TEDSummit 2019 interview series: TED Translator Allam Zedan

TEDSummit 2019 has come and gone, but we’d still like to share with you the voices of several more TED Translators who were invited to attend the conference. In this third part of our TEDSummit 2019 interview series, we speak with Allam Zedan, who hails from Gaza, Palestine—one of the most besieged and impoverished regions in the world. Unfortunately, the U.K. denied Allam a visa to travel to Edinburgh (a trip which would have been the first time in his life he was able to leave Gaza), so Allam could not participate in the Summit. Read on below to get to know this extraordinary member of the TED Translators community.


How long have you been a TED Translator? What initially drew you to TED Translators, and what about the enterprise inspires you nowadays?

I’ve been a TED Translator for more than five years now, and it’s been a beautiful journey every step of the way. Before I joined TED Translators, I was searching for volunteer work that would enable me to use my translation skills to make a substantive impact on our world. I was already watching TED Talks regularly when I happened upon the application page for TED’s Open Translation Project (which eventually evolved into TED Translators). I couldn’t believe that such an opportunity existed, and I immediately joined our global team of volunteers on their mission to spread fresh and innovative ideas around the world.

As for what inspires me about TED Translators—and has since the beginning of my journey—it’s simple: the tireless dedication and passion of my fellow volunteers and the powerful insights they continually share with the world.

What was the first TED Talk you translated? Why this particular talk?

It was Wendy Chung’s “Autism—what we know (and what we don’t know yet)”. Like anywhere else in the world, there are autistic children in Gaza. Before I watched Wendy’s talk I was very curious about the condition, but it seemed taboo to me to ask parents to try to explain autism to me. What’s more—and again, like anywhere else in the world—there’s a stigma here that surrounds the condition and those with it, and there’s a severe lack of adequate treatment, support and education. So I watched Wendy’s talk to see if she could answer some burning questions about autism I’d had on my mind awhile (She did!). And then I decided to translate it so that others who share my curiosity about autism might have some of their questions answered, too.

Of all the talks you’ve translated, which has been your favorite so far? Why?

“You are made for more”, which Liz Flores delivered at TEDxNormal. The title piqued my interest right away, but what Liz says has deeply resonated with me to this day. I love how she describes each of us as possessing our own unique “compass,” as well as her counsel that we should never allow anybody or anything to skew us away from our respective compass’ “north.” All of us are pioneers of our own lives. We can do anything and cultivate ourselves however we like: A successful businessman can also be a compassionate friend; a university student who studies political science can create amazing art, too; you can have a groundbreaking idea or goal that everybody tells you is “crazy,” but that’s usually because other people can’t see your ambitions as clearly as you do. In other words, listen to and consider others’ perspectives, but don’t let them deter or disillusion you if you disagree. Better yet: Don’t be typical; don’t die with your gifts in your hands.

Unfortunately, the U.K. denied you a visa to leave Gaza and travel to Edinburgh, so you were not able to attend TEDSummit 2019. Were the circumstances opposite, participating in the conference would have been the first time in your life you were allowed to leave your home country. Can you tell us a bit about living in occupied Gaza, as well as what it’s like working as a translator there?

Living in Gaza is akin to living as a bird in a cage in which flying is forbidden. You can sing sometimes, but nobody hears you besides the cage-master, who holds the key to your freedom. Although there are tens of thousands of university graduates and highly skilled professionals in the besieged Gaza Strip, Israel’s 13-year-old blockade on all movement of people and goods into and out of the occupied Palestinian territory has stripped so many talented, aspiring Gazans of any opportunity to work, travel and provide for their families. I am but one among so many living in Gaza who must confront and try to survive this reality on a daily basis.

After I earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and a graduate diploma for Arabic-English translation, I realized that I had to resist complacency—waiting for a miracle to change my life—and instead proactively find my own way out of the devastating oppression into which I was born. Work-wise, it was difficult to get my foot in the door, but I gradually built up a solid base of clients around the world through freelance projects. There was a lengthy period, however, when the international financial restrictions imposed on Gaza for well over a decade at this point prevented me from accessing the money I earned (payment methods like PayPal, for example, are not available in Palestine). I eventually acquired a prepaid VISA card online that enabled me to withdraw my paychecks.

Casting a terrible shadow over these hardships is the dire lack of electricity in Gaza. On average, the power here is on for only two to four hours a day. This means that my laptop battery lasts for a mere few hours, and then I have to wait about eight hours afterward until the electricity returns. So, as a professional translator I’ve had no choice but to work around the clock to meet deadlines and secure my clients’ trust. But it’s not only translators in Gaza who struggle as I do; a lot of creative designers and programmers often deal with the same impediments. The final calculus is this: Freelancing is fine, but how reliable is it when the internet connection is extremely fickle all the time? And how can one support a family in such constantly dicey circumstances?

Nonetheless, I’ve been an Arabic-language coordinator with TED Translators since 2017. I’m part of a fantastic team of LCs (Khadija, Ghalia, Fatima and Riyad) that supervises a large community of Arabic-English translators and conducts regular meetups and planning sessions with members. TEDSummit 2019 would have been a wonderful chance for our LC team to gather in one place, but both Ghalia and I were denied visas by the U.K. This denial was my first—and Ghalia’s third. Although the denials are vague in their reasoning, I have no doubt they were issued solely because I’m a Palestinian Arab and Ghalia is a Syrian Arab. Words can’t fully express how depressing this is for us—to anticipate traveling to TEDSummit and meeting scores of incredible colleagues, only to be notified that you aren’t going anywhere because of where you live. We are human beings with hopes and dreams just like anybody else; we are not monsters. When will the world wake up to this fact? Perhaps in the future, TED can hold a conference in an Arab country—or at least a country that welcomes people of all backgrounds.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy translating?

I read a lot, particularly poetry, and I often share my favorite lines on social media. I also love to watch Japanese anime; let me recommend “Attack on Titan” to anybody who wants to experience anime at its finest. Sometimes, though, I’m in tech mode, taking online courses in web design, e-commerce, etc. I’ve found that having knowledge and skills outside of translating has helped me to advance my career as a translator quite a bit.

As I discussed above, Gaza is virtually sealed off from the world, so travel is a passion I can only wish I could pursue. Consequently, I spend much of my time at home. But I get to see my mother, my family every day—that’s a blessing.

Lastly, any advice you’d like to give to new TED Translators?

Welcome to TED Translators! We are a global community of volunteers who share a common goal. Don’t be afraid to ask a question or pitch an idea you may have. Focus on quality over quantity when translating. Always try to learn from the feedback your LC or reviewer gives you, and then apply that knowledge to your future translations. And don’t forget that as a TED Translator you’re a vital member of the TED family; your work is appreciated and valued by millions of people around the world.


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