Lost in Translation? Not for Muslim Hajj Pilgrims

MAKKAH – United by their faith, more than 2 million people of different races, countries, and languages gather in Makkah annually to perform hajj, putting the responsibility on Saudi authorities to make sure nothing is lost in translation.

“I really don’t know much Arabic,” Samir Varatchia, who made the trip to Makkah from France’s Indian Ocean island of Reunion, told Agence France Presse (AFP).

“The French translation will help us understand things, including the sermons.”

Varatchia is one of the Muslim pilgrims who find the men in grey vests, the uniform of the official hajj translation team, a welcome sight.

Those teams are part of the official hajj translation bureau which offers services to non-Arabic speakers.

The team provides 24/7 interpretation services in English, French, Farsi, Malay, Hausa, Turkish, Chinese and Urdu — the most widely spoken language among hajj pilgrims.

Tunisian interpreter Abdulmumen al-Saket is happy to help, fielding frequent requests for his phone number.

“We try to help as much as we can, even with reading the maps,” he said.

“Some ask for our personal phone numbers, to call us later if they need help,” he added.

The department has been in place for four years, Mazen al-Saadi of the official hajj translation bureau said and is being continuously expanded to deal with rising demand.

“Most (pilgrims) don’t speak Arabic and are afraid to ask in the event of an accident,” Sanaullah Ghuri, an Indian translator, told AFP in Arabic.

Providing services for 2 million pilgrims, Saudi authorities are pushing a “smart hajj” initiative this year to meet the rising demand.

That includes apps providing information on emergency medical services and geographic guides to Makkah and Madinah, the 2 cities home to Islam’s holiest sites. One app will also translate hajj sermons into 5 languages.

But the Indian translator, Ghuri, said the presence of real-life interpreters made the experience of hajj easier for pilgrims.

“When they see someone speaking their language, they feel more comfortable seeking help,” he said.