From teacher to translator: meet Sybil

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

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

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

Natural progression: a freelance career

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serving communities across the globe

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

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

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

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

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

A student in Haiti.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion, or send an email to translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

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

 

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

 

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. 

 

Enlarging the small print on sexual exploitation and abuse

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

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Translating with empathy improves wellbeing in Bangladesh

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

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

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

What makes Mak?

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

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

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

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

Translating opens a window into the world of the Rohingya

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

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

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

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

Visualize the situation: Mak’s strategy

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

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

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, and to leave feedback please join the discussion here, or send an email to translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

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. 

 

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 translators@translatorswithoutborders.org.

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. 

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.

TWB Glossary for North-East Nigeria

How a glossary helps increase access to life-saving information in north-east Nigeria

Nigeria glossary landing page

The humanitarian community in north-east Nigeria is well aware of the challenges of communicating with a population who speak more than 70 languages. Yet until now, they have largely lacked satisfactory solutions. There are few if any trained interpreters and translators for most local languages. Local staff and volunteers do their best to relay information to communities and listen to the people they meet, but it is not surprising that messages can become distorted when they have to be translated through a succession of languages. The question must be asked, what constitutes ‘access’ to humanitarian relief when language is not taken into account during implementation?

Field teams in north-east Nigeria have not been using standardized terminology in local languages. Even when providing messages in just the two main languages of the response, Hausa and Kanuri, humanitarian organizations have found that translations were not consistent. As a result, already vulnerable communities could receive inconsistent information. This can confuse or prevent people from taking protective actions, accessing available assistance, and claiming their rights. Until that time when the sector communicates in the wider range of regional languages, it must, at least, ensure that what is written and spoken in these two languages consistently and accurately conveys key concepts in a way affected people can understand, as a necessary first step.

Understanding this problem, Translators without Borders (TWB) partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council and other protection specialists to develop an English/Hausa/Kanuri glossary for two fields: general protection, and housing, land, and property rights.

The process

To create the glossary, TWB pulled out key terminology from internal and external communication documents created by organizations active in each field. Hausa- and Kanuri-speaking staff and sector specialists came together to review and expand the glossary list. In small groups, they analyzed the English meaning of each word and agreed on the best word or phrase to describe it in Hausa and Kanuri. The result is a glossary which conveys as much of the meaning as possible, chooses words which do not stigmatize, and is based on local usage of the two languages.

Challenges arose throughout the process about the intent and meaning of certain words. For example, the term ‘access’ emerged as an issue. The land rights specialists understood ‘access’ as referring specifically to roads, paths, and physical accessibility. For the protection specialists ‘access’ meant removing cultural and gender barriers. ‘Access to information’ was identified as a third meaning, and ultimately the group selected three translations appropriate to the three contexts.

One group of specialists then checked the other’s lists.

After all, if a protection specialist cannot understand the vocabulary of the land and housing team, what hope is there for someone who is not a humanitarian professional?

After two days of debates and corrections, TWB presented the glossary lists to professional translators. They removed inconsistencies in spelling and corrected any grammatical mistakes before the new terms were entered into TWB’s glossary app for Nigeria.

TWB is happy to announce that the glossary is now available for viewing on mobile phones and other devices here: https://glossaries.translatorswb.org/nigeria/. It is designed to support interpreters, translators, field staff, community outreach workers, and enumerators in using the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with affected people.

The glossary can be viewed on Android or iOS devices and will automatically cache, making it available for offline viewing. This glossary is a living document and TWB welcomes feedback and questions, which will help us improve it over time. Our aim is to expand the glossary app to cover further sectors and more of the languages of the people caught up in the humanitarian emergency in north-east Nigeria. We hope you find it useful in the meantime.

Written by Alice Castillejo, Country Program Manager, Translators without Borders Crisis Response

TWB’s Words of Relief program is supported by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund – a grant-making facility supporting organizations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) initiative ‘Accelerating the Journey to Scale’ is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

hif_logoMFA logo

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”

#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.

Improving access to information in the right languages for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable individuals is the core mission of Translators without Borders (TWB). Often, however, there are too few translators or interpreters available, especially during times of crisis when impacted populations and humanitarian responders do not speak the same language.

To alleviate the dearth of translators and interpreters, TWB invests in the skills of our 26,000 strong community of language professionals. We also invest in state-of-the-art tools and technology that enable us to serve many kinds of humanitarian needs.

Translators Guinea Language Technology.
TWB-trained translators in Guinea.

The right combination of skills and technology helps our translators deliver high-quality, accurate information to partner organizations such as Doctors without Borders and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, often under chaotic, time-sensitive conditions. Our volunteers work to industry standards, building marketable skills that may lead to paying jobs.

Over the long-term, the data we’re creating will play a key role in bringing more underserved languages online and into the digital age. Continue reading “#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.”