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.

From teacher to translator: meet Sybil

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) bring a range of experiences and skills, but they share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all of our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

This month, we are discovering how Sybil’s experience as a teacher makes her an invaluable humanitarian translator. From her home in Massachusetts, USA, she translates vital information, working from French into English. While we often talk about translating from ‘bigger’ languages like English into less commercial local languages, Sybil makes a difference in the lives of thousands by translating into her native English. Since 2011, she has completed almost a hundred tasks for TWB, providing over 200,000 words to nonprofit organizations and the people they support.

“Thanks to my experience in the classroom, I was already very familiar with a lot of the vocabulary and the context of many translation tasks.”

Natural progression: a freelance career

Sybil’s journey with TWB began seven years ago when the just-retired teacher found herself in search of a second career. As a newcomer to the world of translation, she appreciated the short tasks and generous deadlines offered by her first projects. Through feedback and collaboration, she learned how to work with translation project managers, accept assignments, meet deadlines, and continuously improve her translation work.

“My first published work as a translator was through TWB, in collaboration with other linguists.”

To build her skills further, Sybil completed a French and English Certificate in Translation Studies through New York University’s online program. This academic pursuit, coupled with her continued progression and practice with TWB, has allowed her to effectively build a new career after retirement.

As she built her skills, she relished the challenge, taking on more proofreading and revision tasks on top of her translation work. “This year has been particularly challenging in that I have been tasked with several transcription and subtitling projects.”

These projects have taken Sybil beyond translation: she’s transcribed from French to English, edited a French transcript, and synched English subtitles to a film.

“Without a doubt, working with TWB and obtaining a French and English Certificate in Translation Studies have been the two major influences shaping my freelance career.”

Serving communities across the globe

Throughout her time as a TWB volunteer, Sybil has translated documents from all over the world. She’s focused particularly on supporting communities in Africa, a continent which holds a personal interest for her. As a junior at college and a budding traveler, she spent a year abroad in Nigeria, and later served for the US Peace Corps in Francophone Cameroon. There she worked for two years as a teacher of English as a second language (ESL).

Now, serving TWB, she supports our mission by assisting individuals and populations who need the services of a French to English translator. So, while this is not her first time aiding communities in countries including Nigeria and Cameroon with her language skills, Sybil stays up-to-date with global humanitarian issues she has seen first-hand, through the challenging and meaningful tasks she encounters with TWB. And the TWB team certainly appreciates her know-how; Dace, TWB’s Translation Emergency Coordinator is quick to praise Sybil for being “ever supportive and responsive.”

“This photo was taken on Monday 13th January 1969 when I was serving in the United States Peace Corps, teaching ESL at the ‘middle’ school (Collège d”Enseignment Général de Sangmélima). The students, principal, and I are standing in front of the school draped with the green, red, and yellow flag of Cameroon. We were awaiting the arrival of President Ahdhijo who was visiting Sangmélima.”

Over 8,000 miles away in Bangladesh, another community benefits from Sybil’s expertise. In one personally significant project, she worked on guidelines for teaching English to Rohingya children who had recently arrived in Bangladesh. Her quick work enabled the syllabus to be immediately implemented and helped the community’s children continue their education in their temporary campsites. As a professional educator, she was able to collaborate with colleagues to produce lesson plans, syllabi, and curricula for English literature, ESL, and French language and literature classes.

While her now extensive experience in humanitarian and development translation means Sybil must have many poignant stories to tell, she describes how a few are forever ingrained in her memory. Take, for example, addressing the mental and physical health of people in Haiti immediately after the devastating earthquake in 2010. On another occasion, an in-depth assignment explained how women in an African country have to travel extraordinary distances, often by foot, for difficult operations, and why they are not always successful. These might seem like difficult topics, but in putting such important information into another language, this translator is truly bridging a gap of human experience, and sharing information that has the power to shape humanitarian approaches for the better.

A student in Haiti.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion, or send an email to [email protected].

Apply here to become a volunteer translator for TWB, and help serve communities across the globe.

 

Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB, with interview responses by Sybil, Kató translator for TWB. 

 

An evolving crisis needs an evolving glossary

The expanded TWB Bangladesh Glossary app is now available for field workers and interpreters working on the Rohingya humanitarian response.

As a humanitarian crisis evolves, so do the information needs of affected communities. And so does knowledge of the associated language complexities. Humanitarian responders gradually understand the linguistic ambiguities and cultural nuances that affect our work. Glossaries help to consolidate our knowledge and make us more effective.

The initial information needs relating to critical things like how to build shelter and how to access services have been met. But humanitarian responders are now addressing more complex ongoing issues affecting the community. That means language requirements are changing and becoming increasingly complex too.

A glossary to help 

Translators without Borders (TWB) released its Bangladesh Glossary app in June 2018 for people working on the Rohingya humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It helps field workers, interpreters, and Rohingya refugees communicate between five languages: Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English.

You can view and use the TWB Bangladesh Glossary app here. It’s available offline for easy field access.

The initial TWB Bangladesh Glossary app included terms focused on WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene). But other humanitarian sectors clamored for a tool that could help them communicate more effectively too. TWB understands the importance of communicating in a language that affected people understand. So we responded to the clamor and added hundreds of new terms to the Bangladesh Glossary app.

Adding to the conversation

We’ve added 200 terms to improve conversations on key gender issues. For example, we learned that the term for puberty in Rohingya differs according to gender. Ghor-goille is literally translated as ‘entering the house’, and is used only for girls, as this is the beginning of their gender segregation. Certain words highlight how the community perceives women’s roles in society. Azad mela-fuain, commonly used by aid workers to refer to women’s independence, is often misunderstood by the Rohingya community as ‘a woman without morals’ (or a free or loose woman).  

“Conversations about sensitive gender issues can rely heavily on euphemisms,” says TWB Sociolinguistic Researcher, AK Rahim. “While there may be a correct term, there are euphemisms that the community prefers and feels more comfortable using. That’s why this tool is so important. It doesn’t only identify the correct word; it also helps humanitarians to respect the cultural importance of particular terms.”

This update also includes another 100 WASH terms and more health terms focusing on disability and inclusion. The addition of emergency terms will assist in discussions about disaster preparedness and response.

The expanded glossary is also easier to navigate, with sector-relevant categories now available on the left side of the app. We’ve also transliterated Chittagonian and Rohingya terms so that you can view and show them in both Latin English and Bengali scripts.

Of course, the tool can only make an impact when used, and we’re proud to say we have now trained close to 400 field workers to use it. In the next few months, we’ll be adding another 500 terms, focusing on the health, education, and nutrition sectors.  

The TWB Bangladesh Glossary app is a practical and evolving tool. We invite feedback from humanitarians and the community, so please get in touch with your suggestions and alert us to any faults. We want to know if you’re using the glossary, how you’re using it and when it’s not working.

As always, we are grateful to the partners who have contributed to this project, particularly Unicef, Oxfam, and Care International. The TWB Bangladesh Glossary app was developed with the support of IOM, the UN migration agency. It is co-funded by the UK Department for International Development, UNICEF, and Oxfam.

Basic download instructions for Android or iPhone are  here in English and Bangla.

 
Written by Irene Scott, TWB's Program Director, Bangladesh. 
 

Enlarging the small print on sexual exploitation and abuse

Simplifying and translating the rules is the first step to keeping everyone safe.

Sexual exploitation and abuse remains a sad reality in the aid sector, as anyone who has read a paper in the past year is aware. The millions of people made vulnerable by disasters face further harm from some of the very people whose job is to assist and protect them.

There are of course rules banning such behavior: They are known as the core principles on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. All international aid workers sign up to them. Yet it can be a bit like the box you check to ‘accept’ terms and conditions for an online service. You tick the box because that allows you to use the service. You rarely read the small print.

Why not?

Access is a factor. The details aren’t readily accessible physically – you have to click on the link or scroll down to the annex. Nor are they easy to understand, because they’re written in legalese.

Another factor is language. For the vast majority of the world’s aid workers, the rules on sexual conduct are also in a foreign tongue.

Yet accountability depends on the rules being known and understood, by every aid worker but importantly also by the crisis-affected people we are there to serve.

So Translators without Borders (TWB) teamed up with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s task team on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and accountability to affected people to make those rules crystal clear.

First we took the six principles on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse and rewrote them in plain English. Plain language is about making the message clear. It’s the difference between ‘this constitutes gross misconduct and can be grounds for termination of contract’ and ‘you can be disciplined or fired for this.’

Initial comprehension testing suggests non-native English speaking aid workers do understand the plain English better than the original. That’s the first step.

Then we translated that plain English version into the languages of aid workers and the people they serve: 60 languages at the time of writing, but our target is 100. The aim is to have the rules up on the walls of every aid agency office, every refugee camp and site hosting internally displaced people, in the right languages for everyone to understand.

The next step is to help affected people hold us accountable, by making the principles available to them in accessible formats, as visual and audio content. The goal is to start a dialogue with communities about what their rights are, and what responsibilities aid workers have towards them.

Checking the box is not enough. If we are to create an environment that guards against abuse and exploitation, the first step is for the rules to be visible and understood. As a sector we need to pay more attention to how we speak about these critical issues, and in which languages.

 

Written by Ellie Kemp, TWB's Head of Crisis Response. 

 

Translating with empathy improves wellbeing in Bangladesh

“I always put myself in the shoes of the person(s) for whom I am translating.” Mak, translator for Translators without Borders (TWB).

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders bring a range of experiences and skills, but they share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all of our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

In Bangladesh, almost a million people are currently living in the largest makeshift refugee camp in the world. There, nonprofit organizations need to provide critical information quickly on matters such as cyclone preparedness, heavy rainfall, landslides and how to protect shelters in potentially life-threatening situations. All of this information needs to be translated into a language that is more accessible for Rohingya refugees, and in many cases, into the language of local volunteers and field workers. Enter Mahay Alam Khan, or Mak, a dedicated translator who works tirelessly to help translate critical documents into Bangla.

What makes Mak?

As one of our most skilled and committed Bangla translators, Mak brings twelve years of translation experience to TWB. In the past year, he has worked on over fifty tasks and translated over 40,000 words.

Mak has been known to go the extra mile to support TWB in our mission. He has spent nights working on urgent translations, journeyed to internet cafes, borrowed computers when necessary, and even worked on translating documents while changing houses in downtown Dhaka.

“If that’s not dedication, then I don’t know what is,” Dace, TWB’s Translation Emergency Coordinator, wholeheartedly attests to Mak’s merit.

Mak has his own praise for Dace and the team, telling us he is “always amazed to get continuous support from TWB management, admins and support personnel. They are so prompt and caring.”

Translating opens a window into the world of the Rohingya

Mak explains that translating with TWB has changed his perspective. The experience has opened a window through which he can look into the horrific conditions experienced by refugees and especially children.

“I knew a bit about the suffering and agony they endure in this world, but I never knew language barriers could be a reason why people become vulnerable,” recalls Mak.

In his time volunteering with TWB, Mak has worked on numerous projects with organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He has translated knowledge in the fields of water, sanitation, health, and hygiene. One personally significant project focused on training health workers. While most of the refugees speak Rohingya rather than Bangla, the health workers are Bangla-speaking; it is important to train them in the right language. The content trained workers in teaching the refugee community how to prevent life-threatening diseases like diphtheria and dysentery, which affect children in particular.  

Mak has translated information on an array of subjects — beyond what you might have imagined. He has translated guidance on how to deal with violence against immigrants, and how to manage bodies in a proper and dignified manner after a fatal disaster. These are messages which are important to communicate sensitively and clearly. The knowledge he imparts in a critical language has a real and immediate effect on the lives of those affected by the crisis. And he bears this in mind as he makes his translations the most effective they can be.

Visualize the situation: Mak’s strategy

Working with TWB has influenced Mak’s whole approach – it has made him more expressive and more cognizant of the importance of his translation work. Before starting a translation, Mak says it’s important to visualize the people for whom he is ultimately translating.  He closes his eyes and imagines he is standing in a queue waiting for food or medicine. The language barrier between support workers and refugees makes it hard to distribute food, or even to ensure understanding of instructions for taking life-saving medicines.

So, he translates and helps people access information in a language they can understand.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, and to leave feedback please join the discussion here, or send an email to [email protected]

Support the Rohingya refugee response by donating here.

 

Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB, with interview responses by Mahay Alam Khan, Kató translator for TWB. 

 

The global response to displacement and language barriers – three reasons for hope

United Nations (UN) member states will soon have a critical opportunity to make systematic improvements to how the world assists and protects refugees and migrants. Three promising developments — on language data, multilingual information provision, and translation and interpreting support — show momentum is building towards ensuring all migrants, including those facing language barriers, can access assistance and protection, and claim their rights.

This fall, the 193 members of the UN will adopt the Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees. Many remain understandably skeptical that these two compacts will ultimately lead to the kind of change demanded by the global displacement crisis.

However, there are cautious signs that the process is headed in the right direction. The Global Compacts identify the need to uphold the right to information, a goal in itself and a vital means for allowing all migrants to claim their rights.  

In September 2016, the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants was adopted to improve planning for and response to large movements of refugees and migrants. The declaration triggered over a year of negotiations and consultations between governments, international organizations, and civil society (see TWB’s main recommendations here).

The final draft focused on migrants, entitled the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), includes commitments to ensure that migrants get information in a language they understand. This will help them know their rights and obligations, access appropriate support and counselling services, and realize full social inclusion. Unfortunately, similar commitments are not made in the final draft focused on refugees, entitled the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). However, information in the right language is needed to support other GCR commitments to ensure free and informed consent, protection, participation and empowerment of refugees.

The current lack of language services has severe consequences

At the same time, since the adoption of the New York Declaration, the total number of people displaced from their homes due to conflict, disaster, poverty or hunger has continued to grow. Reports continue to highlight the risks when refugees and migrants lack information and support in a language they understand. They make high-risk choices, including dropping out of the formal reception system. The lack of interpreting and translation support compounds situations of distress. Without access to language support, they are often unable to access medical, educational and other services, or denied appropriate care in violation of their rights.

Ensuring people have access to information they need and are able to communicate in a language they understand should be a priority for well-planned and managed migration policies and refugee responses.

There are three promising developments – if taken forward effectively

With that in mind, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Three key developments emerged from the Global Compacts process so far. If taken forward effectively, these can make a real, positive difference in people’s capacity to receive information and communicate their needs in the right language.

First, both compacts emphasize the importance of collecting and using better data, calling for a comprehensive data set on migration. Language data — information on the languages people speak and understand, and on their communication needs (channels and formats) — should be included in this initiative. This data gap can be filled through existing processes such as needs assessments and registration. For example, the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix has been collecting language data in northeast Nigeria as a basis for improved communication strategies with internally displaced people. The language-related questions they are asking can easily be adapted and included in other data efforts, including the newly established UNHCR-World Bank Group Joint Data Center. This would ensure a strong evidence base for all communications with refugees and migrants.

Second, policies about providing multilingual information for refugees and migrants appear to be gaining traction in practice, which reflects commitments in the Compacts. Since 2016, many governments and humanitarian organizations have developed websites and other materials to facilitate access to information in several languages and for different audiences, including children. The GCM echoes this with a strong commitment to people’s right to information at all stages of migration. In practice, the implementation of both Compacts must result in careful consideration of language barriers. This will help reduce the incidence of irregular migration and enable people to make informed decisions about their journeys and claim protection when needed.

Third, there is a growing recognition of the need for national institutions and service providers to give translation and interpreting support for those who need it. This recognition is seen both in the Compacts and in practice. Often humanitarian organizations fill in the gaps in language services, not without challenges. But some countries, such as Greece and Turkey, have stepped up their efforts to provide language support in hospitals, schools and other social services. This has allowed existing national structures to extend essential services to cater to the needs of migrants and refugees. Implementing the Global Compacts is an opportunity to solidify commitments to reduce the language barriers to effective access to services for all migrants.

The Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees are not going to fix the global displacement crisis by remaining on paper. Resources — including language resources — will have to be mobilized to achieve the aims of the Global Compacts. Effective communication with affected people must be the default position of migration policies and refugee responses.

Language should not be a barrier for refugees and migrants to realize their rights, and make free and informed choices about their future.

Written by Mia Marzotto, TWB's Senior Advocacy Officer. 

 

Witnesses to a struggle: Rundi translators are transforming lives

I have become someone who can joyfully ‘plant a tree under whose shade he doesn’t plan to sit.’” Céderick, translator for Translators without Borders (TWB).  

Translators improve lives by translating potentially life-saving information into ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders possess a range of experiences and skills, but they share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all of our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

The dedication of TWB translators means they sometimes work through unique challenges – juggling translation work with school, internet outages, and pressing deadlines. And while most translators work independently, one Burundi-based group of classmates and friends works together to deliver lifesaving translations. The team faces more challenges than most. Their east African homeland is currently experiencing a great deal of unrest, a situation which makes their work more difficult, but also more rewarding and even more inspiring.

The team works largely from English to Rundi, a Bantu language spoken by some nine million people in Burundi and surrounding countries.   There is a shortage of translators working in this language pair, so Rundi speakers generally have limited information available to them in their own language. The team is changing that situation; they are especially proud of their efforts to translate the World Health Organization’s information on protecting against Ebola.

TWB’s volunteers translate words that support and empower vulnerable people. The members of the Rundi team are no strangers to difficult circumstances: They do their life-changing work under conditions which would be unimaginable for most. Living in a country which experiences extreme poverty, the team members lack personal laptops and rent computers in order to complete projects, setting an inspiring example of dedication and selflessness.

Adelard Dolard

Dolard explains that for him, “Within the soul of my heart, I feel like I must support and help in any way I can. Because nobody was created to be harmed.

Witnessing social struggles like conflict and famine in their home country only drives the team to work harder.

While they are strong as a team, each translator brings their own story and personal motivations.

Who’s who?

The team consists of Melchisédeck Boshirwa (Melcky), Cédrick Irakoze, Adelard Ngabirano (Dolard), Pasteur Nininahazwe, Callixte Nizigama, Freddy Nkurunziza, and Misago Pontien. They are undergraduate classmates with a wide range of interests and talents, but a common dedication to language.  Pasteur, Callixte and Pontien are all passionate about using their translation skills to help others. In the same vein, Freddy and Melcky are committed to improving communication for communities struck by disaster. Céderick is a translator and interpreter who never wants to stop learning, and Dolard is passionate about youth empowerment and women’s rights.

Melchisédeck Boshirwa (Melcky)

Callixte Nizigama

“A professional haven”

The group’s expertise has grown while they’ve worked  with TWB. This is thanks to translation courses provided by TWB, and the diversity of topics tackled. These experiences have taught the group the importance of translating vital information into a language which can be understood by all.

In fact, Cédrick has changed his whole approach to translating due to the nature of the work and the encouragement of his project managers at TWB. He has found a “professional haven” in the world of translation for humanitarian organizations. He is now less distracted by deadlines and more focused on the significance of the project itself.

Cédrick Irakoze

Growth has been personal as well as professional. Cédrick tells us, “I was lucky to find such a hardworking, selfless, and giving team that cares much about others — the ones who are abandoned and forgotten in different corners of the world.” Many translators, like Céderick, relish the opportunity to serve their communities and  humanity, and do fulfilling work in the fields of translation and humanitarian support. For teammate Pasteur, the discovery that he has something of value to donate — other than money — which has the power to save lives, was a revelation.

“Volunteering with TWB has impacted me very deeply on an emotional and intellectual level. People living in refugee camps face critical situations.” Freddy Nkurunziza

Freddy Nkurunziza

To happiness and hope

While all of the tasks completed by these translators are significant, some will always stand out as especially touching.  

Cédrick, for example, was moved by a project he delivered to provide education materials to children. He says that transforming sorrow into happiness and hope through games, sports, verbal communication, and storytelling can make a difference.

The skilled translator envisions the refugee children as “Being peaceful, helpful, and sharing.” This sentiment reminded Céderick of his response to friends who ask him about his volunteer work. He tells them, “I really am making richness. Making future ministers, doctors, teachers, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, and business people is invaluable.”

For Pontien, Pasteur, Melcky, and Freddy, a project with War Child has stuck with them. The Little Ripples project enabled the translators to make a difference in the lives of Burundian infants and children in refugee camps.

Aspiring translators

Pasteur Nininahazwe

“Give what you have” is the gracious advice of Pasteur, who sometimes finds it challenging to fit his translation work in while keeping up with his studies.  Yet, staying committed to the cause “pays more than twice,” says Freddy, who loves the professional badges, appreciation, and certificates given to honor the team’s invaluable work.

Misago Pontien

Pontien reminds fellow Kató translators, and those who are considering joining, that they are change-makers with big roles to play in our communities and beyond. Melcky seconds that sentiment, highlighting the great impact that translators can have. “I have already contributed so much by helping Burundian refugees in camps away from home.” Melcky shares. “What thrilled me most is the certificate of appreciation that I got from iACT [a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian action and aid], thanks to what I did with TWB.”

Their hard work is hugely appreciated by the TWB team and all those they help, as well as partners worldwide.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, and to leave feedback please join the discussion here, or send an email to [email protected].

Join TWB’s community of Kató translators

Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB. Photos and interview responses by Melchisédeck Boshirwa, Cédrick Irakoze, Adelard Ngabirano, Pasteur Nininahazwe, Callixte Nizigama, Freddy Nkurunziza, and Misago Pontien, Kató translators for TWB. 

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.

Translating mental health — finding language solutions in northeast Nigeria

If the sign at the mental health clinic read, “Services for mad people,” would you walk in for help?

Yet that is the reality for many people in northeast Nigeria because of the difficulty in translating concepts like ‘mental health’ into Nigerian languages. Translators without Borders (TWB) is working with humanitarian experts in mental health to better understand the nuances among languages so that words can encourage use of services rather than hinder access.

Northeast Nigeria is linguistically diverse, with more than 30 mother tongues spoken by 1.9 million people displaced by conflict. Often traumatized by the conflict, many internally displaced people (IDPs) could benefit from mental health services. Yet the translation of ‘mental health’ into the main two languages used in the response – Hausa and Kanuri – carries a heavy stigma, possibly keeping people away from clinics.


How can those working in the mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sector communicate information about services, when the very name of the sector scares people away?


To address this question, TWB worked with affected people and sector specialists to identify terms that need to be communicated more effectively. The resulting terminology recommendations and the proposed language glossary, with terms translated into Hausa and Kanuri, promote the use of unambiguous and less stigmatizing language. Use of these terms may, by extension, increase the use of services by those who need them.  

TWB began by identifying 301 key mental health terms that are either difficult to translate, commonly misunderstood, or stigmatizing.

This list was then researched and discussed extensively. TWB facilitated a workshop with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) MHPSS specialists to identify particularly difficult words and discuss alternative translations, aiming to use plain language and to avoid words that stigmatize. A group of 53 internally displaced people then reviewed the translations. TWB tested comprehension among the group and explored alternative translations. Throughout the process, TWB discovered key areas where language posed a significant challenge in the delivery of mental health and psychosocial support services.

Points of confusion

One major finding was that many terms commonly used by English speakers when discussing mental health are heavily stigmatized or misunderstood in northeast Nigeria. “Mental health” in Hausa is literally “services for mad people” — a shocking example of stigma. An alternative way of discussing this sector may lie with the phrase “psychosocial support,” which TWB discovered did not carry the same stigma in Hausa.

Generic terms such as “abuse” and “stress” caused confusion as there is often not a comparable generic term in Hausa or Kanuri. In both languages, the translation of “abuse” was generally understood by respondents to refer only to ‘verbal abuse,’ similar to an insult. Similarly, “stress” meant only physical stress to respondents, such as the physical strain you feel after a day of hard labor. If an aid worker intends to communicate how to relieve “mental stress” or how to heal after experiencing “physical abuse,” it’s clear that miscommunication may occur. Therefore, it is best to always pair descriptive words like “physical,” “verbal,” or “emotional,” with “abuse” and “stress.”

A similar issue was found with the concept of a “safe space.” When used in an English-speaking mental health context, it refers to a physical space where one feels cared for and emotionally supported. However, those surveyed understood this concept as a place with armed guards. This is an example of how sector-specific jargon may not make sense to those who need services. In northeast Nigeria, the concept “accepted space” may translate better.

The TWB MHPSS Glossary


“This is a very laudable work that will hasten the delivery of services to the affected people of north east Nigeria.”  
– Dr. Muhammad A. Ghuluze. Director, Emergency Medical Response and Humanitarian Services


To provide a solution for these issues, TWB has updated its Glossary for Nigeria with the 301 MHPSS-related terms. This glossary app includes words, definitions, sample sentences, and audio recordings for the selected terms. It can be accessed on a computer, tablet, Android, or iOS device, and can be used both on- and offline, which is useful given the poor connectivity in northeast Nigeria.

The app is already being used in training sessions with positive results. Thomas Eliyahu Zanghellin, theMental Health and Psychosocial Support / Gender-based Violence Focal Point for the NGO INTERSOS in Maiduguri, Nigeria, has used the glossary in four training sessions already, generating “really fun group work with stimulating discussions.”

Language and terminology play a key role in the delivery of aid. Many sectors, including mental health and psychosocial support, use jargon and generic terms that do not readily translate in some cultures. Discussions about language allow the humanitarian world to challenge this terminology. The TWB Glossary for Nigeria provides a potential solution, allowing affected communities to access services and claim their rights in a language they understand.

Learn more about the TWB Glossary for Nigeria, and other TWB glossary projects here.

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.