Language Technology Could Help 157 Million People Get Access To Information

I was exhausted.  It had been a great week in Bangladesh, but the overload of language, smells, refugee camp, seeing old friends, meeting new friends, government, donors, and all the while pretending like I wasn’t jetlagged, was taking its toll.  I just wanted to go to sleep.

My last meeting was in Dhaka with someone in the Prime Minister’s office.  I had little hope of staying awake through the meeting.

And yet, I was captivated.

Bangladesh Help Desk Signage
Bangladesh Help Desk Signage

The literacy rate in Bangladesh is considered low (72.8% according to UNESCO in 2016) but is just below the global average. Literacy among women is lower (69.9%); but, in general, the majority of the people have at least basic literacy skills.  There is 90 percent mobile phone penetration and 96 percent mobile internet access. The International Mother Language Institute, the body in Bangladesh that supports the promotion, spread, and preservation of Bangla languages, says that 41 languages are spoken in the country, only five of which have written scripts.  In the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Translators without Borders (TWB) finds the situation particularly difficult. Rohingya has no agreed written script. Very few of the refugees can read and write, there are few people who speak Rohingya and anything else well. Add to this mix low radio coverage – not only do the Rohingya not have radios, even if they did there is not even radio coverage in parts of the camps, and about one million people living in poor and difficult conditions that speak many different dialects and you begin to understand why communicating effectively is difficult.

It’s vitally important that there is two-way communication between the people – refugees and local Bangladeshis – and the government and aid workers. Take the issue of the coming monsoon. The formal and makeshift refugee camps have sprouted up all over the Cox’s Bazar district, an area that includes a national park and lush forest. But now the trees have been torn down to make room for shelters and for firewood.  This makes the soil very unstable and dangerous, with monsoon rains promising huge mud pits and the possibility of landslides. It is also a hilly area; tents are built on the sides of hills that will become slippery and unstable with heavy rains and wind. Refugees, as well as local residents, need to know where to go, what to do if there’s an emergency, how to get help for those needing medical attention, and what to do if food gets swept away.  

The challenges abound. The digital world seems a world away.    

And yet, enter Dr. Jami.  In a buzzy, busy office with a high level of excitement and a relatively good gender balance, I was suddenly in the middle of a high tech environment.  Dr. Jami launched directly into what he wanted us to know and do.

Dr. Jami runs the Access to Information (A2I, inevitably) project in the Prime Minister’s office. The aim is to help the people of Bangladesh quickly and easily get information on public services. One of A2I’s projects is the digitization of government institutions; they have developed over 1,000 key government websites.  Dr. Jami is not a language guy (he’s a solutions architect), but he proceeds to tell me quickly that Bangla was only standardized in Unicode five years ago, so there is very little data available from which to build good translation engines.  While there’s 90 percent mobile phone penetration, in 2018 GSMA estimated that only 28-30 percent of those were smartphones. Yet, 96 percent of internet access is via phones. Whaaa? How does that work? It’s also startling how little desktops and laptops are used to access the internet.  

I asked a taxi driver, who was using a smartphone, if he used his phone for the internet.  He replied, “No, but I use it for Facebook.”

There are no data charges for Facebook in Bangladesh – unless you want to see videos or pictures.  Internet use is Facebook and Facebook is only text. Those who are illiterate, or only barely literate, won’t have smartphones.

To Dr. Jami, who needs more people to have smartphones to help ensure they can get access to information, the cost is not the barrier:  There are very inexpensive smartphones in Bangladesh. He believes it is fear of technology, which he believes is associated with illiteracy. To reach his goal of migrating 70 percent of the current mobile phone users to smartphones, he must address fear.

Language is an issue.  With a population of over 157 million people, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, you’d think that the language technology for Bangla would be outstanding.  It’s not. That’s surprising. And without that technology, equipping 1,000 websites with dynamic information in Bangla is nearly impossible, not to mention making them interactive and/or adding audio.

The work that A2I is doing is globally relevant, of course.  Other countries are already seeking their support to bring better access to information to their people.  He mentions that they are already working in South Sudan – which has the 2nd lowest literacy rate in the world.  Again, the language barrier is huge. And, again, there is little digital language data.  

Dr. Jami has heard of TWB’s Gamayun project – can we help?  Can we be a neutral broker to bring together the limited language data out there and leverage our knowledge of language and the language industry to help Bangladeshis get access to information about basic services?  

Dr. Jami and the TWB team will continue this conversation – there are still many questions to be asked and answered.  But I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the accomplishments of his team. And I am really excited to see where Dr. Jami and other countries take this exciting initiative.

Written by Translators without Borders' Executive Director Aimee Ansari. This article was also published on HuffPost UK.


Read a related post on The #LanguageMatters blog, ‘Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution’.  In TWB’s last blog post, Executive Director Aimee Ansari explains why we need to create and disseminate a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries. 

Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution

Two years ago, I embarked on an amazing journey. I started working for Translators without Borders (TWB). While being a first-time Executive Director poses challenges, immersing myself in the world of language and language technology has by far been the more interesting and perplexing challenge.

 

Students, Writing, Language
Students practising to write Rohingya Zuban (Hanifi script) in Kutupalong Refugee Camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Language issues in humanitarian response seem like a “no-brainer” to me. A lot of others in the humanitarian world feel the same way – “why didn’t I think of that before” is a common refrain. Still, we sometimes struggle to convince humanitarians that if people don’t understand the message, they aren’t likely to follow it. When I worked in South Sudan for another organisation, in one village, I spoke English, one of our team interpreted to Dinka or Nuer, and then a local teacher translated to the local language (I don’t even know what it was). I asked a question about how women save money; the response had something to do with the local school not having textbooks. It was clear that there was no communication happening. At the time, I didn’t know what to do to fix it. Now I do – and it’s not difficult or particularly expensive.

That’s the interesting part. TWB works in 300 languages, most of which I’d never heard of, and this is a very small percentage of the over 1,300 languages spoken in the 15 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises. There’s also no reliable data on where exactly each language is spoken. I’ve learned so much about language technology that my dog can almost talk about the importance of maintaining translation memories and clean parallel datasets.

Communicating with conflict-affected people

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative have just published a report about communicating with conflict-affected people that mentions language issues and flags challenges with digital communications. (Yay!) Here are some highlights:

  • Language is a consistent challenge in situations of conflict or other violence, but often overlooked amid other more tangible factors.

  • Humanitarians need to ‘consider how to build “virtual proximity” and “digital trust” to complement their physical proximity.’

  • Sensitive issues relating to sexual and gender-based violence are largely “lost in translation.” At the same time, key documents on this topic are rarely translated and usually exclusively available in English.

  • Translation is often poor, particularly in local languages. Some technology-based solutions have been attempted, for example, to provide multilingual information support to migrants in Europe. However, there is still a striking inability to communicate directly with most people affected by crises.

TWB’s work, focusing on comprehension and technology, has found that humanitarians are simply unaware of the language issues they face.

  • In north-east Nigeria, TWB research at five sites last year found that 79% of people wanted to receive information in their own language; less than 9% of the sample were mother-tongue Hausa speakers. Only 23% were able to understand simple written messages in Hausa or Kanuri; that went down to just 9% among less educated women who were second-language speakers of Hausa or Kanuri, yet 94% of internally displaced persons receive information chiefly in one of these languages.
  • In Greece, TWB found that migrants relied on informal channels, such as smugglers, as their trusted sources of information in the absence of any other information they could understand.

  • TWB research in Turkey in 2017 found that organizations working with refugees were often assuming they could communicate with them in Arabic. That ignores the over 300,000 people who are Kurds or from other countries.

  • In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, aid organizations supporting the Rohingya refugees were working on the assumption that the local Chittagonian language was mutually intelligible with Rohingya, to which it is related. Refugees interviewed by TWB estimate there is a 70-80% convergence; words such as ‘safe’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘storm’ fall into the other 20-30%.

What can we do?

Humanitarian response is becoming increasingly digital. How do we build trust, even when remote from people affected by crises?

‘They only hire Iranians to speak to us. They often can’t understand what I’m saying and I don’t trust them to say what I say.’ – Dari-speaking Afghan man in Chios, Greece.

Speak to people in their language and use a format they understand: communicating digitally – or any other way – will mean being even more sensitive to what makes people feel comfortable and builds trust. The right language is key to that. Communicating in the right language and format is key to encouraging participation and ensuring impact, especially if the relevant information is culturally or politically sensitive. The right language is the language spoken or understood and trusted by crisis-affected communities; the right format means information is accessible and comprehensible. Providing only written information can hamper communication and engagement efforts with all sectors of the community from the start – especially women, who are more likely to be illiterate.

Lack of data is the first problem: humanitarians do not routinely collect information about the languages people speak and understand, or whether they can read them. It is thus easy to make unsafe assumptions about how far humanitarian communication ‘with communities’ is reaching, and to imagine that national or international lingua francas are sufficient. This can be done safely without harming the individuals or putting the community at risk.

Budgets: Language remains below the humanitarian radar and often absent from humanitarian budgets. Budgeting for and mobilizing trained and impartial translators, interpreters and cultural mediators can ensure aid providers can listen and provide information to affected people in a language they understand.

Language tools: Language information fact-sheets and multilingual glossaries can help organizations better understand key characteristics of the languages affected people speak and ensure use of the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with them. TWB’s latest glossary for Nigeria provides terminology in English/Hausa/Kanuri on general protection issues and housing, land and property rights.

A global dataset on language

TWB is exploring ways of fast-tracking the development and dissemination of a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries, as a basis for planning effective communication and engagement in the early stages of a response. We plan to complement this with data mining and mapping of new humanitarian language data.

TWB has seen some organizations take this on – The World Health Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have both won awards for their approaches to communicating in the right language. Oxfam and Save the Children regularly prioritize language and the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are starting to routinely include language and translation in their programs. A few donors are beginning to champion the issue, too.

TWB has only really been able to demonstrate the possibilities for two or three years – and it’s really taking off. It’s such a no-brainer, so cost-effective, it’s not surprising that so many organizations are taking it on. Our next step is to ensure that language and two-way communication are routinely considered, information is collected on the languages that crisis-affected people speak, accountability mechanisms support it, and we make the overall response accessible for those who need protection and assistance.

Written by Aimee Ansari, Executive Director, Translators without Borders.

Bangladesh Program Update

Bridging language gaps empowers people to communicate in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, once famed for its beautiful 120km long beach, is now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Between 900,000 and one million Rohingya women, men and children, depending on the estimates, now live in the area. Since August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar and settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.

Translators without Borders (TWB) first came to Cox’s Bazar in October to assess the communication and information needs of the affected population.

Our team rapidly discovered that language was making communication between the affected communities, humanitarian organizations, and the host population extremely difficult. As reported by our partner organization Internews, more than 70 percent of the refugee population identified themselves as being totally illiterate in any language and more than 60 percent said they were unable to speak to humanitarian providers.

In Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya is often the only language spoken by those most in need. It is an oral language, with no commonly accepted written script.

One of the major communication problems in this humanitarian crisis is the lack of a common language. The humanitarian workers mostly speak English, local NGOs and government officials speak Bengali, many interpreters speak Chittagonian, and the refugees speak Rohingya.

The reality

Take a moment to imagine this in the context of a refugee camp. Signs are erected to identify health facilities and safe spaces for women in a language they do not understand. Information can become distorted as it is passed from person to person and humanitarian organizations rely on untrained interpreters to communicate life-saving information as part of their support to the refugees. As summarized by TWB’s sociologist,

Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

“There’s just a lot of crucial information lost in this crisis.”

One of the most urgent needs is to find ways for the refugee population to fully express their needs to humanitarian responders.

With thorough research and community interaction, we are developing a professional training program and tools to help interpreters and humanitarian organizations understand some of the cultural and linguistic specificities of the refugee population.

Shades of meaning

TWB is developing a freely downloadable glossary of key humanitarian terms. This translates technical terminology in English into simple and clear Bengali, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese terms. The aim is to cover concepts relevant to a range of sectors, making the glossary useful across the humanitarian response.

‘We really deliberated on the meanings and context of the translations,’ says TWB’s sociolinguist. ‘Words can have shades of meaning, so the social and cultural context is important.’

Working as a consortium with Internews and BBC Media Action, TWB is contributing to a regular newsletter distributed to all humanitarian organizations in Cox’s Bazar. This newsletter, entitled What Matters? The Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, specifically addresses communication and language issues. The first newsletter, distributed in February this year, highlighted the important differences in weather terms between Chittagonian, Bengali, and Rohingya. This is vital when distinguishing between a warning for strong winds or a cyclone, for instance. 

Ultimately, bridging these gaps is empowering people to communicate. When people can communicate they can assert their rights and humanitarians can deliver life-saving information.

With the cyclone and monsoon season starting soon, the need for simple and actionable information, in plain and clear language that the refugees can understand, is becoming even more acute. The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger when the rains begin in April. These are likely to cause major flooding and landslides in the steep hills and unstable terrain where the camps are located and contribute to the spread of disease.

‘This is where translating key Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) messages are critical,’ says our sociolinguist. ‘Community workers need to be able to explain the differences in severe weather systems between here and Myanmar, what services are there to help in a disaster, even how to help prevent the spread of disease. These are not messages you can afford to miscommunicate.’

Follow the progress of our work in Cox’s Bazar and consider a donation to support our work to assist the Rohingya refugees.

Written by TWB’s Program Director for Bangladesh

A translation worth a million words  

translator
Suzanne Assénat

In 2017, this team of four translators donated over 1.2 million words to the work of Translators without Borders (TWB).

In recognition of their invaluable contribution in mentoring new French translators, the French translation team (Barbara Pissane, Suzanne Assénat, Gladis Audi and Ode Laforge) won the 2018 Translators without Borders Access to Knowledge Award for Empowerment. Their work has allowed TWB to significantly increase language capacity and guarantee translation quality in one of the organization’s most requested language pairs (French to English). You would be hard-pressed to find a group of more deserving and yet modest individuals with such impressive achievements to their names. Having put into words countless life-changing messages, and contributed to the stories of thousands of people in crisis and need, it is inevitable that these women have some tales of their own to tell.

They are Empowerment Award-winning translators, but they are also so much more.

The team is made up of four witty volunteers, translators-interpreters, writers and mothers, each with their own quirks and attributes. Gladis describes herself as a hunger-relief activist and amateur rosarian who likes to explore nuances and innovate solutions; Ode is a teacher and communicator at heart; Barbara has a fondness for early music and tall ships events; Suzanne appreciates her family time and has a keen interest in the music of words and music itself.

translator Gladis
Gladis Audi

 With so many roles, it is a wonder these women smashed the one-million-word mark, but their motivations have been clear from the start.

All four translators acknowledge that their work with TWB allows them to contribute to social change and global awareness. For Gladis, “Spreading knowledge by breaking language barriers is very significant in itself.” Their motivations stem from a desire to feel “closer to people in distress, people living in countries shattered by wars, poverty, climate disasters or disease outbreaks,” says Ode. This work is her way to “express solidarity with them.”

The team tells the most moving anecdotes.

When asked to recount a significant project with TWB, Suzanne proudly remembered a time in which she mentored translation students in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was impressed by the students’ efforts. They did their work with “little computing hardware, connectivity problems, [while living with the threat of] armed conflict,” but they “kept at it and delivered pretty good translations.”

 translator Ode
Ode Laforge

Ode has a favorite memory that is close to her heart. “How could I ever forget this little book I translated for children in Africa, in which the main character, a little girl living with HIV, was talking about her everyday life?” Ode asks, as she reflects on the human connection that volunteering can foster. “She managed to lead a relatively happy life, taking the drugs she needed, eating healthy food prepared by her loving grandma, avoiding everything that could negatively interfere with her health, fighting difficult moments to stay healthy, playing with other children, and expressing her wish to become a scientist when she grew up, to find a cure for this terrible disease. Despite the seriousness of the topic, this little story was heartwarming and optimistic, but I was deeply moved while translating it.”

Not only has their support left a mark on the lives of thousands, but volunteering for TWB has made a difference to them, too.

This volunteer experience provided the backdrop for a new friendship, which began on the translation platform, between Ode and another TWB volunteer translator, Nadia Gabriel. She describes how they built a friendship “exchanging views on how to best render a tricky sentence or a difficult passage.” Since then, they have met in person and have kept in touch ever since. Ode is so grateful that her work with TWB has given her the opportunity to get to know such lovely friends. 

Finally, these productive translators shared some words of advice.

Gladis advocates balance and encourages aspiring volunteer translators to “work extra hard, have lots of fun, believe in yourself and in the team. A little can go a long way.”

Barbara Pissane translator
Barbara Pissane

For Barbara, it is all about the work ethic of keeping going and finding your work gratifying, You will be proud of the help you give to people and you will grow more confident. Moreover, you will have the opportunity to work with people who are always extremely committed!”

Suzanne recognizes the difficulty of finding the balance when translating as a volunteer and doing it for a living. Her advice is never to feel guilty for not doing enough, and never stay away indefinitely. “Come again, however (in)frequently you can! There’s an analogy to make with blood donations: You don’t and can’t do that very often, but every little drop (well, pouch, whatever) helps make a difference.”

Would you like to share in these life-changing experiences as a TWB volunteer translator? Apply now to get translating.

Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB, with interview responses by Gladis Audi, Ode Laforge, Barbara Pissane and Suzanne Assénat, TWB Volunteer Translators

TWB Glossary for North-East Nigeria

How a glossary helps increase access to life-saving information in north-east Nigeria

Nigeria glossary landing page

The humanitarian community in north-east Nigeria is well aware of the challenges of communicating with a population who speak more than 70 languages. Yet until now, they have largely lacked satisfactory solutions. There are few if any trained interpreters and translators for most local languages. Local staff and volunteers do their best to relay information to communities and listen to the people they meet, but it is not surprising that messages can become distorted when they have to be translated through a succession of languages. The question must be asked, what constitutes ‘access’ to humanitarian relief when language is not taken into account during implementation?

Field teams in north-east Nigeria have not been using standardized terminology in local languages. Even when providing messages in just the two main languages of the response, Hausa and Kanuri, humanitarian organizations have found that translations were not consistent. As a result, already vulnerable communities could receive inconsistent information. This can confuse or prevent people from taking protective actions, accessing available assistance, and claiming their rights. Until that time when the sector communicates in the wider range of regional languages, it must, at least, ensure that what is written and spoken in these two languages consistently and accurately conveys key concepts in a way affected people can understand, as a necessary first step.

Understanding this problem, Translators without Borders (TWB) partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council and other protection specialists to develop an English/Hausa/Kanuri glossary for two fields: general protection, and housing, land, and property rights.

The process

To create the glossary, TWB pulled out key terminology from internal and external communication documents created by organizations active in each field. Hausa- and Kanuri-speaking staff and sector specialists came together to review and expand the glossary list. In small groups, they analyzed the English meaning of each word and agreed on the best word or phrase to describe it in Hausa and Kanuri. The result is a glossary which conveys as much of the meaning as possible, chooses words which do not stigmatize, and is based on local usage of the two languages.

Challenges arose throughout the process about the intent and meaning of certain words. For example, the term ‘access’ emerged as an issue. The land rights specialists understood ‘access’ as referring specifically to roads, paths, and physical accessibility. For the protection specialists ‘access’ meant removing cultural and gender barriers. ‘Access to information’ was identified as a third meaning, and ultimately the group selected three translations appropriate to the three contexts.

One group of specialists then checked the other’s lists.

After all, if a protection specialist cannot understand the vocabulary of the land and housing team, what hope is there for someone who is not a humanitarian professional?

After two days of debates and corrections, TWB presented the glossary lists to professional translators. They removed inconsistencies in spelling and corrected any grammatical mistakes before the new terms were entered into TWB’s glossary app for Nigeria.

TWB is happy to announce that the glossary is now available for viewing on mobile phones and other devices here: https://glossaries.translatorswb.org/nigeria/. It is designed to support interpreters, translators, field staff, community outreach workers, and enumerators in using the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with affected people.

The glossary can be viewed on Android or iOS devices and will automatically cache, making it available for offline viewing. This glossary is a living document and TWB welcomes feedback and questions, which will help us improve it over time. Our aim is to expand the glossary app to cover further sectors and more of the languages of the people caught up in the humanitarian emergency in north-east Nigeria. We hope you find it useful in the meantime.

Written by Alice Castillejo, Country Program Manager, Translators without Borders Crisis Response

TWB’s Words of Relief program is supported by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund – a grant-making facility supporting organizations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) initiative ‘Accelerating the Journey to Scale’ is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

hif_logoMFA logo

The TWB 2017 Annual Report

At Translators without Borders, thanks to the support of our volunteer translators, partners and donors, we are continuing to grow. This report for the 2017 financial year will give you some examples of that growth, but just to recap a few highlights… During the reporting period, we recruited over 700 new translators and delivered an outstanding 10.9 million translated words to our non-profit partners! We were able to improve the capacity of our rapid response teams, train new teams of translators and interpreters, and add more underserved languages to our working translations.

Report

We know that language support is an essential part of relief efforts in a humanitarian crisis. In 2016-17 our teams contributed to aid efforts around the world, delivering over 800,000 words for the European refugee response, monitoring local-language media in the aftermath of the earthquake in Ecuador, and translating cholera prevention messages after Haiti was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. Our work in these communities often extends far beyond translation, with a special focus on the simplification of the language used in a response and providing language solutions that are appropriate to the situation. For example, we have translated paper signs in Greece and we have established a simplified, culturally-appropriate terminology for health in more than 40 languages.

Even before disaster strikes, we are constantly working to bridge language and communication gaps, so that we can build capacity across more affected communities. Our technology partners helped us expand and enhance Kató, our online translation platform. This platform now integrates computer-assisted translation; subtitling and audio translation capabilities; and specialized glossaries. Kató plays a critical role in serving languages where there has traditionally been little-to-no translation capacity, connecting non-profit partners and aid organizations with our community of qualified language professionals who now work in more than 250 language pairs.Since 2014, Words of Relief, TWB’s crisis response translation network, has been facilitating communication between people affected by crises and humanitarian workers on the ground. In 2017, we received grant funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. This funding is being used to expand Words of Relief to include voice and interpreting capabilities.  

Kato

words of relief

 

 

 

As you will see in this annual report, we spent 2016-2017 tirelessly advocating the importance of translation in the crisis relief process. We want to make sure translation stays at the top of the agenda and we could not have achieved any of this without the support of our in-kind partners, our generous donors, our technology partners and, our fantastic volunteers.

Click here to read the full report.

Written by Lauren Elwin, Volunteer for Translators without Borders. 

A Recap of GALA’s Boston Conference

Latha Sukumar, Executive Director of MCIS and TWB donor, left, with Eric DeLuca, TWB
Latha Sukumar, Executive Director of MCIS, left, with Eric DeLuca, TWB

The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) 2018 conference has come to a close. Those of us who managed to make it to and from Boston – despite the two feet of snow – were rewarded with a vibrant and exciting conference. As the Monitoring, Evaluating & Learning Manager for Translators without Borders, this was a chance for me to share our story with a community that understands the importance of having access to information in a language and format that can be understood.

This year’s GALA conference highlighted current trends in the localization and language industry so that we can better understand the technologies and business practices shaping our future. Attending sessions and interacting with stakeholders encouraged us in a few ways. Machines are not going to replace humans in the majority of translation work anytime soon; the industry has to continue to embrace this technology in order to remain innovative. Multimedia language services, such as voice-overs and subtitling, are continuing to grow rapidly as content-creators are increasingly favoring video formats.

What became clear is that there is a lot of work to do before we see widespread support for under-resourced languages. Continue reading “A Recap of GALA’s Boston Conference”

Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated across the globe on 8 March each year. It is a day when we highlight the achievements of women around the world. A time of celebration, it is also a time to push for more equality, especially in terms of gender parity. A collective effort is needed to achieve this. By challenging stereotypes and bias, we can make a positive difference.

The IWD theme for 2018 is Press for Progress. The theme acknowledges that progress towards gender parity is being made, but that the progress varies throughout the world, and we must continue to work hard. #PressforProgress #Timeisnow.

Across all regions, women are more likely to live in extreme poverty than men… The culture of gender-based poverty, abuse and exploitation has to end with a new generation of equality that lasts.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

Translators without Borders (TWB) is well placed to understand the unique challenges of women in crisis. While a humanitarian emergency affects everyone, experience shows that women often have bigger mountains to climb. This is in part because of the difficulties in communicating as a marginalized woman in crisis.

Accessibility and Relevance to Women

TWB has looked at the impact humanitarian crisis has on women. In recent studies about communication barriers encountered by humanitarian responders, conducted in Nigeria and Bangladesh, our team found that gender plays a big part in increasing vulnerability. Continue reading “Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard”

#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.

Improving access to information in the right languages for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable individuals is the core mission of Translators without Borders (TWB). Often, however, there are too few translators or interpreters available, especially during times of crisis when impacted populations and humanitarian responders do not speak the same language.

To alleviate the dearth of translators and interpreters, TWB invests in the skills of our 26,000 strong community of language professionals. We also invest in state-of-the-art tools and technology that enable us to serve many kinds of humanitarian needs.

Translators Guinea Language Technology.
TWB-trained translators in Guinea.

The right combination of skills and technology helps our translators deliver high-quality, accurate information to partner organizations such as Doctors without Borders and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, often under chaotic, time-sensitive conditions. Our volunteers work to industry standards, building marketable skills that may lead to paying jobs.

Over the long-term, the data we’re creating will play a key role in bringing more underserved languages online and into the digital age. Continue reading “#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.”

The Silver Lining – Education brings hope during a refugee crisis

There is a lot of despair and pain radiating from the refugee camps in and around the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Physical pain from disease and injury, coupled with a lack of food, are constant issues for the Rohingya refugees in the camps. The mental anguish is much greater. Loss of family to violence, loss of homes and crops, and an ongoing feeling of degradation and violation of rights – this anguish lives with every refugee, every day.

And yet, while walking through camps, meeting with responders and activists throughout Cox’s Bazar, there was also a thin yet constant thread of hope. Would it be possible, now that the refugees are relatively safe, in camps run by Bangladesh and the international community, to truly educate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children, giving them a future they could not have previously imagined?

Educating an illiterate population

The new influx of more than 600,000 refugees to Bangladesh includes a large number of school-age children. According to Save the Children over 60 percent of the new refugees are children. These numbers could increase as even more refugees are expected to cross the border by the end of the year. UNICEF estimates that more than 450,000 Rohingya children aged 4-18 years old are in need of education services. That includes those who have been in the camps for longer periods [source: Reliefweb].

Evidence indicates that a very large number of the children, as well as the adults, are illiterate. In fact, in a rapid survey conducted by the TWB team in October with Rohingya refugees, 73 percent of respondents self-reported to be illiterate. This illiteracy is limiting the children’s ability to be further educated and to demand their human rights.

Evidence also indicates that when education is made available, literacy rates increase. In fact, in the study TWB completed last month, it was clear that refugees who have been in Bangladesh longer show higher levels of literacy than those who had more recently-arrived.  While not easy to obtain, education is more readily available in the established camps than it was in Myanmar where twin restrictions against movement between villages and education above primary level severely limited access to education. When our team tested populations who have been in Cox’s Bazar since prior to August 2017, comprehension rates improved across the board.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of children together in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, is this an opportunity to offer them education and a future?

Unfortunately, though, the language of instruction will be unfamiliar to the Rohingya children. Currently, a number of organizations are looking to set up learning centers in the camps. The goal is to give the refugee children at least two hours of education a day, beginning in January. Yet the official curriculum that the government of Bangladesh has approved does not include mother tongue education, and the teachers who are being hired will teach in Bangla and Burmese, two languages that the children do not read or speak.

Why mother tongue education matters

A wealth of experience and evidence over the last 50 years has proven that children learn better when they are taught in their mother tongue language. We also know that countries do better when their children are educated well. Evidence from a project that Save the Children has implemented in Thailand focusing on mother tongue education for Rohingya children, shows that learning a second language, English or Thai, is difficult when children do not understand the language of instruction. This undermines children’s ability to participate and invest in their education, despite their motivation [source: Save the Children].

But the issues with mother tongue education for the Rohingya children are deeper, because their mother tongue, Rohingya Zuban, is largely oral. The illiterate community speaks it fluently but does not generally have a means for written communication, through their mother tongue. Interesting work is already being done to establish a written form of Rohingya Zuban. A script was developed decades ago, and has been taught within the established camps and throughout areas of Bangladesh and Malaysia. The teaching is generally ‘under the radar’ of even informal education centers, and the materials used are handwritten, as unicoding of the language, is not complete. But even so, there is a major desire among the children and adults in the established camps to learn the written form; estimates put the number who have learned some of it at 10,000. Even more encouraging is the excitement generated among the students when they do have the opportunity to learn it – there is a true sense of the empowerment and identity that learning to read their own language gives them.

This initial mother tongue education work is unknown to most international agencies setting up learning centers, and its potential is unexplored. TWB is working with these agencies, as well as local organizations, international organizations specializing in mother tongue education and hopefully, the Bangladesh government, to include mother tongue tools in the curriculum. Teaching aids in Rohingya Zuban, mobile and online tools in unicoded Rohingya Zuban, and printed Rohingya Zuban early readers would all make a difference.


Now, back home and separated from the daily grind of the response by miles and time, I have reflected on that seed of hope that is education, and started to figure out how TWB can contribute to its growth. I believe TWB can make the greatest impact, by including mother tongue teaching and learning aids into the education programs being developed for Rohingya children.

The Rohingya refugee crisis offers the potential to educate hundreds of thousands of illiterate children, eager to learn, in their mother tongue. I hope we can make it happen.

Please follow this link to support TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Deputy Director and Head of Innovation at Translators without Borders.