When words fail: audio recording for verification in multilingual surveys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent was not always fully informed

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

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

The enumerator-coded answers did not always match the transcripts

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

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

Respondent: Yes, I want to.

Interviewer: When do you want to go back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the second most important reason? Missing home

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

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

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

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

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

A manual audio recording strategy is difficult to replicate at scale

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

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

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

Language technology can offer some support

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

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

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

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

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

Chloe Sydney, Research Associate at IDMC

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

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. 

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. 

 

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.

Prison Yoga and Moving Smiles – it all matters to a TWB translator

“You are always learning from your colleagues and sometimes you are asked for advice too.” Patricia Cassoni, translator for Translators without Borders (TWB).  

Patricia CassoniTranslators improve the lives of countless individuals, allowing them to access information and knowledge in their own language. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers.

TWB’s virtual community of translators possesses a range of experiences. Kató, the translation platform used by TWB, gives volunteers the opportunity to develop their skills and professional networks while working on impactful projects for nonprofit organizations. Those organizations trust us to provide accurate translations, often in short timeframes. We are grateful for all of our volunteers, and we love sharing their stories.  

Part of the community

Today, the spotlight falls on Patricia Cassoni, one of our most active Kató translators, who has been volunteering with us since 2012. Working from Portuguese to Spanish and English to Spanish, she has completed nearly 300 tasks, amounting to over 360,000 words. Patricia is excited to be part of the community of translators. “I like to meet people through the platform,” she told us, “because, more or less, we have the same intentions and interests of living in a better and fairer world.

Prison Yoga Project

Patricia’s varied and meaningful work has aided the efforts of organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), International Organization for Migration, and Operation Smile. With Operation Smile, Patricia has translated potentially lifesaving information for professionals, families, and children around the world. This helps ensure that those born with cleft conditions receive the level of care that Operation Smile aims to provide, no matter what language they speak.

Patricia’s work has helped to improve hundreds if not thousands of lives. She feels that translating allows her to develop her motivation for helping people.

“It keeps me in permanent contact with the real world,” she says. “As a translator, it is very rewarding to use my knowledge to help those who need it.”

Prison yoga project

Patricia has worked on projects you might never have imagined, using her translation skills to shape lives in every sense of the word. One project that is particularly dear to her is a book translation for the Prison Yoga Project, an organization that works to bring yoga and mindfulness to American prisons. The nonprofit organization trains yoga instructors, produces instructional materials, and teaches classes in detention and rehabilitation centers. It also provides support programs for released inmates, with the ultimate goal of reducing their likelihood of reoffending.

Prison Yoga ProjectPrison Yoga Project

Within TWB’s community of Kató translators, Patricia is both mentor and student, sharing her knowledge and skills with colleagues, and also benefiting from their experiences too. 

“Belonging to TWB’s community of Kató translators is very interesting,” she recounts. “Once, a judicial translator from California contacted me and asked my opinion about her work. It was funny because I had been a judicial translator for fifteen years and this girl did not know it.” Patricia is an excellent example of how participating in the TWB’s community can not only benefit volunteer translators but how it can also make the world feel like a smaller, less divided place.

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].

To join TWB’s community of Kató translators, please apply here.

 

Photos by Robert Sturman, robertsturmanstudio.com, for the Prison Yoga Project. 

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