When words fail: audio recording for verification in multilingual surveys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent was not always fully informed

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

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

The enumerator-coded answers did not always match the transcripts

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

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

Respondent: Yes, I want to.

Interviewer: When do you want to go back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the second most important reason? Missing home

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

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

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

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

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

A manual audio recording strategy is difficult to replicate at scale

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

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

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

Language technology can offer some support

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

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

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

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

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

Chloe Sydney, Research Associate at IDMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then, can be done?

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

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

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

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

Any takers?

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

On the ground in Mozambique: helping survivors of Cyclone Idai get the answers they need in their own languages

Days in Beira, Mozambique are long and humid. The city and its surroundings are still reeling from the destruction caused by Cyclone Idai. Five weeks on, I see people seeking a sense of normality and routine: women and men walking on their way to work, children playing soccer on the street, families having barbecues on the weekend. Their resilience is astounding and yet the uncertainty about how to move forward makes the situation harder to cope with for many.

Credit: Andrew Lind / IOM

At one of the temporary accommodation sites in Beira, TWB’s assessment team and I met some of the people whose houses and livelihoods have been washed away. They patiently answered our survey, but they themselves had too many unanswered questions. Many were confused about the aid available; some had still no idea about the fate of loved ones; others wanted to go back but wondered what conditions were like where they came from.

Without the ability to get answers, I fear people might feel utterly abandoned. Without trusted sources of accurate, timely, and consistent information, rumors and misinformation can exacerbate the crisis. This can lead people to make poor decisions, or make them vulnerable to violence, extortion, and abuse.

The challenge is that people need the right information in the right language, right now. Nobody said it was easy, but if we are serious about our humanitarian commitments to effectiveness and accountability, it needs to be done.

That is why TWB is working with other humanitarian organizations to ensure a two-way conversation with affected people, especially the many that do not speak Portuguese. In the hardest hit provinces, the main local languages spoken and understood include Ndau, Nyanja, Lomwe, and Sena. One of our focuses has been mobilizing translators with the right language skills so that we can support making information available in local languages.

This is crucial work that is inspiring and humbling at the same time. Many of the translators we are working with have been directly impacted by Cyclone Idai. Gustavo, one of our volunteer translators, reminded me about this when we first met.

Gustavo is a high school teacher of English who has been translating critical information into and from Sena. Sitting at a desk in his classroom that still reeked of damp, he explained that people here are no strangers to natural disasters. Yet, a lack of information ahead of Cyclone Idai meant that few were prepared for its devastating impact. “The next day [after the cyclone] we could not recognize where we were. It was like there had been a war or a bomb which had destroyed everything: houses were gone; roads were cut; trees were down; there was no electricity or phone and internet connections,” he said.

Gustavo opened his home to host some of his neighbors and relatives who lost all their belongings. And when he received an email from TWB asking for his availability to help, he said “yes” right away. “I took the invitation as an opportunity to assist those in need with written or oral information in their own language. This is one of the best things I can do to help my community get back on its feet.”

A crisis like a cyclone, by its nature, is a traumatic event. But talking with Gustavo I am reminded about the powerful thing that is meaningful communication. Communicating with people about the situation and answering their questions can be critical. Helping people to understand where they can get help and how they can help themselves improves their psychological resilience and their ability to recover. Doing so in local languages is key to ensuring people understand information and can act on it to rebuild their lives.

There is no quick fix that will address all of people’s questions. However, I know that working with local translators is needed to come at the issue using the right languages. Together with our team, I intend to keep doing so.

As of 30 April, our team of volunteer translators has translated over 70,000 words into relevant local languages. Thanks to their support, we are filling information gaps on issues such as hygiene, health, shelter, safety, and preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. If you would like further information about our language support services in Mozambique, you can contact us at [email protected].

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid from the UK government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we found.    

Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed

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

Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investment in language will improve the response

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

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

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

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

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

View the research brief.

Read the full report.



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

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

Hefazot transforms to nirapotta; janela becomes kirkiri

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.

Help desk sign

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.”

Woman, 54

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 (fromlatrine’) and modotgoroya, the word for ‘aid worker’, has become bolontiyar (fromvolunteer’) 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.

Report from the Field

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

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

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

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

This response was supposed to be different.

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

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

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

This is not an academic discussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donate to the Rohingya refugee response

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

Using language to support humanitarians

Humanitarian emergencies know no language boundaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read more about TWB’s response in northeast Nigeria.

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

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

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

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.

Language Technology Could Help 157 Million People Get Access To Information

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.

Bangladesh Help Desk Signage
Bangladesh Help Desk Signage

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.


Read a related post on The #LanguageMatters blog, ‘Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution’.  In TWB’s last blog post, Executive Director Aimee Ansari explains why we need to create and disseminate a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries. 

Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution

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.

 

Students, Writing, Language
Students practising to write Rohingya Zuban (Hanifi script) in Kutupalong Refugee Camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

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.