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Matthew Hunt, Sharon O’Brien, Patrick Cadwell and Dónal P. O’Mathúna

Language and its translation are important operational concerns in humanitarian crisis response. Information sharing, coordination, collaboration and relationship-building all revolve around the ability to communicate effectively. However, doing so is hampered in many humanitarian crises by linguistic differences and a lack of access to adequate translation. Various innovative practices and products are being developed and deployed with the goal of addressing these concerns. In this theoretical paper, we critically appraise the ethical terrain of crisis translation and humanitarian innovation. We identify ethical issues related to three broad themes. First, we foreground questions of justice in access to translation and its prioritisation in contexts of widespread and pressing needs. Second, we consider the relationship between humanitarian ethics and the ethics of crisis translation. We argue for the importance of attending to epistemic justice in humanitarian crisis response, and consider how Ricoeur’s conception of linguistic hospitality provides insights into how relationships in humanitarian settings can be understood through the lens of an ethics of exchange while also acknowledging the steep asymmetries that often exist in these contexts. Finally, we identify issues related to how translation innovations intersect with humanitarian values and humanitarians’ ethical commitments.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs