On the ground in Mozambique: Supporting communication with people affected by Cyclone Idai

Photo credit and copyright: IOM/Andrew Lind

Translators without Borders is on the ground in Mozambique, evaluating the language needs and preferences of people affected by Cyclone Idai. If you’d like to help as we scale our response, you can become a volunteer translator or make a donation

Passport, rubber boots, protein bars, and a Portuguese phrase book. These are the things at the top of my packing list as I prepare to deploy to Beira, Mozambique. Making sure I can understand and be understood by the people affected by Cyclone Idai is my first thought.

Yet I know that Portuguese, the official language of the country, won’t take me very far. Mozambique has a linguistically diverse population and literacy levels are low. Knowledge of Portuguese is limited to coastal urban areas and only a third of women can read and write. I also know that humanitarian organizations cannot afford to have the reach, impact, and accountability of their efforts limited by language barriers.

It is estimated that 1.85 million people are in need of urgent assistance. At least 160,000 people have been displaced. Women reportedly make up at least half of the population in temporary accommodation sites, while older people and people with disabilities who are less mobile are likely to have been left behind or stranded.

In this context, effective communication in the local languages people speak is key to understanding what people need and want.

Even basic information about what humanitarian assistance is available and how it can be accessed must be provided in a manner that meets people’s language capacities and preferences. This goes beyond saving lives. It is about restoring people’s dignity and respect, fulfilling people’s right to know, to ask questions, and participate in their own relief and recovery.

Given the scale of the response, a collective approach to two-way communication can help make the best use of limited resources. This is why I’m headed to Mozambique on behalf of Translators without Borders (TWB). We’ve mobilized to provide language support services to organizations across the entire response. And we’re doing so alongside colleagues from the H2H Network – a new network that provides a range of services to improve the quality and impact of humanitarian action.

We have already translated 15,500 words into the key languages spoken by people throughout the most affected areas: Ndau, Nyanja, Portuguese, Sena, and Shona.

We are mobilizing translators with the most relevant local language skills for both remote and on-the-ground specialized support. We are focusing on mapping languages spoken in the affected areas in collaboration with MapAction. And we are collecting data on language comprehension and communication preferences among affected people. With that knowledge, we can work out the best combinations of language, format, and channel to ensure the widest possible comprehension. We can also help other organizations design communication tools to engage with all affected people.

TWB’s map of languages spoken in the areas affected by Cyclone Idai. Copyright: TWB

The fact that we’ve received funding* to provide language support at the onset of this response shows that as a sector we have come a long way in recognizing the importance of language for effective and accountable humanitarian action. As I set off for Beira, I feel this is truly a step in the right direction to make humanitarian action more inclusive, and to do so at scale.

I invite you to keep following our work in response to Cyclone Idai on TWB’s website, Facebook, and Twitter. We will be providing regular updates over the coming weeks. You can also contact us at [email protected] for further information about our language support services.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we found.    

Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed

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

Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investment in language will improve the response

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

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

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

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

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

View the research brief.

Read the full report.



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

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

Digital development, language gaps, and a prophetic bird

Language technology can help those in need use technology to proactively communicate and access information.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented surge of increasingly powerful technologies that can help solve humanitarian and development challenges. Yet meaningful access to these technologies is not equally available to all people. Hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest, least educated, most vulnerable populations often find themselves on the wrong side of a dangerous digital divide.

Language can be the key that unlocks new digital opportunities for all.

Language is a barrier for technology use

Under the umbrella of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D, or, simply, ICT), technology efforts have become commonplace in the development world over the past few decades. Emerging machine learning and artificial intelligence applications (“AI for Good”) promise to help achieve sustainable development goals globally. In Kenya, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, an app called “Eneza Education” delivers mobile courses to 5 million people. In India, Khushi Baby supplies low-cost wearable technology to monitor child vaccinations.

While these digital applications have the potential to shift communications and empower vulnerable people, they face a number of major hurdles. Access to hardware is an obvious issue, as is access to networks. But even when those issues are resolved, there is the more fundamental barrier of language. Typically digital technology requires basic literacy skills and often foreign language skills, especially considering that more than 50 percent of websites are in English. This turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy with speakers of marginalized languages unable to interact with new tools. Without thoughtful consideration of language barriers, new digital opportunities may only magnify inequality and further exclude marginalized communities, especially speakers of under-served languages.

The world’s most marginalized communities often live in complex linguistic contexts that can further complicate the use of technology. For example, there are 68 languages in Kenya and most people do not speak either Swahili or English, the languages generally used in ICT technologies. Moreover, the digital divide for low-literate ICT users in oral-language communities, such as Berber women in Morocco, is even higher. This is not a rare phenomenon: as many as 7,000 languages are spoken today, two-thirds of which do not have a written form.

Language technology for all

Language technology can address these barriers. Languages that are ‘commercially viable’ have seen an enormous growth in digital tools, both for text and voice. Today, tools like Skype allow for people to carry on lucid conversations even when they don’t speak the same language. The advent of neural machine translation and natural language processing has greatly increased communications among those languages in which for-profit companies have invested.

The trick is to include this language technology in the development of tools for the humanitarian and development sectors.

This is why Translators without Borders is overseeing Gamayun: The Language Equality Initiative.

Named after a prophetic bird of wisdom and knowledge from Slavic folklore, the initiative aims to create more equitable access to language technology that will lead to greater knowledge and wisdom for vulnerable people.

The initiative effectively elevates marginalized languages to the level of commercial languages by ensuring development of machine translation in voice and text in those languages. It also encourages humanitarian tech developers to integrate these engines into their tools and to measure whether they improve communications. Ultimately, the goal is for people in need to have direct access to these tools for their own use, thereby controlling the communications they provide and receive.

To accomplish this, Gamayun must first build a repository of spoken and written datasets for under-served languages. The data comes from humanitarian or development sources, making the resulting translation engines more useful in humanitarian- and development-specific contexts.

Successfully building these datasets requires a massive amount of human input. The data is presented as parallel sets in which a sentence or string of text in a language critical to the humanitarian world is paired with a “source” language. As Gamayun scales, we are seeking datasets from the translation and localization industry, and asking for terminology input from humanitarian sectors. Unstructured data, such as content from open social media outlets, also can be used to train the engines; and, importantly, linguists and context specialists are used to evaluate that data to help make the engines more fit for purpose.

TWB is building datasets in a wide range of languages, but the main focus at first is Bangla, Swahili, and Hausa. These languages are collectively spoken by 400 million people, and were selected because of their associated risk for crisis. The communities that speak these languages have a strong presence online; online communities in those languages will help build, maintain and improve the datasets and the engines.

Meanwhile, Gamayun looks at integration of machine translation engines (voice and text) in applications and tools to evaluate effectiveness in improving communications. TWB and its humanitarian partners are evaluating a number of machine-translation use cases, including in needs assessment tools, two-way communication bots, and call centers, as well as the type of fit-for-purpose machine translation engines are most useful. In some cases, ‘off the shelf’ engines from major technologists work well; in other cases, it is important to contextualize the engine to get the best results.

Access is not enough – the shift of control

Building datasets and engines in marginalized languages, and integrating those engines into tools developed by the sector will improve language equality. But to truly bridge the gap, the tools need to be in the hands of those who are in need. Only they have the best sense of exactly what information they need and, likewise, what information they have and can share.

As a recent report by the Pathways for Prosperity puts it, “impact is ultimately determined by usage; access alone is not sufficient.” While there remain many other barriers to access, including hardware and bandwidth issues, in the area of language, we are poised to greatly increase access and even move beyond. Ultimately, reduction of language barriers through technology has the potential to shift control of communications to people in need. In such a world, vulnerable populations can use the same tools as those who speak ‘commercial’ languages, accessing any information they want, and providing their own information in the language they speak.

We must support speakers of under-served languages as technology continues to evolve and allows us all to be stewards of our own information and communication.

 

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

 

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. 

 

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.

Language Technology Could Help 157 Million People Get Access To Information

I was exhausted.  It had been a great week in Bangladesh, but the overload of language, smells, refugee camp, seeing old friends, meeting new friends, government, donors, and all the while pretending like I wasn’t jetlagged, was taking its toll.  I just wanted to go to sleep.

My last meeting was in Dhaka with someone in the Prime Minister’s office.  I had little hope of staying awake through the meeting.

And yet, I was captivated.

Bangladesh Help Desk Signage
Bangladesh Help Desk Signage

The literacy rate in Bangladesh is considered low (72.8% according to UNESCO in 2016) but is just below the global average. Literacy among women is lower (69.9%); but, in general, the majority of the people have at least basic literacy skills.  There is 90 percent mobile phone penetration and 96 percent mobile internet access. The International Mother Language Institute, the body in Bangladesh that supports the promotion, spread, and preservation of Bangla languages, says that 41 languages are spoken in the country, only five of which have written scripts.  In the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Translators without Borders (TWB) finds the situation particularly difficult. Rohingya has no agreed written script. Very few of the refugees can read and write, there are few people who speak Rohingya and anything else well. Add to this mix low radio coverage – not only do the Rohingya not have radios, even if they did there is not even radio coverage in parts of the camps, and about one million people living in poor and difficult conditions that speak many different dialects and you begin to understand why communicating effectively is difficult.

It’s vitally important that there is two-way communication between the people – refugees and local Bangladeshis – and the government and aid workers. Take the issue of the coming monsoon. The formal and makeshift refugee camps have sprouted up all over the Cox’s Bazar district, an area that includes a national park and lush forest. But now the trees have been torn down to make room for shelters and for firewood.  This makes the soil very unstable and dangerous, with monsoon rains promising huge mud pits and the possibility of landslides. It is also a hilly area; tents are built on the sides of hills that will become slippery and unstable with heavy rains and wind. Refugees, as well as local residents, need to know where to go, what to do if there’s an emergency, how to get help for those needing medical attention, and what to do if food gets swept away.  

The challenges abound. The digital world seems a world away.    

And yet, enter Dr. Jami.  In a buzzy, busy office with a high level of excitement and a relatively good gender balance, I was suddenly in the middle of a high tech environment.  Dr. Jami launched directly into what he wanted us to know and do.

Dr. Jami runs the Access to Information (A2I, inevitably) project in the Prime Minister’s office. The aim is to help the people of Bangladesh quickly and easily get information on public services. One of A2I’s projects is the digitization of government institutions; they have developed over 1,000 key government websites.  Dr. Jami is not a language guy (he’s a solutions architect), but he proceeds to tell me quickly that Bangla was only standardized in Unicode five years ago, so there is very little data available from which to build good translation engines.  While there’s 90 percent mobile phone penetration, in 2018 GSMA estimated that only 28-30 percent of those were smartphones. Yet, 96 percent of internet access is via phones. Whaaa? How does that work? It’s also startling how little desktops and laptops are used to access the internet.  

I asked a taxi driver, who was using a smartphone, if he used his phone for the internet.  He replied, “No, but I use it for Facebook.”

There are no data charges for Facebook in Bangladesh – unless you want to see videos or pictures.  Internet use is Facebook and Facebook is only text. Those who are illiterate, or only barely literate, won’t have smartphones.

To Dr. Jami, who needs more people to have smartphones to help ensure they can get access to information, the cost is not the barrier:  There are very inexpensive smartphones in Bangladesh. He believes it is fear of technology, which he believes is associated with illiteracy. To reach his goal of migrating 70 percent of the current mobile phone users to smartphones, he must address fear.

Language is an issue.  With a population of over 157 million people, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, you’d think that the language technology for Bangla would be outstanding.  It’s not. That’s surprising. And without that technology, equipping 1,000 websites with dynamic information in Bangla is nearly impossible, not to mention making them interactive and/or adding audio.

The work that A2I is doing is globally relevant, of course.  Other countries are already seeking their support to bring better access to information to their people.  He mentions that they are already working in South Sudan – which has the 2nd lowest literacy rate in the world.  Again, the language barrier is huge. And, again, there is little digital language data.  

Dr. Jami has heard of TWB’s Gamayun project – can we help?  Can we be a neutral broker to bring together the limited language data out there and leverage our knowledge of language and the language industry to help Bangladeshis get access to information about basic services?  

Dr. Jami and the TWB team will continue this conversation – there are still many questions to be asked and answered.  But I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the accomplishments of his team. And I am really excited to see where Dr. Jami and other countries take this exciting initiative.

Written by Translators without Borders' Executive Director Aimee Ansari. This article was also published on HuffPost UK.


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

Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard

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

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

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

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

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

Accessibility and Relevance to Women

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