How soon is too late? How Translators without Borders responds to crisis

When a crisis or a major humanitarian event occurs, timing is everything. The ability to respond to urgent and vital needs quickly can help save lives. However, language is often the forgotten link at this initial stage of crisis response and communication fails because aid workers and affected populations don’t always speak the same language.

Crisis Response after Hurricane Matthew

The destruction that followed Hurricane Matthew which hit Haiti in October 2016 left thousands of people in urgent need of emergency assistance. Most hospitals were unfit to use, roofs from schools and houses were blown away, and thousands of people were left with no food or shelter. As soon as the news was received, aid agencies mobilized their teams in Haiti to assess the situation on the ground and to help those affected. While our aid partners were mobilizing their responses, Translators without Borders set about assembling 50 French and Haitian Creole rapid response translators to ensure that language barriers were not going to impede vital relief efforts.

The rapid response teams (RRT) worked non-stop translating vital content such as geographic mapping of the affected areas and cholera prevention messages. This visual guide gives a snapshot of how TWB responded to the crisis.

TWB crisis response
How TWB responds to crisis


Click here to apply to be a volunteer with the TWB Rapid Response translation teams

Blog AuthorBy Caterina Marcellini, Translators without Borders Communications Officer

“I want to ask myself, why are people dying every day?”

translation saves lives

A speaker of 5 languages, Jeanne Martin Goumou from Guinea, recognized the importance of giving people access to information in the right language during the Ebola crisis. In a country of almost 12 million people where more than 40 languages are spoken daily, Ebola prevention messages in French and English were not understood by the majority of the Guinean population. Making good use of her fluency in 3 local languages, Jeanne Martin decided to help by manning the lines of the free National Ebola Hotline, helping those across the country who were desperately seeking vital information in a language they
could understand. Because she knows that translation saves lives.

During my interview with Jeanne Martin, she told me about Guinea and the times of Ebola. “

“I want to ask myself, why are people dying every day?”

She spoke of a country with a high maternal mortality rate, and where malaria is one of the biggest killers of children. She spoke of a country where information arrives in European languages that the majority of the population doesn’t understand.

Jeanne Martin is one of the 12 recent graduates of the Translators without Borders’ translator training course in Guinea, a project in collaboration with eHealth Africa that aims to build language capacity in countries where there are few to no translators. She feels passionate about the training, and for her, the course was a professional opportunity to grow as a translator and to learn new information on important medical topics.

Translation saves lives
Image courtesy of Photoshare


One of the biggest linguistic challenges she encountered during the training is emblematic of the importance of the very work she is doing. She says there are a great amount of “false friends” in the documents she translates; words that look or sound very similar in two languages but that have very different meanings. This is just an example, in the everyday life of a translator, that shows why information in the right language is so important – so that information is clear and there are no misinterpretations when vital health care instructions are given in a foreign language.

Looking to the future, Jeanne Martin wishes to continue to help people in Guinea access health care information in a language and format they can understand.

Blog AuthorBy Caterina Marcellini, Translators without Borders Communications Officer


Translating knowledge into practice – Dr Subas Chandra Rout on why #LanguageMatters in medicine

How does an orthopedic surgeon find the time to volunteer to translate 315,000 words of medical information – and why?

This week I spoke to Dr Subas Chandra Rout from his home in the Indian state of Odia. Since 2012, Dr Subas has been translating medical content from Wikipedia medical articles from English to Odia so that the people of even remote villages can get basic information about health and diseases using just a smartphone. Odia is a regional language spoken in India by over 40 million people, and Dr Subas is intent on getting simple yet critical medical information to Odia speaking communities; from Zika prevention messages to ways to recognize diabetes, to the dangers of diarrhea.

Helping by translating knowledge

It all started when Dr Subas was asked to translate an article about malaria on Wikipedia. He did it because he knew that people were not generally very conversant on medical topics, although these topics affected them greatly. When he studied medicine, it was through English, and he learned thousands of new technical terms. As a consequence, he found himself then having to learn those thousands of terms in the regional language of his patients so that he could communicate his knowledge across the language divide. This was not always easy, as some languages are often not as well equipped with medical terms as is English. Despite the difficulties, the doctor persisted, and today he continues to break down the barriers to information by translating for Translators without Borders (TWB).

When I asked him how he manages to find time to complete so many medical translations, he said:

“There is a proverb – where there is will; there is a way. I have a will to feed the Odia speaking people with medical knowledge and I will do it until my end.  Time is no barrier.”

He sees Translators without Borders as “a medium that transcends the barrier of space and time” to provide people access to unlimited and accurate medical knowledge.

While talking about the impact he thinks his translations have had on the Odia speaking community, Dr Subas replied that he has witnessed an increase in the number of people who are now aware of the availability of medical articles in their own language. “My labor is starting to bring color,” he said, “Some of the topics have adorned the pages of local newspapers. I am sure that 40 million people will gradually be knowledgeable in basic medicine.”

Translation for Wikipedia

Do you want to participate by translating knowledge? Read more about translation for Wikipedia on the Wikipedia website.

Blog AuthorBy Caterina Marcellini, Translators without Borders Communications Officer