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 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.
“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.
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.
On 22 December 2018, a tsunami struck the Banten Province in Western Java, Indonesia. It devastated buildings and homes along the coasts of Java and Sumatra. It caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The international response offered monetary aid and supplies for the Indonesian community. Meanwhile, TWB’s translators volunteered to ensure that those in need got vital information in a language they understood.
This is the story of how one translator’s dedication, skill, and speed made a difference. Indras Wulandar has worked as a professional translator for many years. She translates from English into Indonesian (her mother tongue) and Javanese. In the last four years, she has translated over 25,000 words for TWB. She also facilitated the translation of many more as a quality reviewer.
During the tragedy, Indras’ contribution was outstanding in reviewing Indonesian translators’ tests. This allowed TWB to recruit the Indonesian translators required to respond to language support needs during the crisis.
Indras and the rest of TWB’s community of Indonesian linguists responded to our call. We needed to translate vital documents to support people affected by the tsunami in Western Java. Indras had already helped with crisis projects, like the response to the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, a few months earlier. For those who speak Indonesian as their mother language, this was a significant project. It provided health and safety information in a language shared by people caught in the natural disaster.
“The experience showed that even the tiniest act of kindness and help can really matter.” Indras Wulandar, Translator.
During the crisis, TWB worked with Humanity Road, a non-profit specializing in disaster response. There was a need for life-saving warnings and emergency advice in local languages. While the common language is Indonesian, the most widely spoken in the area are Javanese and Sundanese. In some humanitarian responses such as this, there is little information on the languages spoken by crisis-affected people.
Our translators provided that information in the necessary languages. TWB also created a map of languages spoken in the area affected by the tsunami. Maps like these give information on the languages spoken, literacy, and best means for communication. Humanitarians can use this information freely to plan and refine their communication with affected people. See more TWB maps here.
Reaching out to others
As a strong believer in life-long learning and self-improvement, Indras is a keen translation reviewer. Reviewers ensure we provide high-quality translations to non-profits over the world. In situations like this, it is vital that people get the information they need in a timely manner, and in a language they understand. Her quick review work made that happen. Indras understands the magnitude of her work as a reviewer. “Reviewing tests is particularly challenging for me, because it means, more or less, that I take part in shaping the quality of the work.”
“Never stop learning and improving yourself. Like the old saying goes, ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know.’”
For Indras, being able to live off of her passion, translation, makes her feel privileged. She loves her work, and she likes to volunteer her skills to give back to society. She describes knowing that she can be useful as “therapeutic.”
“It’s good to know that I can expand my own knowledge while helping to connect these non-profit communities with people who need their service.” – Indras Wulandar
“I signed up to TWB because it is a platform that I can trust. With its global and broad outreach, I hope to help those in need. Including minority groups and those who live in remote places.” Indras Wulandar.
21 February. This is the date chosen by UNESCO for International Mother Language Day, which has been observed worldwide since 2000. This year deserves special attention as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Both initiatives promote linguistic diversity and equal access to multilingual information and knowledge.
Languages can be a huge resource. At the same time, the mother language that people speak can be a barrier to accessing opportunities. People who speak marginalized mother languages often belong to remote or less prosperous communities and, as a result, they are more vulnerable when a crisis hits.
Yet, the humanitarian and development sector has been largely blind to the importance of language. International languages such as English, French, Arabic, and Spanish dominate, excluding the people who most need their voices heard. Marginalized language speakers are denied opportunities to communicate their needs and priorities, report abuse, or get the information they need to make decisions.
If aid organizations are to meet their high-level commitments to put people at the center of humanitarian action and leave no one behind, this needs to change. To understand better how to address language barriers facing marginalized communities, two actions can lead our sector in the right direction.
Putting languages on the map
The first is language mapping. No comprehensive and readily accessible dataset exists on which language people speak where.
TWB has started to fill that gap by creating maps from existing data and from our own research. Our interactive map shows the language and communication needs of internally displaced people in northeast Nigeria. The map uses data collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix team. This data shows, for instance, that access to information is a serious problem at over half of sites where Marghi is the dominant language. Aid organizations can use this map to develop the right communication strategy for reaching people in need.
Humanitarian and development organizations can add some simple standard questions to their household surveys and other assessments to gather valuable language data. Aid workers will then understand the communication needs and preferences of the 176 million people in need of humanitarian assistance globally.
But communication in a crisis situation – or in any situation – should not be one-way. That’s where the second action comes in.
Building machine translation capacity in marginalized languages
Language technology has dramatically shifted two-way communication between people who speak different languages. In order to truly help people in need, listen to and understand them, we need to apply technology to their languages as well.
TWB is leading the Gamayun Language Equality Initiative to make it happen. We have built a closed-environment, domain-specific Levantine Arabic machine engine for the UN World Food Programme. This initiative will improve accountability to Syrian refugees facing food insecurity. Initial testing indicates that Gamayun will provide an efficient method for accessing local information sources. It will enable aid organizations to better understand the needs of their target populations, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
We need to continue building the parallel language datasets from humanitarian and development content that make machine translation a viable option. That will expand the evidence that machine translation can enable better communication, including by empowering affected people to hold aid organizations to account in their own language.
These two actions can help the humanitarian and development sector improve lives by promoting two-way communication with speakers of marginalized languages. These actions will need to be expanded to be truly effective, but International Mother Language Day in the Year of Indigenous Languages is a great time to start.
The IFRC 2018 World Disasters Report, which includes clear and compelling recommendations about the importance of language to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people are not “left behind”
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One year into the Rohingya refugee response, a language evolves with its people.
Language is fluid. It is subject to environment, culture, and the whims of communities. It’s been one year since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. And it is here in these cramped refugee camps that a language is shifting and evolving right in front of us.
The early days
In the early days of the response, the language challenges for the refugee community were immense. First responders struggled to communicate where and how to access lifesaving services, and to document individual accounts of trauma. The community struggled to explain its essential needs (According to one report, more than 60% of refugees said they could not communicate with aid workers), and dozens of untrained interpreters emerged overnight to fill the need for linguistic middlemen. Many of these amateur interpreters spoke the local Chittagonian; while somewhat similar, there are very distinct differences in the languages that create confusion, misinformation and miscommunication. Rohingya speakers estimate that there is around a 70% similarity between Chittagonian and Rohingya (Rohingya Zuban report). That might sound pretty good – but keep in mind that there is more than 80 percent similarity between Spanish and Italian, and no one would ever hire an Italian interpreter for a Spanish refugee!
“Only a few of our men knew Bangla or English. The locals were helping, but even they couldn’t fully understand us. We couldn’t explain to them why we were fleeing, what was being done to us across the river.”
Woman in her mid-30s, living in Nayapara, an informal camp in the region.
For example, early in the response, the phrase ‘violence against women’ was frequently misinterpreted as ‘violent women’. Certain kinship terms, like husband (beda / zamai / shwami) and daughter (zer-fua / maya-fua / mela-fua), led to some families being separated when shelters were assigned. Then there was gaa lamani — in Rohingya it means diarrhea, but in Chittagonian, it literally translates as ‘body falling down.’ This certainly led to some confusing sessions with health workers.
Signs directing the community to health centers, food distribution sites and other essential services were written mostly in English (although less than 5 percent of the population is literate in English). The main avenue to complain or give feedback was the complaints box – a concept that not only requires a level of literacy, but is also culturally alien to the community.
A new way forward
A year on, many organizations are creating innovative ways to communicate. For example, many are working with the community to develop image-based signage.The challenges in developing images that represent such seemingly simple concepts as ‘caution’ or ‘hospital’ give an insight into the complexities of communicating symbols amongst different languages and cultures.
“A white hand means clean hand. If you want to stay ‘stop’ or ‘caution’, use red. A red hand will stand out. It will tell us to stop.”
Middle-aged man, testing shelter signage
More than a million Rohingya refugees now live in camps spread across the southernmost tip of Bangladesh. Here, older refugee communities that arrived over the last 30 years live side by side with new arrivals and the host community. Throw into the language ecosystem the institutionalized jargon spoken by English speaking aid workers and you have a fascinating interplay of language and culture.
Language is influenced by its surroundings. For example, the Rohingya dialect spoken by the older arrivals now differs from the Rohingya spoken by the newer arrivals. Decades of living amongst a Bangladeshi host community has seen their mother tongue adopt a number of Bangla words. For example, a newly arrived refugee might use the word hefazot, to refer to ‘security’ or ‘safety’ while the more established refugee community now borrows from Bangla nirapotta. Older refugees might use the word janela (actually borrowed from the former Portuguese colonizers) meaning window, while newer refugees use kirkiri.
“When I go to the clinic, the doctor can’t understand when I explain what’s wrong using Rohingya language. The health interpreter sometimes teaches me the word for my condition in Bangla. This is helping me communicate better with the doctor.”
When speaking to a newly arrived Rohingya refugee, you will notice the influence of Burmese, Arabic, and Farsi in their terminology. Serama (from siyama in Burmese, meaning ‘female teacher’), serang (‘to make a list’) and atwarta (‘documents’) show the Burmese and Rakhine influence on the language. While mosiboth (‘danger’) and izzot (‘honor’) come from Arabic, aramiyoth (‘health’), moroth (‘male’), and rong (‘color’) are Farsi words either borrowed directly or via Urdu.
“Sometimes it’s even difficult for us to understand the new Rohingyas, especially if they come from fuk-kool” (literally, ‘the east side’ of the mountain range). “Their accent is distinct, and they use words that many other Rohingyas don’t use. Maybe they use more Rakhine words.”
Salim, Rohingya interpreter from Teknaf.
In the last year it has become clear that humanitarian responders are giving more than aid to the community. New English words are creeping into Rohingya dialogue every day. For example, the Rohingya word for ‘toilet’, tatti is now commonly replaced by the word lettin (from ‘latrine’) and modotgoroya, the word for ‘aid worker’, has become bolontiyar (from ‘volunteer’) in everyday Rohingya vocabulary. While the registered Rohingya community uses the Bangla word shoronati, the newer arrivals have replaced the Burmese dokasi with the English word ‘refugee’ (pronounced rifuzi). Interestingly, even English words that they picked up while in Myanmar are now being replaced with “newer” English words, like the word for intravenous saline (deep from ‘drip’ in Myanmar; selain from ‘saline’ in Bangladesh).
“Most of us now say ‘hosfital’ for medical centers, but the older women still prefer to ‘dattahana.’”
Young woman, focus group discussion
The camp is full of different languages; Burmese rhymes compete with Arabic hymns and Hindi pop songs. The community is eager to learn new languages. Burmese is regularly cited as the most desirable language to learn, closely followed by English and Bangla (in that order). And while the teaching of Bangla is officially banned by the government, some Rohingya men – particularly the youth – study informally at night among themselves and with the older, registered Rohingya refugees.
This is what makes our work here so fascinating. It’s riveting watching language twist and turn to fit into its new environment like you would squeeze into a pair of new jeans. That’s why resources like our glossary, resources, and the training we provide to field workers in this response is so crucial. This ensures important information is delivered in the right language and that as their language needs shift and evolve, we are able to move with them. Over the next year we’re sure to see more change, as more children have access to learning centers that teach English and Burmese, and interactions between the community and aid workers from around the world increase. Listen carefully; language matters.
This blog post is based on dozens of conversations and focus groups held by TWB with the community over the last year.
Written by Irene Scott, TWB Program Director, Bangladesh, and AK Rahim, TWB Sociolinguistic Researcher.
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.
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.
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.
I recently returned from northeast Nigeria, where Translators without Borders (TWB) is providing language support in one of the most severe humanitarian crises and linguistically diverse areas in the world. Unsurprisingly, I had many conversations about language issues with humanitarian responders.
The good news is that many were already aware of the need to communicate information in languages people understand, despite humanitarian programming often disregarding local language communications. When hearing about TWB’s language support capacity, many felt relieved that someone might be able to help them tackle language barriers. The bad news is that, even with that acknowledgment, the most common refrain I heard throughout my four-week assignment was, “I have never thought about language so carefully before and neither has my organization.”
So I found myself asking, “How much is being lost in translation?” And, more importantly, “If two-way communication in the right languages in northeast Nigeria was truly integrated into programming, how would humanitarian action improve?”
The fact is that the importance of two-way communication between local communities and aid providers, in a language affected people can understand, is increasingly recognized by humanitarians.
Some of the best humanitarian programs are now consciously factoring language into their efforts to meet people’s information and communication needs. They do so recognizing that only when those needs are met can affected people reliably access assistance, provide input, and make the best decisions for themselves and their families. But despite the nod to language, mainstreaming solutions to language barriers within humanitarian work is still not the norm.
This was clear to me in northeast Nigeria.
After nine years, the humanitarian crisis remains one of the most severe in the world. In the three worst-affected states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, 1.9 million Nigerians have been displaced from their homes; overall, 7.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Data shows that displaced people speak over 30 languages as their mother tongues. Overwhelmingly, they prefer receiving information in their own language. However, humanitarian responders are communicating with affected people mainly in two languages, Hausa and Kanuri. This is not enough to meet people’s needs, and serious problems persist due to the lack of two-way communication.
Humanitarian field staff shared many concerns about language needs in the response. They were unsure how to provide potentially life-saving information in camps where they do not know which languages people understand. There was concern that language diversity and low education levels prevent them from accurately gauging people’s needs and priorities. I also heard frustrations from some aid workers, particularly those who spoke local languages in addition to Hausa or Kanuri. These field workers are often asked to translate complex messages and concepts into those local languages with little or no support or experience in translation. In this situation, I wasn’t surprised that translation was seen as a considerable additional burden for multilingual staff, often an add-on to agreed job descriptions.
These conversations were both concerning and compelling. It’s no secret that for field workers in the humanitarian aid sector, day-to-day work can be more than a little complicated. Language should help, not hinder, the ability to provide effective and accountable aid to those who need it.
The problem is not a lack of awareness among field staff. What is missing is for those who direct organizational policies and program design to focus on language needs early in a response and appropriately resource language support.
To that end, it was exciting to be working with TWB’s team on the ground in northeast Nigeria. We are striving to provide that language support for humanitarian responders communicating with vulnerable people. We have already started to roll out the TWB Glossary for Northeast Nigeria – an in-the-hand tool for humanitarian field staff, interpreters, and translators to ensure use of consistent, accurate, and easily understood words in local languages.
Yet so much more needs to be done.
The only way for this tool and other forms of language support to make a difference is by mainstreaming their use across the humanitarian response. This begins with ensuring field staff have the knowledge and resources to meet language needs in the response – and the support internally to prioritize the role of language in communication and community engagement programs. Otherwise, we risk seeing too few of these examples reach their potential for humanitarian accountability and effectiveness.
Having conversations about the importance of two-way communication in the languages of the most vulnerable is the necessary first step. Now we must move from words to action about language.
Like most things in life, it’s not what you do but how you do it.
I was exhausted. It had been a great week in Bangladesh, but the overload of language, smells, refugee camp, seeing old friends, meeting new friends, government, donors, and all the while pretending like I wasn’t jetlagged, was taking its toll. I just wanted to go to sleep.
My last meeting was in Dhaka with someone in the Prime Minister’s office. I had little hope of staying awake through the meeting.
And yet, I was captivated.
The literacy rate in Bangladesh is considered low (72.8% according to UNESCO in 2016) but is just below the global average. Literacy among women is lower (69.9%); but, in general, the majority of the people have at least basic literacy skills. There is 90 percent mobile phone penetration and 96 percent mobile internet access. The International Mother Language Institute, the body in Bangladesh that supports the promotion, spread, and preservation of Bangla languages, says that 41 languages are spoken in the country, only five of which have written scripts. In the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Translators without Borders (TWB) finds the situation particularly difficult. Rohingya has no agreed written script. Very few of the refugees can read and write, there are few people who speak Rohingya and anything else well. Add to this mix low radio coverage – not only do the Rohingya not have radios, even if they did there is not even radio coverage in parts of the camps, and about one million people living in poor and difficult conditions that speak many different dialects and you begin to understand why communicating effectively is difficult.
It’s vitally important that there is two-way communication between the people – refugees and local Bangladeshis – and the government and aid workers. Take the issue of the coming monsoon. The formal and makeshift refugee camps have sprouted up all over the Cox’s Bazar district, an area that includes a national park and lush forest. But now the trees have been torn down to make room for shelters and for firewood. This makes the soil very unstable and dangerous, with monsoon rains promising huge mud pits and the possibility of landslides. It is also a hilly area; tents are built on the sides of hills that will become slippery and unstable with heavy rains and wind. Refugees, as well as local residents, need to know where to go, what to do if there’s an emergency, how to get help for those needing medical attention, and what to do if food gets swept away.
The challenges abound. The digital world seems a world away.
And yet, enter Dr. Jami. In a buzzy, busy office with a high level of excitement and a relatively good gender balance, I was suddenly in the middle of a high tech environment. Dr. Jami launched directly into what he wanted us to know and do.
Dr. Jami runs the Access to Information (A2I, inevitably) project in the Prime Minister’s office. The aim is to help the people of Bangladesh quickly and easily get information on public services. One of A2I’s projects is the digitization of government institutions; they have developed over 1,000 key government websites. Dr. Jami is not a language guy (he’s a solutions architect), but he proceeds to tell me quickly that Bangla was only standardized in Unicode five years ago, so there is very little data available from which to build good translation engines. While there’s 90 percent mobile phone penetration, in 2018 GSMA estimated that only 28-30 percent of those were smartphones. Yet, 96 percent of internet access is via phones. Whaaa? How does that work? It’s also startling how little desktops and laptops are used to access the internet.
I asked a taxi driver, who was using a smartphone, if he used his phone for the internet. He replied, “No, but I use it for Facebook.”
There are no data charges for Facebook in Bangladesh – unless you want to see videos or pictures. Internet use is Facebook and Facebook is only text. Those who are illiterate, or only barely literate, won’t have smartphones.
To Dr. Jami, who needs more people to have smartphones to help ensure they can get access to information, the cost is not the barrier: There are very inexpensive smartphones in Bangladesh. He believes it is fear of technology, which he believes is associated with illiteracy. To reach his goal of migrating 70 percent of the current mobile phone users to smartphones, he must address fear.
Language is an issue. With a population of over 157 million people, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, you’d think that the language technology for Bangla would be outstanding. It’s not. That’s surprising. And without that technology, equipping 1,000 websites with dynamic information in Bangla is nearly impossible, not to mention making them interactive and/or adding audio.
The work that A2I is doing is globally relevant, of course. Other countries are already seeking their support to bring better access to information to their people. He mentions that they are already working in South Sudan – which has the 2nd lowest literacy rate in the world. Again, the language barrier is huge. And, again, there is little digital language data.
Dr. Jami has heard of TWB’s Gamayun project – can we help? Can we be a neutral broker to bring together the limited language data out there and leverage our knowledge of language and the language industry to help Bangladeshis get access to information about basic services?
Dr. Jami and the TWB team will continue this conversation – there are still many questions to be asked and answered. But I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the accomplishments of his team. And I am really excited to see where Dr. Jami and other countries take this exciting initiative.
Written by Translators without Borders' Executive Director Aimee Ansari. This article was also published on HuffPost UK.
Two years ago, I embarked on an amazing journey. I started working for Translators without Borders (TWB). While being a first-time Executive Director poses challenges, immersing myself in the world of language and language technology has by far been the more interesting and perplexing challenge.
Language issues in humanitarian response seem like a “no-brainer” to me. A lot of others in the humanitarian world feel the same way – “why didn’t I think of that before” is a common refrain. Still, we sometimes struggle to convince humanitarians that if people don’t understand the message, they aren’t likely to follow it. When I worked in South Sudan for another organisation, in one village, I spoke English, one of our team interpreted to Dinka or Nuer, and then a local teacher translated to the local language (I don’t even know what it was). I asked a question about how women save money; the response had something to do with the local school not having textbooks. It was clear that there was no communication happening. At the time, I didn’t know what to do to fix it. Now I do – and it’s not difficult or particularly expensive.
That’s the interesting part. TWB works in 300 languages, most of which I’d never heard of, and this is a very small percentage of the over 1,300 languages spoken in the 15 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises. There’s also no reliable data on where exactly each language is spoken. I’ve learned so much about language technology that my dog can almost talk about the importance of maintaining translation memories and clean parallel datasets.
Communicating with conflict-affected people
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative have just published a report about communicating with conflict-affected people that mentions language issues and flags challenges with digital communications. (Yay!) Here are some highlights:
Language is a consistent challenge in situations of conflict or other violence, but often overlooked amid other more tangible factors.
Humanitarians need to ‘consider how to build “virtual proximity” and “digital trust” to complement their physical proximity.’
Sensitive issues relating to sexual and gender-based violence are largely “lost in translation.” At the same time, key documents on this topic are rarely translated and usually exclusively available in English.
Translation is often poor, particularly in local languages. Some technology-based solutions have been attempted, for example, to provide multilingual information support to migrants in Europe. However, there is still a striking inability to communicate directly with most people affected by crises.
TWB’s work, focusing on comprehension and technology, has found that humanitarians are simply unaware of the language issues they face.
In north-east Nigeria, TWB research at five sites last year found that 79% of people wanted to receive information in their own language; less than 9% of the sample were mother-tongue Hausa speakers. Only 23% were able to understand simple written messages in Hausa or Kanuri; that went down to just 9% among less educated women who were second-language speakers of Hausa or Kanuri, yet 94% of internally displaced persons receive information chiefly in one of these languages.
In Greece, TWB found that migrants relied on informal channels, such as smugglers, as their trusted sources of information in the absence of any other information they could understand.
TWB research in Turkey in 2017 found that organizations working with refugees were often assuming they could communicate with them in Arabic. That ignores the over 300,000 people who are Kurds or from other countries.
In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, aid organizations supporting the Rohingya refugees were working on the assumption that the local Chittagonian language was mutually intelligible with Rohingya, to which it is related. Refugees interviewed by TWB estimate there is a 70-80% convergence; words such as ‘safe’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘storm’ fall into the other 20-30%.
What can we do?
Humanitarian response is becoming increasingly digital. How do we build trust, even when remote from people affected by crises?
‘They only hire Iranians to speak to us. They often can’t understand what I’m saying and I don’t trust them to say what I say.’ – Dari-speaking Afghan man in Chios, Greece.
Speak to people in their language and use a format they understand:communicating digitally – or any other way – will mean being even more sensitive to what makes people feel comfortable and builds trust. The right language is key to that. Communicating in the right language and format is key to encouraging participation and ensuring impact, especially if the relevant information is culturally or politically sensitive. The right language is the language spoken or understood and trusted by crisis-affected communities; the right format means information is accessible and comprehensible. Providing only written information can hamper communication and engagement efforts with all sectors of the community from the start – especially women, who are more likely to be illiterate.
Lack of data is the first problem: humanitarians do not routinely collect information about the languages people speak and understand, or whether they can read them. It is thus easy to make unsafe assumptions about how far humanitarian communication ‘with communities’ is reaching, and to imagine that national or international lingua francas are sufficient. This can be done safely without harming the individuals or putting the community at risk.
Budgets: Language remains below the humanitarian radar and often absent from humanitarian budgets. Budgeting for and mobilizing trained and impartial translators, interpreters and cultural mediators can ensure aid providers can listen and provide information to affected people in a language they understand.
Language tools: Language information fact-sheets and multilingual glossaries can help organizations better understand key characteristics of the languages affected people speak and ensure use of the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with them. TWB’s latest glossary for Nigeria provides terminology in English/Hausa/Kanuri on general protection issues and housing, land and property rights.
A global dataset on language
TWB is exploring ways of fast-tracking the development and dissemination of a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries, as a basis for planning effective communication and engagement in the early stages of a response. We plan to complement this with data mining and mapping of new humanitarian language data.
TWB has seen some organizations take this on – The World Health Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have both won awards for their approaches to communicating in the right language. Oxfam and Save the Children regularly prioritize language and the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are starting to routinely include language and translation in their programs. A few donors are beginning to champion the issue, too.
TWB has only really been able to demonstrate the possibilities for two or three years – and it’s really taking off. It’s such a no-brainer, so cost-effective, it’s not surprising that so many organizations are taking it on. Our next step is to ensure that language and two-way communication are routinely considered, information is collected on the languages that crisis-affected people speak, accountability mechanisms support it, and we make the overall response accessible for those who need protection and assistance.
Written by Aimee Ansari, Executive Director, Translators without Borders.