Helping Haitians Rebuild

Raising funds to finance deserving projects is something every non-profit must master, and the challenge is exponential when your donors are global. That was the issue Zafènencountered when it launched in 2010. But it wasn’t a conundrum this online Haitian micro-credit program faced for long. Translators without Borders volunteered to translate project descriptions from English into French and Spanish, vastly expanding the number of people who might be inspired to support them.

TWB translators have worked on more than 50 documents that we were able to share with generous people around the world seeking to empower Haitians,” said Griselda Garibay,Vincentian Family administrator for Zafèn. “And they did it all for free, which is a price non-profits can afford!

Garibay said Translators without Borders’ work was especially valuable because the top three languages spoken by Zafèn’s Facebook users are English, French and Spanish. Furthermore, the Haitian Diaspora is active in funding projects, and many Haitians speak French. In sum, TWB has helped Zafèn successfully promote 26 individual projects in three languages that raised more than $500,000 in just seven months.

A recent project translated by Translators without Borders raised money to enroll Haitian families living in extreme poverty in a proven program that enables them to change the course of their lives. Selected families receive construction materials to build a house with a sturdy roof and a floor. They also build a separate latrine, gain access to free healthcare, a water filter and receive weekly visits from a case manager, who reinforces what they have learned to ensure progress along the path to prosperity. Translators without Borders’ translations helped fund a better life for about 1,000 Haitian parents and children as they work toward a fresh start in the New Year.

Dying for Lack of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translators fight the fatal effects of the language gap

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Authorby 

The Elephant in the Access to Information Room

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

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

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