Panel Discussion on Languages of Lesser Diffusion

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By: Amal Alaboud

On March 18, 2019, I was invited to attend a panel discussion entitled “Languages of Lesser Diffusion” sponsored by the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT). The panel was composed of four professional linguists: Mohamed Abdelhalim (Arabic), Sepideh Moussavi (Farsi), Agnes Niemetz (Hungarian) and Aster Yilma (Amharic).

I was initially surprised to see that Arabic was considered a language of lesser diffusion. Arabic is spoken by more than 400 million people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and is one of the United Nations’ six official languages. The UN celebrates the Arabic language on December 18th of each year as part of its ongoing efforts to promote multiculturalism and the rich history and culture of each of its official languages.

However, despite the worldwide importance of the Arabic language, Mr. Abdelhalim discussed how even some project managers do not know the basics of the language. He recalled that once a project manager returned one of his translations to him after proofreading it and he found that the Arabic text had been shifted so that it read from left to right. Arabic is of course written from right to left. He also expressed the need for more Arabic court interpreters. According to the latest New Jersey Courts interpreting statistics for the year July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018, Arabic (Egyptian Colloquial) was the fourth most interpreted among the 15 languages surveyed. Arabic (Levantine) was ranked 14th.

Sepideh Moussavi spoke of the integration of Farsi and Arabic and how the movement in Iran to eliminate the Arabic language has failed because Arabic is so deeply embedded in the Farsi language. She provides language coaching in her Farsi language Center so as to engage more Farsi linguists in order to meet the industry-wide demand for this language. Being a member of the ATA, she is assisting in establishing certifications between English and Farsi.

Agnes Niemetz spoke of the high demand for Hungarian linguists. She like the other panelists mentioned that being bilingual does not guarantee accurate translations since linguists must also be bicultural. This is especially true for translators brought up in the States where they may be isolated from the culture of the language. Ms. Niemetz has also begun to coach other Hungarian linguists to work in the translation industry.

Aster Yilma related many interesting stories and experiences working as an interpreter. She entered the industry as an Amharic interpreter for a well-known hip-hop artist and accompanied her to Ethiopia along with her family. A more painful story was the time that she had to have oral surgery and couldn’t find an interpreter to cover for her; she had to double up on her the medication and show up for work anyway. Yes interpreters are heroes, too!

The panel underlined the huge need for other lesser diffused language translators in addition to the four languages which were highlighted on the panel. Coaching newbie linguists so they can fully engage in the translation industry also appeared to be a priority for the members of this panel.

My linguist colleagues’ experiences, stories, and challenges are relatable. Hearing from them is always inspiring, enriching, and fulfilling. I believe that by sharing our thoughts about the needs and the demands of the market, we can better welcome new translators to the industry with coaching and training.

Amal Alaboud is a PhD candidate in the Translation Research and Instruction Program at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She holds an MA in Arabic/English Translation from the University of Salford in the UK. She is a project manager at TransPerfect in New York.


Court Interpreting Statistics, On-site Interpreting. 2017-2018.

Official Languages, United Nations.

The Origins of the Arabic Language, Omar Gomaa. 2019. 

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