A matter of life and death

TWB - blog

As much as I like to talk about the joys and benefits of multilingualism, the most crucial aspect of language is of a different nature. Language can be a matter of life and death.

Translators without Borders makes a tremendous effort to solve communication problems in crisis areas. This organisation deserves to be better known. It deserves your support.

Translators without Borders needs many kinds of volunteers. None of my language skills qualifies me as a translator for the organisation, but I spend some of my time as a storyteller for them. The article below is based on a report after the Ebola crisis in West Africa. It shows the work done, the potential, and the challenges. It only serves as one example.

In case you are wondering whether I have “switched sides” as for spelling – I haven’t. Since this article first appeared in an American magazine – both online and on paper – I naturally went along with the editor’s orthographic suggestions.


Words of Relief – Ebola Crisis Learning Review – by Marleen Laschet

From February 2014 to February 2015, West Africa was stricken by Ebola. The three most affected countries were Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

The crisis faced serious communication challenges. Over 90 languages are spoken in the area and over 50 percent of the adult population is illiterate. Information materials provided by aid agencies were largely in written form and mainly in English, yet in Sierra Leone, only 13 percent of women speak English.

Additionally, there are few professional translators for the West African languages and there was limited Internet connectivity. When trying to control an epidemic, the availability of material in languages that people understand can reassure communities, increase trust in aid workers and effectively promote behavior change.

Information in the wrong language can lead to mistrust as well as serious misconceptions on how to treat the disease and how it is contracted. In Sierra Leone, 42 percent of the respondents to a UNICEF survey in August 2014 – months after the epidemic began – believed salt-water baths were an effective cure.

To help improve communications with non-English-speaking communities, Translators without Borders (TWB) took its Words of Relief crisis relief project, which was being tested in Kenya, to West Africa. Words of Relief is an innovative approach to address language barriers during crises. “Spider Networks”, or Rapid Response Teams, of crisis translators are virtual teams trained to rapidly respond to language needs. The Spider Network allows the organization to recruit translators, train them as community translators, and respond quickly. A bad translation can potentially be more harmful than no translation, so a quality verification process was implemented. TWB used its vast network and social media to recruit half a dozen translators for the Ebola-affected countries. They underwent an online training, focusing on translation for Ebola. Translations provided by new recruits were reviewed for quality assurance. This also helped address the issues associated with the multiple dialects of the languages. TWB worked with partners to collect, translate and help disseminate Ebola-related materials. 106 items were translated into 30 languages, a total of over 80,000 words.

TWB focused on translating well-established messages: Simple informative posters suggesting ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, messages focusing on behavior to adopt when someone is sick or has been in contact with a sick person, advice on burials, where to get information, and the video “Ebola: A Poem for the Living”. The next step was to make translated materials widely available to aid agencies through various humanitarian networks.

Although the project was in many ways a success, TWB met some obstacles that were difficult to overcome. Even during this kind of crisis, the organization had to advocate for translation, as translation is often not a priority for relief agencies and governments. Getting content for translation from aid organizations proved to be more difficult than anticipated. The contact person often did not have access to the material or could not make decisions on which material was to be translated. Additionally, responders often work in very intense and difficult environments where the Internet is a luxury, making communication quite challenging.

Based on experiences during the Ebola crisis, TWB recommends some changes in humanitarian response. Translation needs to become part of the communication strategy of aid organizations. TWB has produced an advocacy video to create greater awareness about the importance of translations and to explain how TWB can help humanitarian organizations achieve their communication goals. It is crucial for TWB to adopt new work methods, to establish structures that allow communication with communities in local languages, and to quickly reformat translated documents.

In order to improve collaboration with relief organizations, TWB is developing a repository of key messages in local languages that can quickly be translated during a crisis, as well as an API, the Translators without Borders’ Words of Relief Digital Exchange (WoRDE), to provide an easy-to-use workspace for aid agencies to send direct translation requests to Rapid Response Teams. Teams are most effective when they include diaspora as well as community translators from the affected area who can act as local representatives, attending coordination meetings among aid organizations.

To meet the information needs of illiterate people, TWB is including audio and video in the Words of Relief repository of information. TWB will also consider developing text-to-speech technology and incorporating it into the organization’s translation tools. This will allow aid workers to provide written messages in audio form.

Overall, the TWB Ebola Words of Relief project raised greater awareness for translations during humanitarian responses, yet more work remains to be done to advocate the use of local languages in humanitarian responses.

Link to the article in TCWorld

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march, 2023

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