Special Projects: Words of Relief Helps Ease Ebola Crisis

Translators without Borders’ Words of Relief network is playing a vital role in the Ebola crisis – by helping to ensure people receive information in a language they understand. So far, there have been 5,000 official deaths as a result of the virus, mainly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Healthcare in these regions was fragile even before the Ebola outbreak; helping to prevent and treat the disease by providing communication in languages that locals understand is imperative to controlling this crisis.

The Ebola epidemic, called “the modern era’s worst health emergency” by the World Health Organization (WHO) is not just a health crisis but also a crisis of communication and lack of information. In September, UNICEF found that 30 percent of people in affected Sierra Leone (incorrectly) believed Ebola was transmitted via mosquitoes. This recent crisis has highlighted the importance of information and communication that can be trusted and understood by those who need it most.

Translators without Borders’ (TWB) very special project, Words of Relief, is a translation crisis relief network intended to improve communications during a world disaster when crisis-response aid workers and affected populations do not speak the same language. The Words of Relief network has played a crucial role in helping those affected by the Ebola crisis by working to improve communications between aid workers and local populations in West Africa suffering from the Ebola epidemic. Healthcare information from aid agencies is often provided in English and therefore many of those affected by the Ebola virus in Africa cannot understand the content.

TWB’s Words of Relief team has been actively working to reduce the information gap in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia by providing simple health messages – posters and public service announcements – in Krio, Themne, Mende, Fula, Malinke and Pidgin English (audio only), six key West African languages, to give those affected the knowledge to prevent the spread of the disease, recognize the symptoms and seek the right healthcare in a language they could understand. The team hopes to extend the project to other key local languages, such as Bambara in Mali. Information using simple pictures and graphics with minimal wording has also been used to quickly get basic healthcare information across to a wide, multilingual audience, with the aim of saving lives.

Rapid response translation teams, either professional translators or volunteers, trained by TWB, provide the translations. The source content, which communicates information on the Ebola virus and its control, has been provided, mainly in English, by International SOS, WHO/UNICEF and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“TWB’s Words of Relief team has had to overcome some hurdles with the recent Ebola crisis. Finding experienced translators for the [African] languages has been challenging. Diaspora is available and willing to volunteer but may not have experience translating. Professional translators in Sierra Leone and Guinea are also available but they have limited connectivity and communications can be challenging due to the Ebola crisis. But we have managed to find some very motivated volunteers. For those lacking translator experience, they can take part in the rapid response training program,” explained Grace Tang, Words of Relief Co-ordinator.

TWB recently announced that it had received more funding from the Indigo Trust and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. The extra funding will help TWB extend its Ebola Words of Relief project to translate vital information into more West African languages and distribute more local language materials through various humanitarian networks to make sure the message gets through to those who need it most.

The Words of Relief team is helping the Ebola crisis in other areas, including the translation of English-language educational materials into French. Ministries of Education are developing home-learning materials and radio instruction programs to help educate about the virus and its risks. These educational materials include the development and dissemination of Ebola prevention, psychosocial support information and protocols for the safe reopening of schools. One of the primary goals of this education program is to ensure that French-speaking communities understand important communications. (French is the official language of Guinea and Mali). Communities and education representatives could miss out on vital information if it is not in their native tongue.

As I write this article, the Ebola epidemic is still far from being under control, but aid efforts are having an effect. There are so many important messages and communications that need to get through to so many parties, all speaking different languages and dialects. One of the key defense mechanisms is to provide information on how to prevent the further spread of Ebola and recognize its symptoms. Early diagnosis can help communities, aid workers and healthcare workers to isolate and treat patients early on to prevent further spread. They can also make sure burials are completed safely to prevent infection. People must be able to access, understand and trust healthcare advice. Providing knowledge and information in local languages is just one crucial weapon in fighting the war against Ebola.

Louise Law