An interview with TED Translator & TEDx Organizer Hamzeh Koumakli

Hamzeh Koumakli is an Arabic TED Translator who resides in Homs, Syria. He’s currently an undergraduate medical student and a freelance translator for a company that uses smart technology to streamline health care. In 2016, he helped organize one of the first-ever TEDx events in his country, TEDxMimasStreet, for which he’s now the lead organizer. And recently, Hamzeh became a TED Translators Mentor for the Arabic-language community. We spoke with him over email about these experiences and more.

How long have you been a TED Translator, and what drew you to the program?

I joined the TED Translators program a bit over three years ago, in September 2017. But my journey with TED began in 2015, when I was a college freshman: My cousin introduced me to TED via an inspiring talk called “How to speak so that people want to listen”, which Julian Treasure delivered at TEDGlobal 2013. It’s a talk that I believe is more urgent and relevant than ever, especially for we Syrians who’ve had to live under the dark cloud of war for almost 10 years now, all the while seeking peace through dialogue.

Soon after watching Julian’s talk, an idea occurred to me: What if the TED community in Syria could leverage TED Talks to provide Syrians with a powerful means to both share vital, groundbreaking knowledge among themselves and to potentially help end the war? So when I found out that TEDxMimasStreet (one of the first-ever TEDx events organized in Syria) was set to take place in my hometown of Homs, I jumped at the chance to join the conference’s organizing team. It was at this gathering that a TED colleague of mine filled me in on the TED Translators program.

Not long afterward, I started translating for TED Translators. My aim from day one has been to spread TED Talks’ unique insights throughout the Arabic-speaking world in order to effect positive change, particularly for those of us who’ve had to endure the war in Syria.

As you told us above, you recently helped organize and put on TEDxMimasStreet, one of the first TEDx events to take place in Syria. What inspired you to do so?

First off, every war inevitably results in death and destruction, which is most of what I’ve witnessed here since 2011. Furthermore, when wars end, the majority of reconstruction efforts tend to focus on infrastructure at the expense of adequately addressing war’s psychological, social and cultural traumas. We at TEDxMimasStreet, however, believe that rebuilding Syria and its society requires the bolstering and sharing of knowledge, be it cultural, academic or otherwise. And given that the country is filled with creative and smart people who want to share their stories and insights with each other and the world, organizing a TEDx event where Syrians from an array of backgrounds could gather and exchange their ideas seemed like an excellent way to help unite and heal war-fractured Syria.

Can you tell us what it’s been like for you to work as both a TED Translator and professional medical translator while both war and the COVID-19 pandemic afflict Syria?

The past six months or so have been tough for all Syrians, but I think we’ve learned a lot in that time that’s strengthened us. Speaking for myself, both the war and pandemic have increased my sense of responsibility toward my community, particularly in the context of my medical studies.

I’ve been working professionally for Infermedica, a company that employs smart technology to “[make] it easier to pre-diagnose, triage, and direct…patients to appropriate medical services.” Recently, I translated a COVID-19 assessment tool that’s been deployed in many countries around the world.

I’ve also been trying, via my personal blog, to provide reliable and actionable information on how people can stay physically and mentally healthy during the pandemic, as well as how they can avoid mis- and disinformation on COVID-19.

With regard to my TED Translators work, I’ve lately been focusing on translating coronavirus- and COVID-19-related talks. I encourage other TED Translators to do the same: The more we share and spread accurate info with each other and the world, so much the better for humanity.

This summer, you were a TED Translators delegate at TED2020, which happened to be TED’s first-ever virtual conference due to the pandemic. Can you tell us about that experience?

As a Syrian citizen, I was initially worried about whether or not Canada would grant me a visa, as Syrians have been denied visas to various Western countries for several years now. My worry disappeared, though, when I learned that TED2020 would take place virtually because of travel and other restrictions owing to the pandemic. Of course I would have loved to travel to Vancouver and meet some of my fellow TED Translators in person, but this year’s flagship conference offered a remarkable panel of speakers whose talks I was still able to enjoy with my colleagues; it was the experience of a lifetime for me.

What do you have planned for the future translation-wise?

I plan to reach 100 completed translations by the end of this year, and to establish five successful TED Translators Mentors program relationships with mentees. As a Mentor, my aim is to help as many new TED Translators as I can to pursue their respective translation journeys.

I’m considering applying to become an Arabic Language Coordinator, too. The Arabic TED Translators community is growing rapidly, and I think that as an LC I could positively contribute to this expansion.

Do you have any advice for new TED Translators?

There’s a huge variety of TED, TEDx and TED-Ed talks, so I recommend selecting a subject that interests you and going all-in with your translations. And don’t forget that your work as a TED Translator enables the free spreading of vital knowledge across languages and borders.