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 translators@translatorswithoutborders.org

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.

Marginalized mother languages – two ways to improve the lives of the people who speak them

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.

Aerial view of Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.

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.

TWB Fulfulde Team Lead conducting comprehension research. Waterboard camp in Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.

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.

Taking action

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.

To read:

    • 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”
  • TWB’s white paper on the Gamayun Language Equality Initiative

To do:

    • Consult our dashboard and think about how you can start collecting this data to inform your programs
    • Follow our journey as we continue to move forward with Gamayun (and learn along the way!)
Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders. 

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 translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

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

Bringing words to life in northeast Nigeria

yoga 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.

Read more about TWB’s response in northeast Nigeria. 

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

Bangladesh Program Update

Bridging language gaps empowers people to communicate in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, once famed for its beautiful 120km long beach, is now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Between 900,000 and one million Rohingya women, men and children, depending on the estimates, now live in the area. Since August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar and settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.

Translators without Borders (TWB) first came to Cox’s Bazar in October to assess the communication and information needs of the affected population.

Our team rapidly discovered that language was making communication between the affected communities, humanitarian organizations, and the host population extremely difficult. As reported by our partner organization Internews, more than 70 percent of the refugee population identified themselves as being totally illiterate in any language and more than 60 percent said they were unable to speak to humanitarian providers.

In Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya is often the only language spoken by those most in need. It is an oral language, with no commonly accepted written script.

One of the major communication problems in this humanitarian crisis is the lack of a common language. The humanitarian workers mostly speak English, local NGOs and government officials speak Bengali, many interpreters speak Chittagonian, and the refugees speak Rohingya.

The reality

Take a moment to imagine this in the context of a refugee camp. Signs are erected to identify health facilities and safe spaces for women in a language they do not understand. Information can become distorted as it is passed from person to person and humanitarian organizations rely on untrained interpreters to communicate life-saving information as part of their support to the refugees. As summarized by TWB’s sociologist,

Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

“There’s just a lot of crucial information lost in this crisis.”

One of the most urgent needs is to find ways for the refugee population to fully express their needs to humanitarian responders.

With thorough research and community interaction, we are developing a professional training program and tools to help interpreters and humanitarian organizations understand some of the cultural and linguistic specificities of the refugee population.

Shades of meaning

TWB is developing a freely downloadable glossary of key humanitarian terms. This translates technical terminology in English into simple and clear Bengali, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese terms. The aim is to cover concepts relevant to a range of sectors, making the glossary useful across the humanitarian response.

‘We really deliberated on the meanings and context of the translations,’ says TWB’s sociolinguist. ‘Words can have shades of meaning, so the social and cultural context is important.’

Working as a consortium with Internews and BBC Media Action, TWB is contributing to a regular newsletter distributed to all humanitarian organizations in Cox’s Bazar. This newsletter, entitled What Matters? The Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, specifically addresses communication and language issues. The first newsletter, distributed in February this year, highlighted the important differences in weather terms between Chittagonian, Bengali, and Rohingya. This is vital when distinguishing between a warning for strong winds or a cyclone, for instance. 

Ultimately, bridging these gaps is empowering people to communicate. When people can communicate they can assert their rights and humanitarians can deliver life-saving information.

With the cyclone and monsoon season starting soon, the need for simple and actionable information, in plain and clear language that the refugees can understand, is becoming even more acute. The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger when the rains begin in April. These are likely to cause major flooding and landslides in the steep hills and unstable terrain where the camps are located and contribute to the spread of disease.

‘This is where translating key Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) messages are critical,’ says our sociolinguist. ‘Community workers need to be able to explain the differences in severe weather systems between here and Myanmar, what services are there to help in a disaster, even how to help prevent the spread of disease. These are not messages you can afford to miscommunicate.’

Follow the progress of our work in Cox’s Bazar and consider a donation to support our work around the globe.

Written by TWB’s Program Director for Bangladesh

Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated across the globe on 8 March each year. It is a day when we highlight the achievements of women around the world. A time of celebration, it is also a time to push for more equality, especially in terms of gender parity. A collective effort is needed to achieve this. By challenging stereotypes and bias, we can make a positive difference.

The IWD theme for 2018 is Press for Progress. The theme acknowledges that progress towards gender parity is being made, but that the progress varies throughout the world, and we must continue to work hard. #PressforProgress #Timeisnow.

Across all regions, women are more likely to live in extreme poverty than men… The culture of gender-based poverty, abuse and exploitation has to end with a new generation of equality that lasts.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

Translators without Borders (TWB) is well placed to understand the unique challenges of women in crisis. While a humanitarian emergency affects everyone, experience shows that women often have bigger mountains to climb. This is in part because of the difficulties in communicating as a marginalized woman in crisis.

Accessibility and Relevance to Women

TWB has looked at the impact humanitarian crisis has on women. In recent studies about communication barriers encountered by humanitarian responders, conducted in Nigeria and Bangladesh, our team found that gender plays a big part in increasing vulnerability. Continue reading “Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard”

On the ground in Bangladesh. So – how do we communicate?

A second report from Rebecca Petras who is heading up TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The language complexity in the current Rohingya refugee crisis is deep. I had only a faint understanding of it when I landed a few days ago; I have a slightly better sense now. The Rohingya refugees come from Rakhine in Myanmar. They are Muslim; the other dominant population in Rakhine is Buddhist. The political issues between the two groups and the Rakhine as a whole and the government of Myanmar are extremely complicated, and not for my humble explanation. Suffice it to say, on 25 August 2017, a massive and violent event forced thousands of Rohingya to abandon their villages and flee to Bangladesh, through hills, unfriendly areas, and across water. There are still many thousands waiting to cross the river; in total, there are well over 700,000 new arrivals.

In and around Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town (with the world’s longest contiguous beach) in Chittagong division of Bangladesh, there are now official and unofficial camps, sprawling across hills. Because of decades of unrest in Rakhine, there were already approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees living in either one of two official camps or within the host community, and many have lived there for two decades. They are now witnessing a massive and very uncertain influx from Myanmar, including thousands of orphans, thousands of traumatized and abused women, and many more who need medical attention.

'There really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it'

All of this makes for a very complicated language situation, with an amalgamation of spoken Rohingya from long-term refugees and new arrivals, spoken Chittagong from locals, written Bengali (or Bangla), and, possibly, written Burmese. Add layers of what is allowed by the government (still unclear which languages are being allowed), as well as how to translate complicated English terms into Rohingya, and we have a tricky communications issue. One of the main goals of Translators without Borders’ initial work here is to assess the language needs and then direct the numerous responding aid organizations, with accurate information on language. We will be testing assumptions and testing actual comprehension of material that is given to refugees.

We are beginning that assessment now – I will be working with community health workers and youth this coming week, and our research lead (Eric DeLuca) will be joining me in one week to test agency communications tools with new arrivals. But, at the same time, responding aid organizations want to start communicating right now. The community engagement leader of one of our main international partners said when I first met with him that there really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it. So while we try to put standards in place, train new interpreters, support interpreters with resources, and address the various language needs, we also need to just start communicating now. With seemingly endless rains and very little infrastructure in the camps, there is a very real danger of water-borne diseases, making communications urgent. What I need most at this time is more time in the day to get it all done.

Below are some suggestions of how you can support this response. Stay tuned for more updates this week.

Rebecca PetrasRebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Taking action in the Rohingya crisis: TWB’s biggest language challenge yet

It is somewhere between 9pm and midnight, depending on where exactly my flight is right now. My rubber boots, rain gear, and TWB T-shirts are stowed in the hold; I am enjoying my second film. In a few short hours, we will arrive in Bangladesh, and the work will begin.

39,000 feet above the Earth, language is not an issue. International flight attendants and travelers basically speak the same language. We all understand ‘chicken with rice’ or ‘coffee or tea’ in the few international languages needed…English, German, French, maybe some occasional Arabic. And it is easy, seat back, chatting with seat mates with wildly different backgrounds, to feel comforted by the connection those few common languages bring us.

It is exactly that feeling – that connection and comfort – that language often gives us. I have lived for years in places where the native tongue was not my own: I know the sense of warmth when someone makes the effort to speak my language. Nelson Mandela had it right when he commented on the power of language: “Speak to a man in his language, and it goes to his heart.”

When in crisis, language does even more...

It helps on a very fundamental level, giving people in crisis the basic information they need to be safe, warm and fed. Yet millions of people, especially those who are refugees in foreign lands, must cross a language barrier every time they need basic information. They rely on others for the information they need, hoping that it is accurate and true, because they simply do not understand the language of those trying to help, or they are illiterate and cannot read whatever directive is provided.

How often I wonder how I would handle such a situation. I know that when I get important information in the language of the country where I currently live, the time to understand and then respond is at least doubled – the effort required is so much more. And that is when I’m sitting at my desk, well fed and not fearful for my life or that of my children.

The clear inequity of information that holds billions of people back is what motivates me. It is why I work hard with my colleagues every day to build an organization that uses language to jump over barriers. And it is what has motivated me to go to Bangladesh to set up language provision for the aid organizations trying to help the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived in the past six weeks.

Tomorrow I will be in Cox’s Bazar, a place I didn’t know existed until a few short weeks ago. I have a singular goal: To use language to bring a bit of comfort and help to those who have suffered too much already.

Language matters: I hope you will share this journey with me.


why TWB is responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Over 700,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh (in and around the beach town of Cox’s Bazar) in the past two months, many of them entire families - families broken by violence. This is a complex political and humanitarian crisis, and one of the most difficult language contexts TWB has ever experienced.

The Rohingya population is highly vulnerable, having fled conflict and living in extremely difficult conditions. When we launched this response remotely in September, the goal was to find Rohingya translators to translate urgent materials that would help give practical but vital information to the thousands of refugees flooding across the border into a land where they did not speak the language. However, it became immediately apparent that there was very little translation capacity in Rohingya and, furthermore, that we would need to get audio and spoken Rohingya support because very few people write this language, and illiteracy levels are high. It was also too challenging to try to do this work remotely. Yet no situation we have encountered is more in need of our resources.

So we took a chance without solid funding and decided to activate Plan B, sending Rebecca to Bangladesh to try to get something set up to respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis. She will be in the country for four weeks, bringing together a community of translators and figuring out how best to enable them to provide the language link between responders and vulnerable people. She will also be working with aid organizations to ensure that language solutions are funded.  She will be joined by Eric DeLuca, TWB's Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, who will conduct a comprehension study in some of the numerous camps, to assess the best ways to communicate with those who are affected by this crisis.

We will be following the team as they document their journey in Cox’s Bazar to set up this response for Communicating with Communities, and we'll be providing regular updates on how they are progressing over the coming weeks.

Rebecca PetrasRebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

This is no ordinary translation; this can save lives.

FOLLOW US ON OUR JOURNEY TO SCALE UP REMOTE CRISIS RESPONSE LANGUAGE SERVICES. 

Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe need clear information they can understand at every point in their journey. They need it in order to move, to find their way through complex asylum procedures, and to keep themselves and their families safe. However, in the ever-changing, often chaotic situation that many of them endure, information can come in many forms. It can be unreliable, incomplete, in the wrong language, or just plain untrue. Crisis responders for their part face the challenge of operating in an environment where people are often mobile, under intense pressure, and unlikely to be able to communicate their needs effectively.   

As one of three teams selected by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) for support to scale up a humanitarian innovation, the TWB Words of Relief team is using this opportunity to improve how we provide remote language services to vulnerable people affected by a crisis. Join the team as they document their challenging and exciting journey to tackle the communication challenges that hinder relief efforts, by developing new tools and approaches. 

This first vlog gives a behind-the-scenes look at how remote crisis translation works, and includes demos of TWB’s translation platform and glossary app. The app, which was developed specifically with humanitarian responders and field workers in Greece in mind, is a collection of open-source glossaries in the languages of the refugee and migrant populations in Greece. The translation platform uses language technology to lend speed and consistency to efforts to relay vital information to those groups in their own language. These innovative tools open up new opportunities for communication in a crisis that is unique for the linguistic and demographic mix that exists within the host community, the responders and the people directly affected.

This video is available with subtitles in Spanish, French, Greek, German and Italian (just click the ‘CC’ button bottom right of the screen to choose your language). The video was realized with the support of Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), with the financing of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is the first TWB vlog. Follow us on our #JourneyToScale.

Translators without Borders has developed more tools and services to support responders to communicate better in difficult crisis settings. Click here to see the TWB language fact sheets, interpreter toolkit, and more.


About Words of Relief

The Translators without Borders Words of Relief program is the first rapid response translation service aimed at improving communication between crisis-affected communities and humanitarian responders, so that life-saving and life-changing information is not lost in translation. By training translators and interpreters, translating and disseminating critical messages in crisis-inclined countries, building a spider network of translators to assist in time of need, and developing new language technology tools, TWB intends to close the language gaps that hinder critical humanitarian efforts.

The Words of Relief program has been deployed to help victims of several crises worldwide, including the Ebola emergency in West Africa and the Nepal earthquake. Rapid Response Teams in Arabic, Farsi, Greek, Kurdish and Urdu are currently providing immediate, high-quality translations for aid organizations along the refugee route in Europe.

What you didn’t know about languages that matter in the European refugee crisis

In April 2017, Translators without Borders carried out a study to analyze what might be causing the language and communication barriers that exist in the context of the ongoing humanitarian migration crisis in Greece. A striking feature of this crisis is the wide range of languages and ethnicities involved. Approximately 95 percent of the refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece in 2015 and 2016 came from seven countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Algeria. They represent the diversity of ethnic groups in those countries and speak an array of languages and dialects.

Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Kurmanji, and Sorani speaking migrants were interviewed about how they access important information such as where to access medical care and asylum procedures. 88 per cent of respondents said that they preferred to receive information in their mother tongue. However, humanitarian aid workers are not always fully equipped to deal with the language complexities that characterize this crisis. Following the research, it was clear that humanitarian workers didn’t always know what languages they were serving, and didn’t always know which languages could be understood by whom. Knowledge of the languages spoken by migrants from different countries can present a major obstacle to the effectiveness of their work and hence, the effectiveness of the response.

Translators without Borders has created detailed language fact sheets to be used as a resource by aid workers in Greece with information on Arabic, Dari and Farsi, and Kurdish dialects – the languages spoken by the majority of refugees and migrants in Greece.  

Thanks to the help of TWB translators, the language sheets are now available as free resources in English, Greek, and Italian on the TWB website.

Cover image by Karim Kai Ani.

test your knowledge

How much do you know about the languages spoken by the refugee population in Greece? 

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What is the written form of Arabic called?

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What is the official language of Iran?

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Dari and Farsi are very different when written down, but very similar when spoken

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Amiyya, or spoken Arabic, is the same in every country where it is used

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Where is Sorani spoken?

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Know the languages of refugees and migrants in Greece
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Take a look at the TWB language factsheets to learn more about Arabic, Farsi, Dari and the Kurdish dialects.

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Arabic Factsheet           Dari and Farsi Factsheet           Kurdish Factsheet

 


 

About TWB Words of Relief

Translators without Borders started responding to the European refugee crisis in 2015, providing much-needed language services such as the rapid translation of content for partners working in the response; training for humanitarians, translators and interpreters (professional and aspiring); setting up a language working group; establishing a humanitarian interpreter roster; and, conducting research on language and comprehension. TWB’s Words of Relief service continues to operate in Greece today. For more information and to volunteer or donate, please visit the TWB website or follow us on Twitter at @TranslatorsWB and Facebook