When words fail: audio recording for verification in multilingual surveys

A survey being conducted in Monguno, Nigeria. Mobile phones and tablets are ubiquitous in humanitarian data collection efforts. Yet most mobile tools do not support continuous audio recording while the survey is being administered. Photo by: Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders
A survey being conducted in Monguno, Nigeria. Mobile phones and tablets are ubiquitous in humanitarian data collection efforts. Yet most mobile tools do not support continuous audio recording while the survey is being administered. Photo by: Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders

“Sir, I want to ask you some questions if you agree?”

With that one sentence, our enumerator summarized the 120-word script provided to secure the informed consent of our survey participants – a script designed, in particular, to emphasize that participation would not result in any direct assistance. Humanitarian organizations, research institutes and think tanks around the world are conducting thousands of surveys every year. How many suffer from similar ethical challenges? And how many substandard survey results fall under the radar due to lack of effective quality assurance?

We were conducting a survey on the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movement, and durable solutions in Borno, a linguistically diverse state in northeast Nigeria. Before data collection began, Translators without Borders (TWB) translated the survey into Hausa and Kanuri to limit the risk of mistranslations due to poor understanding of terminology. Even with this effort, however, not all the enumerators could read Hausa or Kanuri. Although enumerators spent a full day in training going through the translations as a group, there is still a risk that language barriers may have undermined the quality of the research. Humanitarian terminology is often complex, nuanced, and difficult to translate precisely into other languages. A previous study by Translators without Borders in northeastern Nigeria, for example, found that only 57% of enumerators understood the word ‘insurgency’.

We only know the exact phrasing of this interview because we decided to record some of our surveys using an audio recorder. In total, 96 survey interviews were recorded. Fifteen percent of these files were later transcribed into Hausa or Kanuri and translated into English by TWB. Those English transcripts were compared to the enumerator-coded responses, allowing us to analyze the accuracy of our results. While the process was helpful, the findings raise some important concerns.

A digital voice recorder in Maiduguri, Nigeria serves as a simple and low-tech tool for capturing entire surveys. Photo by: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
A digital voice recorder in Maiduguri, Nigeria serves as a simple and low-tech tool for capturing entire surveys. Photo by: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders

Consent was not always fully informed

Efforts to obtain informed consent were limited, despite the script provided. According to the consultant, enumerators felt rushed due to the large numbers of people waiting to participate in the survey – but people were interested in participating precisely due to the misbelief that participation could result in assistance, which underlines the need for informed consent. 

Alongside these ethical challenges, the failure to inform participants about the objectives of the research increases the risk of bias in the findings, prompting people to tailor responses to increase their chances of receiving assistance. Problems related to capacity, language, or questionnaire design can also negatively impact survey results, undermining the validity of the findings. 

The enumerator-coded answers did not always match the transcripts

During data quality assurance, we also identified important discrepancies between the interview transcripts and the survey data. In some cases, enumerators had guessed the most likely response rather than properly asking the question, jumping to conclusions based on their understanding of the context rather than respondents’ lived experiences. If the response was unclear, random response options were selected without seeking clarification. Some questions were skipped entirely, but responses still entered into the surveys. The following example, comparing an extract of an interview transcript with the recorded survey data, illustrates these discrepancies. 

Interview transcript Survey data
Interviewer: Do you want to go back to Khaddamari?

Respondent: Yes, I want to.

Interviewer: When do you want to go back?

Respondent: At any time when the peace reigns. You know we are displaced here.

Interviewer: If the place become peaceful, will you go back?

Respondent: If it becomes peaceful, I will go back. 

Do you want to return to Khaddamari in the future? Yes

When do you think you are likely to return? Within the next month

What is the main reason that motivates you to return? Improved safety

What is the second most important reason? Missing home

What is the main issue which currently prevents return to Khaddamari? Food insecurity

What is the second most important issue preventing return? Financial cost of return

At no point in the interview did the respondent mention that he or she was likely to return in the next month. Food insecurity or financial costs were also not cited as factors preventing return. Without audio recordings, we would never have become aware of these issues. Transcribing even just a sample of our audio recordings drew attention to significant problems with the data. Instead of blindly relying on poor quality data, we were able to triangulate information from other sources, and use the interview transcripts as qualitative data. We also included a strongly worded limitations section in the report, acknowledging the data quality issues.

We suspect such data quality issues are common. Surveys, quite simply, are perhaps not the most appropriate tool for data collection in the contexts within which we operate. Certainly, there is a need to be more aware of, and more transparent about, survey limitations.

Despite these limitations, there is no doubt that surveys will continue to be widely used in the humanitarian community and beyond. Surveys are ingrained in the structure and processes of the humanitarian industry. Despite the challenges we faced in Nigeria, we will continue to use surveys ourselves. We know now, however, that audio recordings are invaluable for quality assurance purposes. 

A manual audio recording strategy is difficult to replicate at scale

In an ideal world, all survey interviews would be recorded, transcribed, and translated. This would not only enhance quality assurance processes, but also complement survey data with rich qualitative narratives and quotes. Translating and transcribing recordings, however, requires a huge amount of technical and human resources. 

From a technical standpoint, recording audio files of surveys is not straightforward. Common cell phone data collection tools, such as Kobo, do not offer full-length audio recordings as standard features within surveys. There are also storage issues, as audio files take up significant space on cell phones and stretch the limits of offline survey tools or browser caching. Audio recorders are easy to find and fairly reliable, but they require setting up a parallel workflow and a careful process of coding to ensure that each audio file is appropriately connected to the corresponding survey.

From a time standpoint, this process is slow and involved. As a general rule, it takes roughly six hours to transcribe one hour of audio content. In Hausa and Kanuri – two low resource languages that lack experienced translators – one hour of transcription often took closer to eight hours to complete. The Hausa or Kanuri transcripts then had to be translated into English, a process that took an additional 8 hours. Therefore, each 30-minute recorded survey required about one day of additional work in order to fully process. To put that into perspective, one person would have to work full time every day for close to a year to transcribe and translate a survey involving 350 people.

Language technology can offer some support

In languages such as English or French, solutions already exist to drastically speed up this process. Speech to text technologies – the same technologies used to send SMS messages by voice – have improved dramatically in recent years with the adoption of machine learning approaches. This makes it possible to transcribe and translate audio recordings in a matter of seconds, not days. The error rates of these automated tools are low, and in some cases are even close to rivaling human output. For humanitarians working in contexts with well resourced languages like Spanish, French, or even some dialects of Arabic, these language technologies are already able to offer significant support that makes an audio survey workflow more feasible.

For low-resource languages such as Hausa, Kanuri, Swahili, or Rohingya, these technologies do not exist or are too unreliable. That is because these languages lack the commercial viability to be priority languages for technology companies, and there is often insufficient data to train the machine translation technologies. In an attempt to close the digital language divide, Translators without Borders has recently rolled out an ambitious effort called Gamayun: the language equality initiative. This initiative is working to develop datasets and language technology in low-resource languages relevant to humanitarian and development contexts. The goal is to develop fit-for-purpose solutions that can help break down language barriers and make language solutions such as this more accessible and feasible. Still, this is a long term vision and many of the tools will take months or even years to develop fully.

In the meantime, there are four things you can do now to incorporate audio workflows into your data collection efforts

  1. Record your surveys using tape recorders. It is a valuable process, even if you are limited in how you are able to use the recordings right now. In our experience, enumerators are less likely to intentionally skip entire questions or sections if they know they are being recorded. Work is underway to integrate audio workflows directly into Kobo and other surveying tools, but for now, a tape recorder is an accessible and affordable tool.

  2. Transcribe and translate a small sample of your recordings. Even a handful of transcripts can prove to be useful verification and training tools. We recommend you complete the translations in the pilot stage of your survey, to give you time to adjust trainings or survey design if necessary. This can help to at least provide spot checks of enumerators that you are concerned about, or simply verify one key question, such as the question about informed consent.
  3. Run your recordings through automated transcription and translation tools. This will only be possible if you are working in major languages such as Spanish or French. Technology is rapidly developing, and every month more languages become available and the quality of these technologies improve. Commercially available services are available through Microsoft, Google, and Amazon amongst others, but these services often have a cost, especially at scale.
  4. Partner with TWB to improve technology for low-resource languages. TWB is actively looking for partners to pilot audio recording and transcription processes, to help gather voice and text data to build language technologies for low resource languages. TWB is also seeking partners interested in actively integrating these automated or semi-automated solutions into existing workflows. Get in touch if you are interested in partnering: [email protected]
Written by:

Chloe Sydney, Research Associate at IDMC

Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager at Translators without Borders

Getting community engagement right from the start: a reflection on the Cyclone Idai humanitarian response

If I had to summarize Translators without Borders’ learning from the Cyclone Idai response, it would be: language support can be a significant tool for effective, accountable humanitarian action. But only if there is a more comprehensive approach to community engagement from the outset. 

It is one thing to read a statistic about the linguistic diversity and low literacy levels of the population in Mozambique. It is another thing entirely to sit down with a group of Cyclone Idai survivors in Beira and hear it in person. To learn from one person after another that they are unable to communicate with aid workers in a language they understand. 

Community engagement MozambiqueThis is what TWB’s assessment team and I heard a few weeks ago when we conducted a rapid language assessment in four temporary accommodation sites. We found that many people do not understand the main languages and formats used by humanitarian organizations. They voiced frustration about how difficult it is to access information about available assistance. After one of southern Africa’s worst disasters in decades, we learned that much humanitarian communication is failing because it is in the wrong language.

Today, in the comfort of my home, I’m thinking about what this means. In a way, it shows that humanitarians still fall short of meeting their commitments to “leave no one behind” and “put people at the center.” This is probably not news to many. But it leaves me torn when thinking about the impact of TWB’s language support services in the Cyclone Idai response. Looking at our project, I can say we worked with others to strengthen communication with affected people in the relevant languages. But looking at the remaining gaps, I am less convinced that our work ensured effective engagement with all those affected from the onset of the response.

My point here is not to be skeptical about the first-phase emergency aid delivered in Mozambique. Many communities lost everything due to Cyclone Idai and rely on that aid to rebuild their lives. But I want to reflect on learning in the humanitarian sector. I think we generally try to question ourselves. However, it sometimes feels like we spend more energy evaluating how things went wrong after the fact than we do getting it right up front. 

IOM response to Cyclone Idai, Beira, Mozambique
Credit: Andrew Lind / IOM

In recent years, there has been no shortage of research on the importance of meaningful community engagement. Effective two-way communication is an essential element of engagement. Yet, activities aimed at ensuring people’s voices are heard and understood are still implemented as optional ‘add-ons.’ They are rushed, under-resourced or restricted to the later stages of a response. That needs to change.

What then, can be done?

For a start, we need to collect and share language data as part of needs assessments. That data is a basis for workable and effective communication strategies. It tells organizations three key things: 

  • Which language skills we need to recruit for; 
  • Which languages and formats we need to provide information in; and
  • Which languages and communication preferences we need to tailor feedback mechanisms to. 

Language assessments of the kind carried out by TWB in Beira can provide additional insight into information comprehension and specific vulnerabilities. On that basis, language support like translation and interpreting can be built into community engagement response plans and budgets. 

It is not too late to start collecting, sharing, and using this data in the Cyclone Idai response. But we need to apply this change from the outset of the next emergency. It is the time to ensure we are accountable to the people that need it most, and that this process is in the languages and formats they want. We owe it to the people we aim to help – and to ourselves to maximize the learning we get from them. 

Any takers?

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders

An Interview with Liudmila, a Russian translator connecting the world through language

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 experience 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.

Translation is not the only skill that helps TWB translators connect people through language. A deep understanding of culture, people, and precision can also help nonprofit organizations communicate with people affected by crisis or poverty.

“I am a translator to the marrow of my bones, and a perpetual learner — every translation for me is a discovery.” Liudmila Tomanek, Translator for TWB.

Take, for example, Russian translator Liudmila Tomanek. When she is not freelancing and running her translation company, this linguist with a penchant for perfection translates information for people in need, on a diverse range of topics. To date, she has donated over 225,000 words translated from English into her native Russian. Through her work with TWB, she uses and develops her communication skills and cultural understanding to help people understand vital information, no matter what language they speak.

Working in the real world

As a multilingual translator and interpreter working from English, French, Spanish, and Italian into Russian, Liudmila understandably has a range of experience and cultural knowledge. She draws on this in projects with TWB, and is comfortable working in diverse subject areas. Particular interests lie in journalism, economics, and medical translation.

During her time with TWB, Liudmila has used her deep cultural understanding to translate information on topics ranging from human rights to poverty and infectious diseases. In doing so, she has supported nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross, Internews, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Donating words

The very fact that TWB exists and flourishes, she believes, demonstrates that quality skills can be incredibly valuable when it comes to helping a good cause.Book, spectacles, glasses

With her translated words, she reaches out to those who would otherwise lack the access to information they need in a language and format they understand. Liudmila compares her volunteering with TWB to doctors working for Doctors without Borders: professionals using their skills to treat people where the need is greatest. She explains, “professional translators who volunteer for TWB provide information where it is needed and in the language it is needed.” Projects with TWB have opened Liudmila’s eyes to the wide-ranging need for professional translation: from the families of children born with a cleft lip and palate, to natural disaster management.

It helps me to see the world through a different set of spectacles. It removes a curtain from some aspects of life that people prefer not to think or talk about. – Liudmila

Liudmila lists her projects with Operation Smile International among her favorites. “They really do amazing things. They go around the world and give children born with a cleft lip or palate a chance to smile and live a full life. I cry every time I translate their newsletter,” she says.

Befriending technology

And sometimes translating leads to new skills. As a self-confessed old-fashioned type, she was once wary of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. However, with Kató, TWB’s online translation platform, Liudmila was converted. Though a professional eye still is still needed to ensure context and quality, this translator now works faster and more consistently with Kató  – and gladly so.

When helping the world communicate, we’re thankful that Liudmila uses skills both old and new.

 

Want to use your language skills for good? Apply today.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion or email [email protected]

 

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for Translators without Borders. Interview responses by Liudmila Tomanek, Translator for Translators without Borders. 

How I found meaning in my career

Volunteering with TWB is a rewarding and enriching experience.

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 experience 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.

Iris Translator

Iris Soliman sets out to prove that when the cause matters to you, giving back comes naturally. Since early 2018, this translator’s enthusiasm for TWB’s work has shone through in her personal and professional life. Her support for the cause extends far beyond the translation work itself, as Iris has thrown herself into TWB’s Kató Community forum and social media platforms. Driving TWB’s vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers is a dedicated community of translators. They all volunteer because of a shared set of values: they believe in the need to make information available in languages that people understand. Iris embodies the energy and passion shared by many TWB translators.

Advancing a career in translation

The 35-year-old Belgian translator of Egyptian descent works in English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and French. Iris began her professional translation career five years ago. And in just one year with TWB, she has participated in over 100 projects and translated over 200,000 words. Those words have helped individuals supported by a plethora of organizations including the NEAR network, Concern Worldwide, and Humanity and Inclusion.

Humanity and Inclusion is where Iris began her volunteering career in the Brussels office and in the field, 10 years prior to discovering TWB. More recently, she has been able to achieve a personal goal of translating a text from Arabic to French and participating in numerous meaningful projects.

Iris is touched by the knowledge that her work with TWB makes a real and discernible impact on lives. A fondly remembered translation was for a smartphone app called Miniila, by Missing Children Europe. The app provides migrant children with information about their rights and the services available to them on their arrival in Europe. In a separate project, she learned that important vaccine stocks in Syria had to be destroyed because they were in a location occupied by Daesh. For Iris, these translations are personal reminders of her lucky situation, while others sometimes struggle to meet basic needs.

Iris Translator

“Now I hope I’ll help all kinds of people – elderly, grownups or children – particularly those fleeing conflict, starvation or natural disasters.”


As an engaged member of the TWB community, Iris is thankful for the knowledge-sharing, the friendly environment and the opportunity to help others while gaining humanitarian experience.

Fitting TWB volunteering into a busy life.

Though she is busy, Iris finds time to dedicate to her volunteer work. For her it is about so much more than doing a job: she is part of a thriving community. While still volunteering for TWB regularly, Iris is completing various online courses and preparing for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi Chinese proficiency examination. 

Iris hopes that her energetic approach to the translator community will encourage other translators to join. For anyone who is curious, she offers words of advice: “You can always ask the project managers questions (they are more than simply available). And don’t worry if you need to double check, make corrections, or have your work revised. I was like you less than a year ago!” This is all part of her endless desire to make a difference and grow professionally.

“Iris has contributed a substantial number of words on TWB’s translation platform, Kató. But what really distinguishes her is the great enthusiasm she is showing in the Kató Community” Paulina Abzieher, Translation Project Manager for TWB.

If you, too, share our values, apply to join TWB’s translator community today.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion or email [email protected]

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for Translators without Borders. Interview responses by Iris Soliman, Translator for Translators without Borders. Cover photo by Karim Ani.

Beyond translation: Maysa’s far-reaching contribution

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 experience 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.

This month’s featured translator works in two of the most widespread languages in the world: English is an official language across 59 countries, while Modern Standard Arabic is the lingua franca in 26 countries. Arabic and its many varieties are the mother tongue of 310 million people in the Arab world, parts of Latin America, and Western Europe.

Maysa Orabi

For Maysa, joining TWB made sense: “I rushed to submit my application. I realized that I could finally give a helping hand using what I do best and love the most: translation.”

Maysa Orabi is an invaluable member of the TWB community thanks to her enviable translation skills. By translating into two of TWB’s most common language pairs, English to Arabic and Arabic to English she directly impacts the lives of many. Not only has Maysa translated more than 100,000 words for TWB, but she has also reviewed almost 200 translation tests as a trusted quality reviewer. This enables TWB to recruit new translators, build our language community, and maintain high translation quality.

Telling Human Stories

It was only after joining TWB that Maysa came to realize the magnitude of what she was giving. Maysa is interested in human nature, and our desire for communication and understanding of our world. Yet often, that understanding is only possible thanks to our access to knowledge in a language we understand – and not everyone has that advantage.

Maysa has a deep desire to understand the world, and the hardships faced by many. But she is especially invested in the stories of people living through difficult times. She wants to help them tell their stories:

“They want to have a voice and they need to know they are being heard.”

Translators have chosen to help amplify the voices of others, so Maysa says that translators must be diligent and put their heart and soul into what they translate. With this in mind, she guides the translators she works with whenever she revises their work. Over the last three years, she has reviewed the quality of an additional 50,000 words of translation tests on top of her own translation tasks.

Ferry to Athens,
“Because your words are as important as a warm blanket for a poor child on a cold night.” Maysa Orabi. Photo by Karim Ani.

“As a Jordanian and an Arab, not to mention a human, I was shaken by the events the Arab world witnessed in recent years. I wanted to be present and helpful in any way possible. When vulnerable, displaced, and deprived people cry for help, their suffering is doubled if they cannot communicate with those who want to help them. I want to know there is something I can do.” Maysa Orabi.

And so, Maysa decided to put her efforts, knowledge, and experience into translating for TWB, to prove that language matters.

Still learning

Maysa explains that TWB has given her the chance to gain and develop her skills fast. Her projects remain in the back of her mind while she is working on other translations, and they occupy much of her spare time. The extra experience in translation and lessons in efficiency have honed her professional abilities.

The projects she handles for TWB have also developed her awareness of the world. In particular, she has worked on medical content for Wikipedia and articles for Internews. Those Internews articles touched on the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece and other European countries. They showed her the difficulties faced by people trying to settle in a safe place: tumultuous legal procedures and regulations, uncertain futures, separation from family, an inability to work, and limited access to a proper residence. Her work involved translating questions and concerns, in which she learned of the troubled, inescapable realities of so many people. Maysa describes how those communications revealed the urgency of the situation for many, and the hard time the world is having to contain the ravages of wars.

“A traveler I am, and a navigator, and every day I discover a new region within my soul.” Khalil Gibran

The translating and reviewing work that Maysa does is enormous: it deals with big languages, big issues, and makes a big difference. But its effect is immediate, even life-changing, on a personal level. Individuals and families have been given access to vital information that they might not have had, thanks to Maysa and our community of TWB translators.

“TWB has increased my love for translation and my sense of the significance of what I do; that I translate for a cause.” Maysa Orabi.

Click here to join TWB’s community of translators.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion or email [email protected].

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for TWB, with interview responses by Maysa Orabi, Kató translator for TWB. 

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 [email protected].

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. 

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 mental health — finding language solutions in northeast Nigeria

If the sign at the mental health clinic read, “Services for mad people,” would you walk in for help?

Yet that is the reality for many people in northeast Nigeria because of the difficulty in translating concepts like ‘mental health’ into Nigerian languages. Translators without Borders (TWB) is working with humanitarian experts in mental health to better understand the nuances among languages so that words can encourage use of services rather than hinder access.

Northeast Nigeria is linguistically diverse, with more than 30 mother tongues spoken by 1.9 million people displaced by conflict. Often traumatized by the conflict, many internally displaced people (IDPs) could benefit from mental health services. Yet the translation of ‘mental health’ into the main two languages used in the response – Hausa and Kanuri – carries a heavy stigma, possibly keeping people away from clinics.


How can those working in the mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sector communicate information about services, when the very name of the sector scares people away?


To address this question, TWB worked with affected people and sector specialists to identify terms that need to be communicated more effectively. The resulting terminology recommendations and the proposed language glossary, with terms translated into Hausa and Kanuri, promote the use of unambiguous and less stigmatizing language. Use of these terms may, by extension, increase the use of services by those who need them.  

TWB began by identifying 301 key mental health terms that are either difficult to translate, commonly misunderstood, or stigmatizing.

This list was then researched and discussed extensively. TWB facilitated a workshop with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) MHPSS specialists to identify particularly difficult words and discuss alternative translations, aiming to use plain language and to avoid words that stigmatize. A group of 53 internally displaced people then reviewed the translations. TWB tested comprehension among the group and explored alternative translations. Throughout the process, TWB discovered key areas where language posed a significant challenge in the delivery of mental health and psychosocial support services.

Points of confusion

One major finding was that many terms commonly used by English speakers when discussing mental health are heavily stigmatized or misunderstood in northeast Nigeria. “Mental health” in Hausa is literally “services for mad people” — a shocking example of stigma. An alternative way of discussing this sector may lie with the phrase “psychosocial support,” which TWB discovered did not carry the same stigma in Hausa.

Generic terms such as “abuse” and “stress” caused confusion as there is often not a comparable generic term in Hausa or Kanuri. In both languages, the translation of “abuse” was generally understood by respondents to refer only to ‘verbal abuse,’ similar to an insult. Similarly, “stress” meant only physical stress to respondents, such as the physical strain you feel after a day of hard labor. If an aid worker intends to communicate how to relieve “mental stress” or how to heal after experiencing “physical abuse,” it’s clear that miscommunication may occur. Therefore, it is best to always pair descriptive words like “physical,” “verbal,” or “emotional,” with “abuse” and “stress.”

A similar issue was found with the concept of a “safe space.” When used in an English-speaking mental health context, it refers to a physical space where one feels cared for and emotionally supported. However, those surveyed understood this concept as a place with armed guards. This is an example of how sector-specific jargon may not make sense to those who need services. In northeast Nigeria, the concept “accepted space” may translate better.

The TWB MHPSS Glossary


“This is a very laudable work that will hasten the delivery of services to the affected people of north east Nigeria.”  
– Dr. Muhammad A. Ghuluze. Director, Emergency Medical Response and Humanitarian Services


To provide a solution for these issues, TWB has updated its Glossary for Nigeria with the 301 MHPSS-related terms. This glossary app includes words, definitions, sample sentences, and audio recordings for the selected terms. It can be accessed on a computer, tablet, Android, or iOS device, and can be used both on- and offline, which is useful given the poor connectivity in northeast Nigeria.

The app is already being used in training sessions with positive results. Thomas Eliyahu Zanghellin, theMental Health and Psychosocial Support / Gender-based Violence Focal Point for the NGO INTERSOS in Maiduguri, Nigeria, has used the glossary in four training sessions already, generating “really fun group work with stimulating discussions.”

Language and terminology play a key role in the delivery of aid. Many sectors, including mental health and psychosocial support, use jargon and generic terms that do not readily translate in some cultures. Discussions about language allow the humanitarian world to challenge this terminology. The TWB Glossary for Nigeria provides a potential solution, allowing affected communities to access services and claim their rights in a language they understand.

Learn more about the TWB Glossary for Nigeria, and other TWB glossary projects here.

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.

Using language to support humanitarians

Humanitarian emergencies know no language boundaries.

In the 13 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises, people speak over 1,200 languages. Yet, humanitarians operating in these crises often do not have the necessary language support, making their jobs even more difficult. 

World Humanitarian Day on 19 August is an opportune moment to reflect on this challenge. On this day, we honor all aid workers risking their lives to help people facing disasters and conflicts. At Translators without Borders (TWB), we believe that language should not stand in the way of the ability of these dedicated and brave people to deliver life-saving support.

Yahaya (center left) TWB Kanuri Team Leader conducts research on how well words like "stress" and "abuse" are understood in Kanuri and whether words like "rape" and "mental health" carry a stigma.
Yahaya (center left), TWB Kanuri Team Leader, conducts comprehension research. Internally displaced people’s camp, Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria.

Yet, too often, aid agencies do not give their staff the appropriate resources and tools to engage with communities and local responders in a language they understand. Translation is a consistent challenge, but mostly overlooked in humanitarian budgets amid other more tangible items. As a result, humanitarian workers are often forced to rely on unsupported national colleagues, untrained interpreters, English-centric jargon, and procedures that may exclude those who speak local languages.

The consequences of overlooking the need for language support are dire for the people in need of humanitarian aid – and pretty tough for humanitarian workers themselves.

Many of these aid workers are forced to rely on national staff or local community members to act as translators or interpreters. These staff members are largely expected to deal with the many challenges that differences in languages present on their own, although translation skills are rarely what they are recruited for. Program documentation such as guidelines, manuals, and other materials including specialized terminology is translated without training or support. Some may be working between two languages when neither is their first language.

Situations where interviews with community members pass through three or four languages are not uncommon. An international aid worker may speak in English, a national staff member interprets into the national language, and then a local school teacher interprets into the language of that village, and back again. This approach multiplies the potential loss of information in translation and lacks proper quality assurance. It also forces under-supported humanitarian staff or community members to perform a stressful task with little or no confidence that people’s information and communication needs are being met.

Mustapha (left), TWB - Hausa Team Lead, works with enumerators from the Danish Demining Group / Danish Refugee Council to conduct research on comprehension of information in various languages and formats at Farm Centre IDP Camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria.
On World Humanitarian Day, we honor all humanitarian aid workers, including our staff, and commit to ensuring language does not stand in the way of their ability to support and empower those who need it most. Here, Mustapha (left), TWB Hausa Team Leader, conducts language comprehension research in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

The fact that complex humanitarian terms and concepts in English are not directly translatable into other languages compounds the problem for humanitarians. TWB’s research in different contexts has found that even aid workers do not always understand the English concepts they are asked to interpret. For example, “violence against women” was translated into Rohingya as “violent women” and “food security” in northeast Nigeria as “food protected by guards”. Comprehension rates among humanitarian data collectors are as low as 35 percent in some places. The result may be, at best, confusion or misunderstanding, and, at worst, inaccurate data upon which response plans are built. It is also undoubtedly stressful for those trying to do their best in challenging circumstances.

A lack of language support can also undermine coordination with and involvement of local responders. When meetings are held in a national or international language, for example, local language speakers are excluded from decision-making. This is not only a matter of dignity and mutual respect, but it is also a crucial precondition for tapping into local knowledge and capacities, allowing those on the frontline of a response to avoid delays in making potentially life-affecting decisions.

In short, humanitarian aid workers are better equipped to ensure people affected by crisis receive timely and relevant aid when they have proper language support.

This support begins with collecting the data needed to plan for language needs, and resourcing those needs appropriately. Training and capacity development programs can help build translation and interpreting capacity in languages for which there are no professional translators. A library of resource materials and tools in the relevant languages can be built up for all aid providers to make use of.

As we mark World Humanitarian Day on August 19, it is time to shift our attention to how we can use language services to support humanitarian workers trying to help in the most dire of circumstances. Addressing language barriers between humanitarians and crisis-affected communities can deliver the humanitarian world’s commitment to quality and accountability across responses, helping support and empower those who need it most.  

 

Read more about TWB’s response in northeast Nigeria.

Join us as a partner to benefit from our translator community, or sponsor us and enable TWB to provide humanitarian workers with the language support they need.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders.

Photographs by Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Manager for Translators without Borders.