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

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

The story of language and the gift of information

THE GIFT OF INFORMATION

I grew up in a village in rural Kenya. In this village, many people had little or no education. Those who were lucky enough to see the doors of a classroom only reached primary level. The village was essentially an illiterate one. When I learned how to read and write, many villagers asked me to read healthcare fliers to them; prenatal and postnatal clinic booklets that were issued at health centers and in the village. In those days there were frequent disease outbreaks, such as cholera, measles, diarrhoea and malaria. It is by a miracle of sorts that I survived in such an environment, because my mother was also illiterate and public health workers were scarce, and often overwhelmed. The only information on critical health issues came from the government and NGOs who were at that time trying to respond to various health crises. However, this is not the story I want to talk about: the story I want to tell is one about a poor illiterate mother whose second child died from cholera. A story of why the gift of information is vital.

The story of a mother

This story takes place in a time when the efforts to contain the cholera outbreak had been seen to bear fruit. Leaflets were distributed in the village on general hygiene practices. Breastfeeding mothers were told to wash their hands before feeding their babies and to prepare meals in a clean environment. The leaflets also had information about seeking immediate treatment when a child showed symptoms of diarrhoea. Mama Tinda had all those leaflets containing this information. The leaflets were carefully kept in her clinic bag but because she could only read her native language, the leaflets, in English, made no sense to her, and she always relied on health workers to read and explain the information to her. So when her second-born child got diarrhoea, she could not follow the advice on leaflets. Mama Tinda’s only fault was her inability to read and understand English. That child died. During a casual chat with her a few months ago, she told me that she regrets not having an education. As fate would have it Mama Tinda did not have any more children, and because her first child died of malaria she now remains childless.

Join the movement

The story of Mama Tinda and many mothers like her motivates me to support the mission of Translators without Borders; that is to provide people access to life-saving information in their own language so that knowledge can positively impact their lives. This is the story of language that makes me appeal to you to support the saving of lives through language. Support Translators without Borders and give the gift of information.

Blog authorBy Paul Warambo, Translators without Borders Kenya Manager

From the corporate corner: Let’s tell our story

This is a story from the corporate corner. A story of Translators Without Borders.

The beginning of TWB…

Here’s a news flash: communicating in the wrong language is not communicating at all. Humanitarian groups not getting that simple fact is the main reason I founded the translation charity Translators without Borders. Yet the same ignorance about how important language is also bedevils anyone who earns a living in the translation industry.” READ MORE

Lori Thicke
By Lori Thicke, founder of Translators without Borders

We are Humanity: Volunteering on Chios

Translators without Borders has been working with aid organizations responding to the European Refugee crisis since September. Every day, TWB deploys its Words of Relief Rapid Response Teams in Arabic, Farsi and Greek to improve communications between refugees and aid organizations, governments and local residents. Having spent months engrossed in the crisis from afar, TWB Deputy Director, Rebecca Petras, decided to go to Greece with her family in late December and early January as an independent volunteer. Below is part one of her experience volunteering on Chios. Part two will focus on the language divide.


Volunteering on chios

There’s a boat! There’s a boat!” screamed my daughter from her perch 50 meters above the sea, correctly identifying the approaching black blob. Everyone mobilized. The ‘pirates’ grabbed rescue gear, cars were called to bring dry clothes. The nurse grabbed her kit. We ran to the van to get it warm for babies. And then the boat took a sharp turn up the coast. As often was the case, they had heard us and did not know if we were friend or foe.

When the cold, wet, scared bodies finally reached the shore and emerged from the brush, 200 meters up the coast, we were there, ready to help. Chaos ensued. Lifejackets thrown off. Arms gestured to determine if anyone was still in the water. Children clung to moms. A crying and soaked baby was thrust into my arms.

For the next hour we did what volunteers all along the shores of eastern Greek islands do every night. Helped take wet clothes off tiny children. Stood guard at brush where women could privately change their garb. Threw our coats around freezing babies. Held the emergency kit for the nurse as she treated a tiny figure. Put gloves on dozens and dozens of very cold hands. Gave families small change so they could take the bus to registration in town. All in the pitch dark, -4 degrees Celsius night.

And when they had all loaded on the bus, we sighed, dazed and confused. We stumbled around picking up wet clothes, saving the trousers and shoes that could be recycled for the next night, and waiting for the next call.

More than 1,500 refugees scrambled ashore that night on Chios.

Hungry and tired, these individuals and families hail from as far away as Afghanistan. They carry almost nothing. They wear the same clothes for days, weeks, months. When we give them a fresh pair of trousers, they leave the old, not wanting to carry more than required.

But their joy shines through. This is Greece. This is Europe. Safety. They think not about the hardships to come – they made it – and everyone in the boat made it. They were not the mother who lost her son at sea the next night, or the woman who was thrown out to lighten the load a couple nights later. Tonight they will sleep in a cold warehouse, dry and together. And that is good.\

Yet as volunteers, hailing from all over Europe and North America, we have a different view.

We see the hunger. With bad weather in Turkey, people wait days in the woods, waiting for their chance to get on a boat. Food is not the focus, getting across 6 kilometers of water is. When we feed this group and hundreds of others the next day, we feel inadequate: One cup of vegetarian high-protein soup per person with one piece of bread and a piece of fruit does not fill stomachs. But when all is sourced and financed by volunteers, it is the best we can do.

We see the misunderstandings, miscommunication and confusion.

At any given time, at least three languages are in play. Unlike other crises, where the affected population is generally on their home turf, in this crisis the local population does not speak the language of the affected population. They don’t even share common scripts; only a tiny minority understand Greek and one of the main languages of the refugees, Arabic or Farsi. As this is my particular area of interest, I’ll share more on this is my next posting.

We see the incredible care of the locals. Before the crisis, Toula was a single mom running a small tourist hotel south of Chios Town – she is now the heart and soul behind search and rescue, mobilizing teams every evening at her hotel, giving volunteers huge discounts at her hotel, and washing trousers every day to give to the next group. The pirates are three local guys who patrol the coast on their motorbikes every night. Despoina gave away all her clothes when she saw people emerging from the water in front of her home. Then she gave away all her husband’s clothes. When she had nothing for the wet and cold children who approached her, she knew it was time to create a donation shop where she works every day, organizing donations, giving out clothes to those who just came ashore, handing a small toy to each child.

We see the endless lack of leadership in this crisis. The Greek government. The Turkish government. The EU. The UN. The governments responsible for the bloodshed. Where are they?

And finally, when we leave, returning to our daily lives, we see and feel the emptiness in our hearts. Where did they go? Will they make it? Will they be able to carry the babies all that way? Will we learn to live together?

I left a piece of my heart on Chios. But I gained an understanding of what it means to be a true contributor to a better world, and I hope to hold on to that as I work to help from afar.

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Translators without Borders opens Health Translators’ Training Center in Kenya

Translators Without Borders, a humanitarian organization providing free translations, opens a training school in Nairobi, Kenya. Simon Andriesen, TWB Board Member, talks about the opening and the organization’s mission.

The 2nd of April was a special day for Translators without Borders.  On that day, after much preparation, Translators without Borders (TWB) opened its pilot Health Translators’ Training Center in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. During three to four-day sessions over four weeks, six groups of participants were introduced to translation, and more specifically to translation of health information. In all, 100 participants took part in the April sessions. Based on the experiences, the program is being revised and modified before returning to Kenya in August.

The participants had widely varying backgrounds, from health librarians to government employees working in the field on Health Promotion, from youth workers to dispensary staff and community health workers, and from peer educators to hospital interpreters. What they had in common was an affinity with public health promotion and a strong interest in language.

Translators without Borders is known for facilitating the work that professional translators volunteer to do for humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors without Borders, using a web-based platform generously developed, donated, and managed by ProZ. In 2011, TWB helped translate over three million words, with a ‘street value’ of around $600,000. This in itself is already a sizable donation but, more importantly, translation can be of life-saving importance to millions of people with poor health, no doctors around, and health information all in the wrong language. These populations typically live in poor areas, and studying a language is not something many people can afford to do. Even so, many people in Africa speak three to five different languages. In Kenya, for example, people with at least some education often speak English and Swahili, languages taught at school, as well as one, or a few, of the 42 local languages spoken at home. Swahili is spoken by around 75 million people, across 9 countries in East Africa, mostly as a lingua franca. This language area covers a territory with at least 200 different local languages.

Most of the health information available in Kenya is available in English only even though half of the population does not speak English. Translation in Swahili would already be a big step forward, but it would be much better to translate vital health information into the local languages.

There are many tragic examples of what may happen if people do not have access to health information in a language they understand. But one story I always keep in the back of my mind is about a one-year-old girl who died after a few days of diarrhea. The mother commented she had stopped feeding the girl water ‘because it immediately came out at the other end and that way it never stops.’ As many people know, in the treatment of diarrhea it is crucial to feed the patient lots of water, to prevent dehydration, which if untreated will lead to shock and, ultimately, death. The person telling us this dreadful story mentioned that the parents had in fact clean water, sugar and salt in their house, and these are the only things you need to treat diarrhea. The parents simply did not know. Yet it takes only one quarter of an A4 sheet of paper to print the instructions around diarrhea, and maybe 20 minutes of work for a translator.

At TWB we decided that we no longer accept that people would suffer, or die, because of a language obstacle.  We understood that the platform would not be enough to reach some populations because there were simply not enough translators working into certain languages.  We prepared plans to train health information translators. As a member of TWB’s Board of Directors, I volunteered to make the training package available that my company had developed to train medical translators. This package is written for experienced, professional translators, who need to be introduced to medical translation. When looking at the materials, I quickly realized that the assumed level of background and education was simply not realistic, and I then decided to start from scratch and regenerate all materials. A new feature was a half day introductory module on what translation is, and more specifically what medical translation, or rather: healthcare translation is all about. This module includes translation methods, tips and tricks, an introduction to TM tools, and on how to build and maintain a glossary – all very basic information. I also integrated information on the difference between translation and interpretation, and produced an introduction to subtitling, and instructions about word count and spell checking, as well as on how to Skype and how to use search engines.

The medical component of the training package consists of around 20 introductions to Africa-relevant health problems. These are mostly disorders, such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and cholera, but also social health issues, such as malnutrition, unsafe abortion, and female genital mutilation (FGM). Each of these medical modules takes 30-45 minutes to teach and most of these are followed by an exercise: participants each translate a few sentences from a related health information sheet and the results are projected on the screen and then discussed by the whole group. This is a very powerful education method and participants really seem to learn a lot from these discussions. During the training, it was remarkable to watch people who had never translated before behave like typical translators in having heated debates about the meaning of a specific word, or the proper location of a comma.

For one group of trainees we travelled half a day to the part of Kenya where the Masaai live. For a group of 12 school teachers, a social worker, dispensary staff and a community health worker, we focused on the translation of materials about specific disorders, for example trachoma, an infectious eye disease that will lead to blindness if not treated. We used an empty school class room. The dedication and motivation of the Masaai participants was overwhelming. One of the projects we worked on was the translation of subtitles into Maa of a health video on cholera prevention. This is probably the first ever video with Maa subtitles!

We also attracted quite a bit of press interest: The Voice of America followed us one day and did a radio and television piece on the training; the Guardian carried an interesting article about us; and, we took the BBC World Service along to the Masaai training.

The Translators without Borders Healthcare Translation Training Center is partly funded by TWB, partly by earmarked donations, and partly by involved TWB Board Members. Whenever I claim ‘that we no longer accept that people would suffer, or die, because of a language obstacle,’ I would like to think that I speak on behalf of the whole localization sector. Companies that want to support our work can do so. They can become TWB sponsors or they can adopt part of our efforts in Kenya. To train a translator for three weeks costs around $400; a PC and a decent set of dictionaries costs around $300. Throw in an extra $300 and the translator has one year of unlimited internet access.

Small amounts. Huge effects. Think about the baby that died not of diarrhea but of lack of information. Keep her in mind. And then just visit www.translatorswithoutborders.com and hit the Donate button.

Blog AuthorBy Simon Andriesen, Board President of TWB Kenya and CEO of MediLingua

Translating to save lives

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

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

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

Lori ThickeBy Lori Thicke, founder of Translators without Borders