Safe Passage

The final athletics event of the Tokyo Olympics saw Kenya’s Eliod Kipchoge retain the marathon title he won in 2016. Kipchoge’s sporting journey has been remarkable. In 2003, as an 18 year old novice, he won his first world title. Now, at 36, he has medals at four Olympic games and the first sub-2 hour marathon in history to his name.

In some ways, though, the journey of the man who finished 16th of the 106 starters in today’s race has been just as impressive. At the opening ceremony two weeks ago, Tachlowini Gabriyesos carried the Olympic flag on behalf of the IOC Refugee Team. In 2015 the International Olympic Committee established a Refugee Emergency Fund, donating £1.4 million to help integrate displaced women and men into sport. The following year, 10 refugee athletes were invited to compete at the Rio games. In Tokyo, the team grew to 29 athletes from 11 countries.

Tachlowini Gabriyesos was forced to flee his native Eritrea at the age of 12. He travelled north across Sudan and Egypt, and crossed the Sinai Desert on foot to reach Israel. He now lives in Tel Aviv. In March of this year, in only his second competitive marathon, he achieved the Olympic qualifying time. Today he raced in sweltering conditions that forced many of the greatest distance runners in the world to drop out. But when you’ve walked across a desert to find a home, 26 miles of Japanese road must seem a little less daunting. Gabriyesos finished ahead of Olympic and World Champions today, racing in colours that evoked as much pride as any national flag.

The word translate derives from the Latin trans and latus, meaning “carried across”. Something being carried across suggests the translator not only conveying meaning but protecting it. Holding messages, aspirations and often commercial futures in their hands and carrying them safely where they need to go. The combination of language technology and human linguistic skill is providing safe passage for countless such messages every day, often in languages that are considered obscure. When Tachlowini Gabriyesos made his journey from Eritrea to Israel he left a country where everyone he knew spoke Tigrinya, passed through territories where 30 forms of Modern Standard Arabic were in use and ended up in a country whose official language is Hebrew and whose minority languages include Russian, Romanian, German, Yiddish, Amharic, Polish, Georgian, Marathi, Malayalam and Bukhori. Communicating with speakers of these languages has become part of the mission of machine translation. In the twelve months from June 2020 to June 2021, two thousand new language pairs were added to machine translation systems, including many low-resource languages that would otherwise have remained unsupported. Machine translation is the tool of the market leader and the champion of minority and endangered languages. It’s helping you speak to the world.

It’s easy to forget that the word “refugee” derives from the word “refuge”. Sometimes we all need shelter from the storm. The past year and a half hasn’t been easy, and these Olympics, with performances like Eliod Kipchoge’s and Tachlowini Gabriyesos’s today have given us something to cheer. When Gabriyesos crossed the Sinai Desert on foot, he carried a message that anyone would be proud to translate. You never know what you can do until you try.