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A nap, a song and a cliché

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Emergency communications adviser Sue Nelson faces the challenge of delivering media training through a Vietnamese interpreter. Can she control her Australianisms or will the whole thing go down the plug hole?

Vietnam Red Cross staff at a media training workshop delivered by IFRC and AVID volunteer Susan

"I had been warned about Vietnam. The singing, that is. Perhaps it's a social more of the south but I had heard that people like to have a sing, at any time of day, whenever they want to.

So I was a little surprised but more pleased when two participants at my first non-English training session decided to jump up after lunch for an impromptu sing-along - a sort of conversation in song between a man and a woman.

The song was beautiful, but more than that, it seemed symbolic of the group's comfort level - with me and with each other. Imagine two westerners who'd only just met doing that!

I am an AVID volunteer recruited for 18 months as an emergency communications specialist, working at the regional headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) in Bangkok but covering the SE Asia region.

Effective communications can generate prompt and appropriate support for those affected by disasters, such as the many instances of typhoons and floods in Vietnam. In 2011, Ang Giang and six other Vietnamese provinces in the Mekong Delta experienced their worst flooding in 11 years, killing 85 people and affecting more than 600,000.

The Red Cross is in the midst of a recovery operation here - working to restore the lives and livelihoods of the people who lost so much. One of the identified gaps in knowledge for Red Cross local staff, was an ability to communicate through the media during the crisis. This is important for a variety of reasons, not the least being to let people urgently know what's going on. Hence my training course, delivered over three days to Vietnam Red Cross' local communications and disaster management staff. The idea is to build local capacity and preparedness for future emergencies, a high priority for the IFRC.

As the head of the SE Asia regional delegation, Anne LeClerc, explained to me: ''Red Cross national societies and their IFRC secretariat have been in the disaster 'business' for decades and are justly famous for being the world's leading emergency response organisation. But we've learnt that reducing risks and preparing for disasters - not just responding to them - pays many times over."

I have delivered training numerous times before, to adults and university students, but never through a translator. I admit I felt nervous as we approached Ang Giang, about 4.5 hours drive west of Ho Chi Minh City. There was a lot that could go wrong, not least of which was my reliance (I now realise) on cultural idioms.

Is it an Australian thing, a journalism thing or just me? 'On the front foot', 'Wearing three hats', 'Letting it go to the keeper' … They just pour forth from me and, when you are being translated, it's just "not on". You must lose the cliches and idioms or you'll get a lot of blank faces and a struggling interpreter!

The course was a combination of translated PowerPoint presentations, role plays and group work. Both the content and methodology was completely new to the 17 participants - they were in classroom mode - so the first role play created more confusion than learning. But by the afternoon of the first day, the group had adapted and really threw themselves into the exercises.

Apart from the singing, the other cultural norm was a long lunch to allow for a nap. We started at 8am but allowed 1.5 hours at lunchtime.

Training through a translator challenges your natural communication rhythms. You have to keep it simple, you have to keep it short, you have to wait - for a very long time - for the translation to reveal your message. The Vietnamese language uses about three short words for every English one, so that's quite a stretch. As the translation is delivered, you watch for the reactions - "Are they with me?"

As our final day's role play, set during an emergency, played out, I could see how far the group had come. There was a real commitment to the process. The feedback was positive and I was rewarded with requests for returning to train in other areas. But my favourite comment was about the length of the day: "Let's start at 7.30am but have 150 minutes for lunch."



Photo: courtesy Susan Nelson