United by language: Tigrinya translators use their skills to help others

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) have a range of experiences and skills, and share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

Two of our top translators of Tigrinya, a language spoken by approximately seven million people, deserve special recognition for the work they did in 2018. Our featured translators, Kidane Haile and Kalayu Menasbo, have their roots in Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively. But they are united by a common language and their tireless desire to use their skills to support those in need.

Tigrinya is a Semitic language, belonging to the same language family as Amharic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Maltese. It is widely spoken in Eritrea and in northern Ethiopia, and by immigrant communities in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and parts of Europe.

Eritrea Landscape, Ghinda
Ghinda, Eritrea.

Missing Children Europe  

Tigrinya was one of the most important marginalized languages at TWB in 2018, primarily because of our partners’ work with refugees. For example, Missing Children Europe works with refugee youth in Europe who are unaccompanied; Tigrinya is one of the most important languages for this work. Kalayu and Kidane both contributed to the Missing Children Europe work, giving hope to people who have been forced from home due to poverty, hunger, persecution, discrimination, civil war, or unemployment. Young people and displaced or unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable in such situations. They need to be able to report problems and to know their rights and responsibilities. They cannot do any of that without information in a language they understand.

Kalayu knows how important it is to ensure communication does not become a barrier to humanitarians providing safety. Language mediators are crucial. So the documents provided by our Tigrinya translators can be life-changing.

Kidane, too, sees it as a privilege to work with an organization like Missing Children Europe: to know he is supporting young children, and that the work he does is valuable.

A translator’s journey: taking refuge and delivering safety with words

Kidane now works from his home office in Buffalo, New York translating from English to Tigrinya. The dedicated volunteer prides himself on communication and a desire to help others, hence his enthusiasm for working with TWB. Since joining in April 2018, Kidane has completed 60 tasks, amounting to 32,000 words.

“At one time in my life, I was a refugee. So, I understand what it is like to be in an unfamiliar country, facing a language barrier and other challenges. When I work with people in that situation, I understand what they are going through and it makes me happy to help them,” Kidane Haile, Translator

In 2010, Kidane arrived in the United States with refugee status. For four years he worked part-time, studied full-time, and worked on his English fluency. It was then that he realized his knowledge of Tigrinya and English opened up an opportunity to work and help the community simultaneously. Now he works as a full-time interpreter, though he never forgets where his journey began:

“I often think about making life easier for people who start in a new country and need help communicating and understanding their new situation, the way I was years ago.”

Kalayu, the second of our spotlighted Tigrinya translators, works in the same language pair from his home in Ethiopia. This busy volunteer has translated almost 30,000 words across 17 tasks since he joined TWB in October 2018. He continually aims to serve and provide for others through improved communications.

Kalayu
Kalayu Menasbo, Translator

And his dedication to the mission is evident: Kalayu often works late into the night to complete translation tasks, without the convenience of a home laptop.

In fact, the keen reader and ex-radio journalist wears many charitable hats: he also works for World Vision Ethiopia, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable children and families. In his various roles, he creates safe, protected environments by translating vital information into local languages.

Beyond TWB

Kidane’s experience with TWB has expanded his written translation skills and helped him to take on work outside of his primary field of interpretation.

Kalayu explains how working with TWB helped him understand the impact a translation can make:

“I have no money to support people, but I have the skill of translation – a skill that can support those who need it in their daily life.” This revelation has made Kalayu a committed language professional.

Photo by Kalayu. Sunset over the Adwa mountains, Ethiopia.

A translation task may take you a day, but for those who need it, it may serve as a life continuing catalyst,” Kalayu Menasbo.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion or email translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

If you know a second language, and you too want to help build a world where knowledge knows no language barriers, apply here to become a translator for TWB

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for TWB, with interview responses by Kidane Haile and Kalayu Menasbo, Kató translators for TWB. 

Just to be clear: why Devspeak needs to adopt Plain Language

If the aid sector is to communicate more effectively, we must do more than tame the rampant devspeak that Duncan highlighted in his recent blog. Instead we should focus on presenting a clear and consistent message using plain language principles, which cover so much more than the individual words that we choose.

Kate Murphy, Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders
Kate Murphy, Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders.

I’m the Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders so devspeak is my constant companion. Much of my working day is spent deciphering terms and encouraging writers to use simpler alternatives. I’m aware of the chaos and confusion that devspeak can cause. But I think the bigger communication challenge facing our sector is a general lack of clarity and focus in our writing, and an inexplicable resistance to plain-language writing.

All aid workers should write in plain language

Whether we write for colleagues, government ministers, or refugees, plain language makes exchanging information a more efficient process. We operate in a multilingual environment that is full of linguistic tripwires and pitfalls. Native and non-native English writers of varying competencies communicate with native and non-native English readers of varying competencies. All of us face conflicting demands on our limited writing and reading time.

Ellie Kemp oversees Translators without Borders’ humanitarian work in Nigeria and in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh. She believes that plain language is an overlooked factor in many humanitarian responses.

“Humanitarians can’t promote two-way engagement, empower affected people, or stimulate informed debate if we write in a convoluted way,” she says. “In Bangladesh, the response uses five languages; if the original English is unclear, the consequences are amplified across the other four.”

Earlier this year, Translators without Borders interviewed 52 humanitarian field workers responsible for surveying internally displaced people in north-east Nigeria. The findings highlight potential data quality issues stemming from a failure to use plain language.

“We tested the field workers’ comprehension of 27 terms that they regularly use in survey questions and responses,” Ellie explains. “We identified misunderstandings and misinterpretations at every stage of the data collection process.”

A Translators without Borders trainer conducts comprehension research. Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by: Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.
A Translators without Borders trainer conducts comprehension research. Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by: Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.

Plain-language writing can help navigate our multilingual environment, yet native-English writers in particular are oblivious to the confusion we cause as we extrude our un-plain language onto the page.

So what are the characteristics of plain-language writing? Here are the ones that I think have the biggest impact on readability.

Define your peak message and state it early

Plain language requires writers to define the most critical aspect of their content and to communicate that consistently. Before I edit any content, I ask the writer to define the “peak message,” or the message that must stand out. In a move that makes me one of the most annoying people in our organization I insist that the peak message is fewer than 20 words.

But to win back the affections of my colleagues, I apply the same rule to myself. So before I drafted this blog, I defined my 16-word peak message as, “Plain-language writing is not only about avoiding devspeak; it’s about presenting a clear and consistent point.”

Create a logical structure and layout

The inverted pyramid model helps to arrange content logically and keep the reader focused on the peak message. It requires writers to arrange paragraphs in order of importance, and to arrange the sentences within them in order of importance too.

The inverted pyramid writing model: 
- Most Newsworthy Info (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?)
- Important Details
- Other General Background Info
The inverted pyramid writing model

The next step in plain-language writing is to make the content physically clear. Four basic formatting principles that improve clarity are:

  • limit paragraphs to five sentences;
  • maintain an average sentence length of 15-20 words, and a maximum of 25;
  • use informative headings every four or five paragraphs; and
  • use graphics, but only if they make your message clearer.

Then worry about individual words.

Favour bold, direct verbs in the active voice

Verbs are powerful tools for clarifying your message. As with so many of life’s big choices, favour the strong, confident, single type. “It is recommended that writers give consideration to selecting verbs that might be more bold,” is only a slight exaggeration of the evasive verb structures that I regularly encounter. I’d change that to “Use bold verbs.”

And in choosing your bold verb, remember that passive voice is one of the last refuges of the uncertain writer. Consider the following passive voice construction:

“It is thought [by unnamed and unaccountable people] that the active voice should be used [by unnamed and unaccountable people].” This sentence provides little clarity for the reader. Compare it to “The Plain Language Editor wants writers in the humanitarian sector to use the active voice.”

Use the simplest tense

Some tenses require less cognitive processing than others. For non-native speakers the simple present and simple past tenses are typically the clearest. For example, “we write” or “we wrote.”

Continuous tenses (“we are writing” or “we were writing” or “we will be writing”) are less clear. So are future tenses (“we will write”, “we will have written”).

Use pronouns carefully

Pronouns can make a sentence ambiguous, so use them sparingly. “When communicating with refugees, humanitarians should provide information in their own language,” leaves the reader wondering whether to use the refugees’ or the humanitarians’ language. A confident English speaker might assume they know, but plain language relies on clarity, not assumptions.

Participants in a Translators without Borders interpreter training session. Borno State, Nigeria, August 2018.
Participants in a Translators without Borders interpreter training session. Borno State, Nigeria, August 2018.

Rethinking devspeak

From a plain-language perspective most devspeak is merely pretentious and annoying. Readers typically understand a sentence even if it contains an unexpected neologism. Few editors care if readers need to use a dictionary occasionally; most of us pretentiously and annoyingly believe that an extended vocabulary is a thing to aspire to. But confusion and ambiguity is not something to aspire to, so before you use devspeak, look for a simpler alternative.

You’ll probably find that if your peak message is solid, and the flow and format is logical, you won’t need devspeak after all. Clearly, it’s not essential.

You can stop reading here if you like, but I thought I’d add a worked example of how all this works….

A practical illustration

Here’s an example of applying plain-language principles to a donor report earlier this year.

The paragraph on the left is the original. What opportunities can you see for applying plain-language principles to that version? I saw several, so the author and I worked together to improve the original. We agreed to replace it with the paragraph on the right.

This short training course was designed to enhance [name removed] and other humanitarian organisation staff’s capacity to act as interpreters in the course of their work, often in the context of sensitization sessions, case management or household surveys. The content focused on the role of interpreting for humanitarian action, while also shedding light on broadly applicable modes and principles of interpreting. Learning methods combined exposition with interactive sessions, including group work and simple role play exercises that were not only meant to illustrate how to interpret effectively but also laid an emphasis on key ethical issues to be considered while interpreting. Topics covered included interpreting for children and vulnerable populations, and developing multilingual terminology for humanitarian interpreting.

(116 words)
Bilingual staff at [name removed] and other humanitarian organisations often interpret informally during sensitization sessions, case management activities or household surveys. We designed this course to help them interpret more effectively. 
The course covered:

●     the role of humanitarian interpreting;
●     broad interpreting principles;
●     interpreting modes;
●     interpreting for children and vulnerable populations; and
●     developing multilingual glossaries.

Trainers combined instructional with interactive learning methods such as group work and role play exercises. The interactive exercises illustrated effective interpreting techniques and emphasised key ethical issues related to interpreting. 

(83 words, or a reduction of 28 percent. Now imagine that reduction extrapolated across an entire report).

Here’s what I saw. From a plain-language perspective, there were several issues:

  • Long sentences (average 29 words, maximum 40 words).
  • Passive voice (“the course was designed”).
  • Uncommon words (“exposition”).
  • Complex terms (“multilingual terminology for humanitarian interpreting”).
  • Related ideas were separated in the text.

Did you get them all? Did I miss anything? Which version do you think is clearer? What techniques do you use to make your own writing as clear as possible? Let us know (in plain language, of course).

This blog post is adapted from the original, published on the ‘From poverty to power’ blog. It is a response to ‘Which awful Devspeak words would you most like to ban?’ by Duncan Green, Strategic Adviser for Oxfam GB. 

Written by Kate Murphy, Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders.

The language lesson: what we’ve learned about communicating with Rohingya refugees

A Translators without Borders study found that access to information has improved in the Rohingya refugee response as a result of an increased humanitarian focus on communicating with communities. Yet language barriers still leave many Rohingya refugees without the critical and life-saving information they need. Prioritizing spoken communication in Rohingya and a mixed approach on formats and channels is key to effective communication.

Our assessment of comprehension and support needs among Rohingya refugees tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

From the outset, language challenges have played a central role in the Rohingya refugee response. There are at least five languages — Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English — used in the response. Low literacy levels and limited access to media compound the situation.

To find out how humanitarians can effectively communicate with refugees, Translators without Borders assessed language comprehension and support needs among the refugees. We surveyed more than 400 Rohingya men and women living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We asked them what languages they spoke, how they preferred to receive information, and we tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

Here is what we found.    

Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed

Twenty-eight percent of refugees say they do not have enough information to make decisions for themselves and their family. Extrapolated to the whole camp population, this suggests that about 200,000 people feel that they lack the basis to make properly informed decisions.  Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement from a year ago when an assessment by Internews found that 79 percent of refugees did not have enough information.

Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical

Rohingya is the only spoken language that all refugees understand and prefer. Our study shows that 36 percent of refugees do not understand a simple sentence in Chittagonian. Women are less likely than men to understand spoken Bangla or Burmese. Refugees prefer to receive information in spoken Rohingya, either by word-of-mouth, loudspeaker, or phone call.

This preference for spoken Rohingya coincides with strong trust levels in imams, family, aid and medical professionals, and majhees (government-appointed community leaders) as sources of information. Radio, TV, and the internet are less trusted by and less familiar to women.

After spoken Rohingya, simple visual messaging is the most widely understood format. Comprehension rates for visual communication are high regardless of gender, age, or education level.

These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Burmese is the preferred written language, and is relatively well understood

After Rohingya, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Although two-thirds of refugees prefer written communication in Rohingya, the language lacks a universally accepted script. Refugees prefer written information to be given in brochure or leaflet form. This allows them to take information away with them and ask a friend or family member to help them understand it.

Sixty-six percent of refugees said that they cannot read or write in any language, and comprehension testing broadly confirmed this. When tested for reading comprehension, 36 percent understood Burmese, a similar rate to Bangla and English.

Investment in language will improve the response

These findings make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community. They show that different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats and sources of information. Nonetheless, practical actions for effective humanitarian communication exist.

Using Rohingya for spoken communication, and Burmese for written information is important. Providing information in a mix of formats and channels to account for varied preferences and education levels will also help.

Investing in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and in humanitarian interpretation techniques is key. Staff should be supported to communicate in the language understood and preferred by the whole community.

This enumerator is tests a Rohingya man’s comprehension of simple spoken information.

As time goes on, communication and language preferences may change. Ongoing assessments on information and language support needs should be coupled with further research to better understand communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee response. Sustained coordination among humanitarian organizations can help ensure communication is consistent, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.

View the research brief.

Read the full report.



This study is part of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and by European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO). It was conducted in partnership with IOM Needs and Population Monitoring and REACH Initiative. Translators without Borders has been working in Bangladesh in support of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017, conducting research on language barriers and communication needs, advocating for local language and cross-cultural competence, providing translation and localization support, and training humanitarian staff on the Rohingya language and culture.

Written by Mahrukh 'Maya' Hasan, Evidence and Impact Consultant for the Rohingya refugee crisis response in Bangladesh.

Translating with empathy improves wellbeing in Bangladesh

“I always put myself in the shoes of the person(s) for whom I am translating.” Mak, translator for Translators without Borders (TWB).

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders bring a range of experiences and skills, but they share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all of our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

In Bangladesh, almost a million people are currently living in the largest makeshift refugee camp in the world. There, nonprofit organizations need to provide critical information quickly on matters such as cyclone preparedness, heavy rainfall, landslides and how to protect shelters in potentially life-threatening situations. All of this information needs to be translated into a language that is more accessible for Rohingya refugees, and in many cases, into the language of local volunteers and field workers. Enter Mahay Alam Khan, or Mak, a dedicated translator who works tirelessly to help translate critical documents into Bangla.

What makes Mak?

As one of our most skilled and committed Bangla translators, Mak brings twelve years of translation experience to TWB. In the past year, he has worked on over fifty tasks and translated over 40,000 words.

Mak has been known to go the extra mile to support TWB in our mission. He has spent nights working on urgent translations, journeyed to internet cafes, borrowed computers when necessary, and even worked on translating documents while changing houses in downtown Dhaka.

“If that’s not dedication, then I don’t know what is,” Dace, TWB’s Translation Emergency Coordinator, wholeheartedly attests to Mak’s merit.

Mak has his own praise for Dace and the team, telling us he is “always amazed to get continuous support from TWB management, admins and support personnel. They are so prompt and caring.”

Translating opens a window into the world of the Rohingya

Mak explains that translating with TWB has changed his perspective. The experience has opened a window through which he can look into the horrific conditions experienced by refugees and especially children.

“I knew a bit about the suffering and agony they endure in this world, but I never knew language barriers could be a reason why people become vulnerable,” recalls Mak.

In his time volunteering with TWB, Mak has worked on numerous projects with organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He has translated knowledge in the fields of water, sanitation, health, and hygiene. One personally significant project focused on training health workers. While most of the refugees speak Rohingya rather than Bangla, the health workers are Bangla-speaking; it is important to train them in the right language. The content trained workers in teaching the refugee community how to prevent life-threatening diseases like diphtheria and dysentery, which affect children in particular.  

Mak has translated information on an array of subjects — beyond what you might have imagined. He has translated guidance on how to deal with violence against immigrants, and how to manage bodies in a proper and dignified manner after a fatal disaster. These are messages which are important to communicate sensitively and clearly. The knowledge he imparts in a critical language has a real and immediate effect on the lives of those affected by the crisis. And he bears this in mind as he makes his translations the most effective they can be.

Visualize the situation: Mak’s strategy

Working with TWB has influenced Mak’s whole approach – it has made him more expressive and more cognizant of the importance of his translation work. Before starting a translation, Mak says it’s important to visualize the people for whom he is ultimately translating.  He closes his eyes and imagines he is standing in a queue waiting for food or medicine. The language barrier between support workers and refugees makes it hard to distribute food, or even to ensure understanding of instructions for taking life-saving medicines.

So, he translates and helps people access information in a language they can understand.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, and to leave feedback please join the discussion here, or send an email to translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

Support the Rohingya refugee response by donating here.

 

Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB, with interview responses by Mahay Alam Khan, Kató translator for TWB. 

 

Report from the Field

Our Board Chair visits Bangladesh, sees progress and challenges first hand

I recently visited Bangladesh with Ellie Kemp, our Head of Crisis Response, to see first hand the work of Translators without Borders (TWB) around the Rohingya crisis. Our trip included a visit to the “megacamp” at Kutupalong, the biggest refugee camp in the world, and meetings with our partner humanitarian response teams based in Cox’s Bazar. We also spent a few days in Dhaka meeting with donors and partner organizations.  

The crisis is an incredibly challenging one. One year ago this month, the Myanmar army escalated a long-standing campaign of persecution against the largely Muslim Rohingya to what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has characterized as ethnic cleansing. Thousands were killed in Myanmar, and over 700,000 fled over the Naf river to Bangladesh; at the peak, 20,000 refugees arrived per day. The Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, claiming they are Bangladeshi migrants. The Bangladeshi government, although generously offering them sanctuary, is facing its own political challenges and does not recognize them as refugees either.

The Rohingya people therefore are denied the right to work and not allowed to register as residents, and cannot build more permanent homes than the bamboo and tarpaulin shelters they have been in for the last 12 months. Formal schooling is not allowed in the camps;  people in camps are even officially forbidden from owning mobile phones. On top of this the humanitarian response has been suffering from poor coordination due to unclear division of responsibilities. Unfortunately these challenges have been acutely felt in the way the responding organizations have communicated with the communities they are trying to help.

This response was supposed to be different.

There has been increasing awareness over the last few years of the need to improve programs for communicating with communities (CwC) and to build these programs into every response. This was one of the first major responses since the World Humanitarian Summit “Grand Bargain” signed two years ago in Istanbul, where the humanitarian community committed itself to doing this better. Unfortunately it has not quite played out that way. Too often, key roles in CwC are left vacant or not given the resources they need. Key initiatives, such as refugee registration (a sensitive topic for a systematically persecuted population), have been handled without proper planning of how to communicate. And while some major donors, such as the UK’s DFID and the EU’s ECHO now recognize the problem with inadequate funding for CwC, the funding provision still remains far below the need. Our task on advocacy around the need for mainstreaming CwC continues…

Andrew B,
Andrew Bredenkamp at Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

From a linguistic perspective the situation is complex too. Rohingya is not a written language, and the thousands of Rohingya in the camps who have received an education were taught in Burmese. Rohingya is related to Chittagonian, the local language spoken in Cox’s Bazar and more distantly Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh. Unfortunately this has sometimes led to responders assuming that Chittagonian and Rohingya are basically the same language. We heard the statement repeatedly that “Chittagonian and Rohingya are 70 percent the same, so we’re using Chittagonian speakers”. Bearing in mind Spanish and Italian are 80 percent similar and that no one would consider using Italian to communicate with a Spanish community, this highlights the need for continued awareness about language issues among responders.

This is not an academic discussion.

The words for “help,” “pain,” “pregnant,” and “menstruation,” even the phrase for the common cold, are all unrecognizably different in Rohingya and Chittagonian. There seem even to be differences between language used by male and female Rohingya speakers.    

Despite these difficulties TWB and our consortium partners, BBC Media Action and Internews, have been able to make a huge difference. Here are some of the highlights:

  • We have been providing language services across the response into both Bangla and Rohingya.
  • We have been providing training for staff and volunteers working for the response organizations, focusing on the differences between Chittagonian and Rohingya and developing glossaries around key topics for critical sectors, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health, and protection, including work around gender-based violence.
  • We have been supporting the listening programs of our partner Internews and the content programs of BBC Media Action, helping to make the response more accountable to the refugees and host communities.
  • We have been continuing to advocate for all aspects of the response to take into account the need to communicate with the Rohingya community and the local host population.

Enormous credit has to go to the team, led by Ben Noble, our Country Director, and Irene Scott, Program Director. I have to also mention the amazing efforts of AK Rahim, our South Asian linguistic expert. AK is an amazing source of knowledge about the languages and cultures of the region and how they interact. He has been our secret weapon in winning the trust of the host Chittagonian population as well as the Rohingya community, and has led the research that enables us to provide practical advice for humanitarians on communicating more effectively with both.

We heard time and again from our humanitarian partners that our work was indispensable and extremely effective.

Our donor meetings were extremely encouraging, not just in terms of the desire to support our work in Cox’s Bazar, but also more strategically. There was explicit confirmation at the highest level that “the humanitarian community is still not doing enough on CwC.”

Overall another great testimony to the importance of our mission. There is a lot we can learn about this response for others we are and will be involved in. The need remains immense.

Donate to the Rohingya refugee response

Written by Andrew Bredenkamp, Chairman of Translators without Borders Board of Directors.