Translators without Borders changing the world

Sometimes I get really discouraged about all the stuff that’s wrong with the human race… the arguing, the senseless violence, the control-freak posturing and the corruption in every direction. Why don’t people see how stupid all of that is? Why don’t they listen more, put themselves in the shoes of their fellow human beings, try to do better?

Well, the thing is, they do. For every act of senseless violence, there is an act of selfless love. You know, the mom who gets up to take care of her crying baby — not because she has to, but because she wants to. The man who stops to change a stranger’s tire. The couple who offers hospitality to a foreigner. Naturally, the larger and more public any of these acts get, the more likely it is that corruption will find them, too; that they will be done for show rather than for mercy. And perhaps it’s impossible to really and truly do anything selfless. As they say, virtue is its own reward, and that great feeling you get when you’ve done something good is a measurable emotional return on investment.

But I’ll take it. And this fills me with hope. I’ve been tracking an organization called Translators without Borders since before its inception — it was a French company before it became a US-based nonprofit. For a long time, it ran in the background, without any contributions other than the time of translators and project managers. Over the years, it donated about $1,000,000 worth of translations to nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders, and then the Haiti crises happened. Because I’m the managing editor for the industry magazine, I got carbon copied on a whole lot of e-mails that suddenly surged between CEOs of translation service providers, translation tool vendors, web-based translation platforms. And it was like, overnight, almost, the thing blew up. The industry coordinated itself with zero outside donations; it set up a web-based platform where translators around the globe could log on and use what they were good at to help out. This seemed incredible to me. And the momentum continued; using the same (improved) web platform, translators can still log on and find life-changing texts to translate. It’s almost like a dating site for NGOs and translators.

But here’s the thing: this only works with languages for which there are established translators, and for which there is a mode of dissemination in place. You can make health posters, for example, in English or French, but what about the first languages of the diverse people groups of rural Africa or Southeast Asia? As it happens, they often have health materials available, but they’re typically not in minority languages. Given just how understaffed most of these regions are in terms of health care professionals, this means that people may have no way of knowing what to do when they get sick. And this means that up to 90% of childhood deaths in these regions are totally preventable.

Yeah, that’s right. 90%. The most common killer of children in certain regions of Africa is diarrhea. A high percentage of mothers in these areas think you’re actually supposed to withhold liquid when your child has diarrhea. And their babies die with everything they need to survive — water, sugar, salt — in the same room.

Once Translators without Borders figured this out, they started a translator training program in Kenya. And, in conjunction, they collaborated on what they call the 80 x 80 project: simplify the 80 most accessed medical articles into easy-to-understand English, and translate them into 80 languages. I hosted a session last Thursday at Localization World where Val Swisher of Content Rules described how her content-creation company has been re-crafting the articles, which are vetted by physicians and then uploaded onto Simple English Wikipedia. Already, translators are transferring these to crucial minority languages. But, of course, this would be pointless unless minority language speakers have some way of accessing the articles. And here’s another interesting thing: most of the developing world has access to mobile phones, so the 80 x 80 project has convinced mobile phone companies to allow individuals in the developing world to log on to Wikipedia free of charge via mobile.

Right now, Translators without Borders has one paid employee, and is funding translator training. Everything else has been done by volunteers. I’m one of them — and I’m not a translator. I’m an editor. So I edit their newsletter, which is something of a work in progress. And if you want to volunteer as well, you probably can — from wherever you are in the world.

BKatie Botkin, Translators without Borders volunteer

Africa’s Translation Gap

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.

By Patrick Cox

Subtitles for Mothers in India from Translators without Borders

Translators without Borders volunteer Leandro Reis is leading a project to subtitle health films into over a dozen Indian languages including Telugu, Gujarati and Kannada. These films, created by the Mother and Child Health and Education Trust, will encourage hospitals and community health workers to teach new mothers about breastfeeding their babies.

His subtitling work is being carried out on the dotSUB.com platform.

Why is this so important? Because each day 11,000 babies die in the developing world from preventable causes. Of those who die, 22 percent could survive if their mothers had better knowledge about breastfeeding.

Thanks to the volunteers you see here, and many others, Translators without Borders is working to ensure that in the future, mothers in India will know how to keep their babies healthy. Read more here.

Dying for Lack of Knowledge

Research clearly shows that people prefer to buy products and services in their own languages (1). This is the reason that so many businesses have undertaken translation and localization projects to transform their websites and documents from English into the native language(s) of their target markets. This seems like a pretty basic concept, but unfortunately, one that has not been adopted by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) attempting to provide information that has the potential to save millions of lives.
 
For many years, numerous NGOs in Africa have been producing materials largely in English or French, based on the assumption that everyone now speaks the  languages once imposed by colonial administrations. The result of this logic is that many documents, manuals, reports, websites, posters and pamphlets are often in a language that many people can’t understand. This mistaken belief  – that everyone in Africa speaks English or French (and to a lesser extent Portuguese) – has significantly reduced the effectiveness of numerous projects, including disaster relief, education, nutrition and gender equality programmes. There are many people across Africa who speak neither English nor French, and if they do, it is often their third or fourth language. The people who do speak English or French fluently often comprise the elite minority who are highly educated and live in urban areas. But the majority of Africans live in more rural areas where local languages and dialects are often spoken.
 

Lori Thicke, co-founder of Translators without Borders (TWB), provides several examples of the need for African NGOs to have materials translated into local languages. For example, in Thange, Kenya, most villagers speak Swahili and barely understand English. But the large poster encouraging healthy practices to reduce the spread of HIV is in English, along with the village’s sole health manual. Another eye-opening example took place when Thicke traveled to Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya (and the second largest slum in all of Africa) with a delegation from Translators without Borders.3 Approximately one million of the world’s poorest people live in Kibera and it was here that the need for translation into local languages is particularly urgent.

On their visit, TWB had the opportunity to speak with 15 young girls working in the commercial sex industry. The girls also hold the honored position of being ‘peer educators’ in their community. Their responsibilities include educating other women living in the slum on important health issues, including family planning, nutrition and the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These young women are in the unique position of being able to reach other people in their community much more effectively than any ‘outsider.’ But there’s just one major problem. Language barriers and the resulting lack of information are killing people and destroying lives. This is especially evident in light of the number of people with HIV, the number of girls dying from unsafe abortions, the high rate of female cutting and the number of children orphaned by AIDS.

Peer educators are therefore justifiably frustrated with the lack of written health materials in the languages of the women in their community. One said that most of the women they work with speak and understand very little English, but that English is actually the language of over 90% of the written materials they have access to, resulting in a huge lack of understanding of the health practices that could save lives. Brochures in English often get tossed to the ground because recipients can’t understand the information they provide. As a result, these young women have asked Translators without Borders to train their entire group to be able to translate the brochures into local languages so they will be better able to communicate with the people they are trying to educate. They fully understand that access to materials in local languages can prevent diseases and STIs.
Thicke summarises the requirement to provide access to health information in local African languages in an interview with The Huffington Post’s Nataly Kelly: ‘in poorer regions, the information that people need, crucially, like how to protect themselves against AIDS, malaria, cholera and so on, is locked up in languages they don’t even speak. Ironically, the people who need that information the most – information about health, science, technology and so on – have zero access to it because of the language barrier.’6Thicke, too, endorses the direct relationship between access to knowledge and access to health: ‘knowledge is incredibly powerful. Knowledge ensures better health and longer lives, it reduces maternal mortality, it empowers women, it saves children from dying unnecessarily, it improves economic opportunities, it lifts people out of poverty, it encourages protection of the environment…’4 A closer look at Thicke’s statement reveals that many of the Millennium Development Goals hinge on the relationship between knowledge and health. Thicke stresses that without translation, worldwide access to knowledge, including the knowledge that can save lives, is impossible. And without global access to knowledge, the lofty goals of universal access to education and gender equality, as well as reducing poverty, maternal mortality and childhood deaths from preventable diseases, are also impossible.5

Since there are so few translators of African languages, TWB has focused on capacity building through mentoring local translators to be able to better provide translations in local languages. One of these projects is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that has been decimated by years of war, resource exploitation, systemic sexual violence and rampant disease. There are so many aid organizations working in the DRC and a project like this has the potential to provide the NGOs with the translators they need to communicate vital information concerning health, education, nutrition, sexual assault, etc.

The Rehydration Project, an organization that provides easy-to-understand and practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases, clearly illustrates the value of information in local languages right on their website: ‘Information available in the local language is much more effective than in a foreign language. This is true for engineering and construction projects (such as digging water wells), and agricultural projects (such as how to irrigate the land). But it is particularly important in healthcare. In many areas in the world people do not only die from diseases, but also from the fact that they do not have basic information about how to stay healthy and what to do to prevent disease.’8

However, disease prevention is not the only urgent need. When I was in Ghana working for a women’s rights NGO, I learned first-hand the need for people to have materials in their local languages that focused on domestic violence. Even though the official language of Ghana is English, there are dozens of languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. The number of languages spoken, particularly in the northern, rural parts of the country, posed specific problems to my organisation. Even though we had access to local interpreters, when we spoke with women who were survivors of domestic violence during interviews or training sessions, it was clear that many of the women had questions that could have been answered through materials such as brochures, posters or pamphlets in their native language. These materials would also have helped spread messages of equality that could have contributed to curbing domestic violence in their homes and communities. In this way, women who have access to NGOs could share vital information with those who do not. The importance of NGOs having materials translated into local languages so they can better communicate with the people they are trying to help cannot be stressed enough. Without information and materials in local languages, NGOs will be unable to facilitate necessary changes in healthcare, education, disaster relief, environmental protection and gender equality.

By Cheryl Rettig, a freelance writer with wintranslation and who has completed international human rights internships in Haiti, Ghana, India, Israel and Palestine and Washington, DC. Cheryl has also written extensively on commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, torture, sexual violence in conflict zones and gender equality. To see more of Cheryl’s work, please check out “Women Search for Justice” at http://womensearchforjustice.blogspot.com

Translators fight the fatal effects of the language gap

Volunteers translating health messages from English into local languages are providing a vital service for NGOs and freeing up millions of extra dollars to be used for medical aid.

 

Lori Thicke had an epiphany in Thange in eastern Kenya when she saw Aids orphans playing in front of posters with advice on Aids prevention. “The posters carried excellent advice, but they were in English, a language that people didn’t understand,” she said.

What was the use of this information provided by well-meaning NGOs, she wondered, if the people they were trying to reach could not read English. “People are delivering aid every day in Africa in English, French and Portuguese,” said Thicke. “That is fine for the educated elite, but they don’t need aid. It is the parents among the poor who need the information on symptoms of malaria.”

She saw the fatal effects of the language gap in India too, where mothers could have saved their children from dying from diarrhoea if they had followed the simple advice on health brochures and leaflets.

Thicke, a Canadian who came to Paris to write the great Canadian novel but founded a translation company instead, had pinpointed a glaring but little-noticed paradox in the information revolution. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, knowledge and information is disseminated far and wide and at speed. But that knowledge is wasted unless understood by those who need it most.

Translators without Borders was founded by Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas in 1993 after Médecins sans Frontières, the medical NGO, asked her company, Lexcelera, to work on a translation project. She asked if they needed translation often, and if giving them the words for free would be like a donation. They said yes to both questions, and TWB was born. But until that moment in Kenya two years ago, the group dealt mostly with European languages. Now Thicke is determined to bridge what she calls the “language last mile” in the developing world.

One of the group’s current projects is to teach sex workers in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, to translate material in English on sexually transmitted diseases into languages such as Swahili, Luo and Kikuyu. The project started last week, with Simon Andriesen, a specialist on medical translation who is on the TWB board. He will teach about 125 women from Kibera, who speak different languages, to translate four-page brochures in English into the different Kenyan languages.

He is teaching them translation skills so they can reach their own people,” said Thicke. “All the girls from Kibera represent different languages. They have been recommended to us by a health NGO and their job is to pass on information to other girls. We want to provide brochures in a language that can be understood so it doesn’t get thrown away.”

Paul Warambo, a recent masters graduate in the Kiswahili language living in Nairobi said: “The health translators training has come at a time when the country urgently needs translators in every sector, but especially in the health sector where little information is available in languages that can be understood by the majority of Kenyans.”

TWB is working on an even more ambitious project with Wikipedia. The aim is to take Wikipedia entries on the most important health topics, turn them into simple English and then translate them into as many languages as possible. The articles will then be accessible for free on mobile phones through new agreements between Wikimedia, which runs Wikipedia, and telecoms operators. A number of Wikipedia articles covering dengue fever, Aids, malaria, cholera and tuberculosis are awaiting translation from TWB’s army of volunteers.

The group has about 2,000 translators, who have passed its translation tests. Indian languages are well served but Africa is a big gap, with only about 15 of TWB’s translators able to deal with African languages. Africa has more than 2,000 different languages, such as Amharic, Swahili and Berber, spread across six major language families. Nigeria alone has more than 500 tongues spoken within its borders.

Until the 2010 Haiti earthquake, TWB had limited reach. But the crisis revealed not only the need for translations from thousands of aid groups that need humanitarian translations but also a critical mass of translators willing to help.

So the group created an online platform to bring the two communities together. Last year, ProZ.com, the world’s largest translator organisation, created an automated translation centre for TWB so it could broaden its reach. Approved NGOs can now post translation projects such as field reports, treatment protocols and websites. Alerts then go out to the translators in those language pairs. Those who are interested in the work of that particular NGO will take on a project, translate it, and return it to the platform for delivery. Most of the projects are picked up within 15 minutes.

Translators without Borders can easily handle projects for 100 non-profits at a time, but as its volunteer community grows, so does its capacity. Over the years, it has donated almost $3m in translation services, which means that money went towards medical supplies, vaccines, rehydration kits and more.

We are working to build a world where knowledge doesn’t have borders,” Thicke said. “With technology, and cellphone penetration in Africa, we have the potential to spread knowledge, but no one is talking about how people are getting information even if they are connected. People die not just of disease but from a lack of knowledge on how to avoid getting sick.”

Blog Authorby 

How Translation Can Help Eliminate Information Disparities in Africa

“Access to information is a basic human right,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, according to the World Bank Institute, at a conference on the subject last year in Accra, Ghana.   Information is also power, and more and more organizations are recognizing that it will play an essential role in Africa’s future. Having access to information enables people to do things like take care of their health, understand their rights, start businesses, and participate in political processes.

When it comes to information access, most of the discussions are about the delivery systems such as mobile phones, which in many parts of Africa are the computing devices of choice. Obviously, getting information into people’s hands is critical. But what good is it if they cannot understand that information once they receive it? Africa is home to more than 2,000 different languages spread across six major language families – Nigeria alone has more than 500 tongues spoken within its borders.  Some of them – such as Amharic, Berber, Hausa, Igbo, Oromo, Swahili, and Yoruba – are used by tens of millions of people.

Read more here.

blog author By Nataly Kelly

I Believe

I believe that for the first time in human history we are capable of sharing knowledge with everyone on this planet, regardless of where they live and what language they speak.

I believe that everything we need to bridge the knowledge divide that separates rich and poor exists today. I believe that now is the time to start dismantling the barriers to build a world where everyone can access the knowledge they need to live healthy and productive lives.

I believe we can do this, and I believe we will do this.

Lest you think I’m starry-eyed and unrealistic, let me tell you how all the pieces are falling into place. Today’s technology is giving us the means to distribute knowledge to the four corners of the world.

Did you know that already in Africa more people have access to a cell phone than have access to a pair of shoes or a toilet? A sobering statistic, but also testament to how important it is to human beings to communicate.

In Africa more people have access to a cell phone than have access to a pair of shoes or a toilet

Think of technology like cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices that are capable of connecting to the Internet. These devices can and will bring all of human knowledge into the hands of every man, woman and child. Price barriers are falling every day, internet connectivity is expanding and off-grid solutions are becoming commonplace. Most importantly, as anyone who has been to the developing world will attest, people there have the will to learn, an absolute drive to learn that may be like nothing you have ever seen before.

The will is there, and barriers are coming down. I believe we can dismantle the last and final barrier: language.

Because knowledge that is in the wrong language is just squiggles on a page or on a screen.

That is why I believe that Translators with Borders can and must take down the barrier of the language last mile. And that is why I believe the time to do this is now.

To get there we need volunteers. We need funds. We need you.

Lori ThickeBy Lori Thicke, founder of Translators without Borders

Language is essential for access to information

Reprinted from the British Medical Journal, Oct. 18, 2011

Language is key to accessing information. Speakers of a dominant language such as English—including most highly educated professionals in developing countries—may easily overlook the fact that the people who most need healthcare information are not likely to have a good understanding of English (or of French, Spanish, or Portuguese).

Language is a large obstacle to comprehension, whether training community healthcare workers with varying levels of education or delivering information to the end consumers—often people in rural communities.

Ironically, people with scant knowledge of English tend to be those who need access to information the most. In the case of Africa, with 25% of the world’s disease burden and only 2-3% of its doctors and nurses, well-informed healthcare workers are crucial. If, however, neither the people themselves nor the village healthcare workers meant to help them have strong English skills, the information they have access to will be understood imperfectly or not at all. The whole chain of access to information breaks down.

Translating to save lives

The Richmond High School students gather around the new poster, studying it closely. “It says something about an epidemic,” says a tall girl with red hair. She turns to the others with a worried look. If only she had paid more attention in French class.

Yes,” the boy next to her concludes. “It says we’re supposed to, uh, do something.” His voice trails off.

No, it doesn’t,” a third teenager in braces corrects him. “It says we’re not supposed to… .” She turns to her friends for help. They shrug and return to the poster. It’s clearly important, but they are unable to make any sense of the foreign words. No one asks, “if the information is important enough to warrant a sign outside …”

Lori ThickeBy Lori Thicke, founder of Translators without Borders

The Elephant in the Access to Information Room

When health information is not in the right language, it is useless.

Translation. Practically no one is talking about delivering appropriate information in a language that people understand. Because if they are to get the benefit of it, people need health information in their language, not ours.”

Lori Thicke writes about the “elephant in the room” in the discussion of information and knowledge access for all. Read her full article here.