crisis Translation, is creating an ecosystem where speakers of marginalized languages can find equitable, paid work and people seeking asylum, medical care, or otherwise navigating complex systems in their non-native languages will no longer struggle against language violence.

This description of Ariel Koren's work was prepared when Ariel Koren was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Ariel Koren is reimagining how we fight for language justice by building a powerful collective of interpreters ready to provide high-quality, trauma-informed translation in urgent situations. Ariel’s collective, Respond Crisis Translation, is creating an ecosystem where speakers of marginalized languages can find equitable, paid work and people seeking asylum, medical care, or otherwise navigating complex systems in their non-native languages will no longer struggle against language violence.

The New Idea

Ariel Koren founded Respond Crisis Translation to counteract the impact of language violence and to promote language justice. Language violence is the denial of access to quality translation and interpretation for individuals and families navigating critical systems in languages they do not speak, such as the immigration system, the medical system, the education system, and every other system. Language violence is systematic, widespread, and preventable. Respond is partnering with hundreds of collectives, activists, and organizations working across all arenas in which language violence is rampant to build the infrastructure for new systems that fund and prioritize quality interpretation and translation.

Respond’s teams of translators provide urgent support to speakers of marginalized and “rare” languages in the United States and globally. They provide rapid-response translation and interpretation, often in time-sensitive, life-threatening crisis situations. This band of work meets immediate needs around the world, particularly with regard to the immigration system and asylum-seekers. Strategically, this work proves that quality translation (even in “rare” languages) is possible and viable, dismantling the argument that there just isn’t talent available to do this work. There are plenty of talented translators out there, but many of them are denied the possibility of working as translators because translation work is underfunded and often even unfunded, and therefore at the systemic level is still not currently a viable career opportunity. There is also a lack of talent-to-career pipelines for multilingual people and universal access to professionalization and job training is not a reality.

Respond’s translators have a pathway not just to financial support, but to training and experience. Respond has built a professional ecosystem through which over 400 people are now earning a full livelihood through participation in Respond’s crisis translation work. This ecosystem of funders and partner organizations that understand the importance of translation, and qualified, quality interpreters will eventually weave through all existing systems where language violence currently takes place, promoting and enforcing language justice in its place.

Respond is spearheading a paradigm shift around the value and necessity of language justice. Respond emphasizes that there are so many talented multilingual people who are well-equipped to provide equitable access to critical systems. This includes translators who have lived experience in the immigration system and are thus particularly able to convey the nuances of asylum-seekers' stories to a court system that often rejects candidates on the basis of minor paperwork or interpretation errors. What is currently lacking is adequate funding for translators’ work and talent-to-career pipelines allowing multilingual people to access professionalization opportunities and pursue language work at livable wages. Many speakers of marginalized languages cannot afford to volunteer their time pro bono, as they need to make a living. Respond‘s pro bono work meets a critical need and demonstrates the value of what they do for their 200+ partner organizations, who then understand the need to take on part of the work of finding and routing funding to their translators. As a field builder, Ariel’s ultimate goal is to build a pipeline of capable, trauma-informed, and well-paid translators matched with partners who see language justice as a key component of the broader movements for justice and equity that they are devoted to.

The Problem

Language violence is the systemic wielding of language deprivation to cause harm. Lack of access to quality interpretation means lack of access to mobility across systems for individuals and families who do not speak (in the United States) English (or the dominant languages in other localities). This impacts families with children in school and anyone who needs medical care or social services, or who comes in contact with the carceral, legal, housing, and financial systems, amongst others. In the United States a particularly prominent site of language violence is the immigration system.

The U.S. operates the world’s largest immigration detention system, detaining 50,000+ people on any given day. The deficit of qualified translators at our borders, especially for “rare” and Indigenous languages, leaves thousands of people languishing for months or years in detention, waiting for a qualified linguistic match interpreter. Thousands of asylum seekers, including those in detention or held in dangerous conditions at the border, are forced to navigate the system with no access to qualified interpreters. The U.S. government only accepts asylum materials in English, but provides no subsidized translation support, leaving folks fleeing state, economic, and gender-based violence to compile hundreds of pages of evidence with no linguistic help.

While 92% of Texas immigration hearings are conducted in non-English languages, little infrastructure exists to protect asylum seekers from the life-threatening impact of an under-qualified or absent interpreter. Worse, language is often weaponized intentionally to justify detention and deportation; ICE routinely rejects asylum claims on the basis of a single misspelled word or because a survivor's testimony was lost in translation. The impact of this systemic language-based violence is that thousands of migrants are held in detention and stuck in dangerous situations at the border for months, even years, and often deported back to their home country and the conditions they were fleeing in the first place.

Many organizations exist to combat the violence of the immigration system and to improve the other systems where language violence currently runs rampant, like the medical system, the legal system, the education system, and social services. Due to limited resources and infrastructure, many of these organizations rely on inadequate volunteer translators. Many volunteer interpreters, recruited on an ad hoc basis, do not have the time, training, or level of language skill required for legal proceedings, accurate medical information, or technical documents. Most volunteers and even professional interpreters lack the cultural competence and trauma-informed training required to capably interpret at something as high-stakes and fraught as a Credible Fear Interview, where asylum seekers are asked to detail their traumatic reasons for leaving the country and risk deportation if their stories are relayed imperfectly. Many organizations like Translators Without Borders are looking for technical solutions to the problem, improving the accuracy and reach of sites like Google Translate, but in many situations, a compassionate and qualified human ear is essential. What is needed is the infrastructure to train, equip, and deploy those translators. Respond thus plays a critical role, filling the gap as the only full-service language access collective in the United States.

The Strategy

Respond Crisis Translation has a three-pronged strategy for institutionalizing language justice; building a system with the capacity to meet the need, advancing economic justice for translators, and driving legal and policy advocacy. Ariel has built a collective of over 2,500 rapid-response trauma-informed translators and interpreters, who have translated more than 28,000 pages of documents (12.5M words) and over 990,000 minutes of oral interpreting. They operate in 108 languages and work with over 200 partner organizations, as well as individual clients who reach out directly. These translators are in many cases doing life-saving work, for example, operating in immigration courts to prevent deadly deportations and translating critical mental and physical health information to help keep speakers of marginalized languages safe. They are also doing preventative language access work, for example at parent-teacher conferences, tenants justice meetings, or doctor’s appointments; preventative language access can forestall emergencies down the line.

With this collective, Ariel is proving that language justice is essential and achievable if pursued in concert with economic justice. Her team is paying as many collective members as possible, with every dollar of revenue going directly to the translators. In 2021, they compensated 30% of the translators in their network, with plans to boost this to 50% in 2022. Respond has created over 400 jobs for system-impacted language practitioners who now have access to consistent livable income opportunities. Respond is also piloting a program to provide technology support to translators who lack reliable internet access, headsets, or computers. Additionally, they provide training that allows translators to professionalize and access more economic opportunities. They are launching four talent-to-career pipelines for speakers of Haitian Kreyol, Guatemalan indigenous languages, West African local languages, and Afghan languages. This will allow those individuals to plug into existing and new career paths as part of the ecosystem Ariel is working to build.

Meanwhile, Respond is demonstrating the lifesaving impact of quality, timely, trauma-informed translation to its 200+ partner organizations, ranging from numerous immigrant and refugee rights’ organizations to school districts, hospitals, clinics, and housing advocates around the country. They show the field that people impacted by language violence and other violent systems deserve much better than untrained volunteers or Google Translate, tools which simply cannot meet the need in the way that qualified, trauma-informed, compassionate interpreters can. Respond is demonstrating that there’s no shortage of talented translators, even across “rare” languages, but rather what is lacking is the infrastructure and funding required to grow and support that talent in doing this work. Respond, therefore, is working with its partner organizations to find ways for partners to pay dignified wages to its translators, without letting life-saving work go undone for lack of resources. They are also working to sensitize funders to the importance of language justice and the dangers of language violence. Ultimately, Respond is working to build and resource an ecosystem where organizations doing critical work have access to trained and paid translators and the translators themselves have access to employment and meaningful work.

Apart from this critical work, Respond is also piloting innovations in the legal system designed to identify and halt language rights violations as they happen. They have trained over 100 attorneys in ways to identify language rights violations in court and will train an additional 200 in 2022. They are sending dedicated teams of interpreters to serve as language rights observers in immigration courts to document language rights violations in real time, as well as to review court transcripts and provide expert declarations to the court in the thousands of appeals cases where language violence negatively impacted the original case. They plan to construct a nationwide map of language rights violations, a crucial tool for advocates to identify and name the problem in order to push for change. This work lands upstream at the source of rights violations but would not be possible without the mindset shifts and ecosystem building that make up the rest of Respond’s work. Respond was founded in 2019 and has a projected 2022 budget of $550k.

The Person

Ariel is an interpreter and speaker of nine languages. Witnessing her sister's daily experiences of systemic language-based discrimination played a key role in shaping her commitment to language access organizing. When she was in high school, she founded ACTION (Active Cross-cultural Training in our Neighborhoods), a co-op through which multilingual heritage speakers provide language classes to student peers in schools that otherwise do not provide access. Today the program continues to be active in six schools.

After college, Ariel worked for Google Translate and Google for Education, fueled by her passion for language democracy. There, she created Google’s first major integrated education campaign in Spanish and Portuguese which helped get over 1 million computers distributed to public schools and led to tech access convenings for over 1,000 Secretaries of Education. While Ariel’s years in the tech industry provided a platform to do a lot of impactful work, she also saw firsthand some of the dangers inherent in technology in our capitalist system. Many system-impacted people rely on Google Translate to navigate complex, violent systems, in many cases only to get low-quality or erroneous results that could have serious consequences when the stakes are high. Furthermore, Ariel bore witness to Google's aggressive pursuit of military contracts and partnerships with violent institutions such as ICE and CBP. Concerned about Google's complicity in human rights violations through surveillance technology, Ariel joined the Alphabet Workers Union and also co-founded the coalition Jewish Diaspora in Tech, a collective of Jewish tech workers and allies mobilizing their access and resources in the fight against techno-militarism and nationalism. She and her colleagues helped to lead the workers movement to end Project Nimbus which is a $1.2 Billion Dollar military contract that will expand infrastructure for building war and surveillance technology.

In 2019, Ariel founded Respond Crisis Translation, putting into practice the belief that the language community has a crucial role to play in the struggle against border imperialism, and that language work is essential work.

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