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At Translators without Borders, we often talk about how important translation is. Last November, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines showed us how translation can actually save lives.

Bur first, let’s talk about when a lack of translation costs lives.

In a blog called “Indecent Comparisons”, Yann Libessart (MSF emergency team), wrote about what happened when warnings were broadcast in English, even though Cebuano, Waray-Waray and Tagalog were more commonly spoken in the hardest-hit regions:

“Many survivors say they hadn’t anticipated the sudden increase in water level because English-speaking media spoke about a ’storm surge’ and never used the term ’tsunami’… As a result, the most educated people evacuated the area, whereas others thought they would just be facing violent storms.”

Because one important word wasn’t translated, thousands of people stayed in their homes, only to be crushed by six-meter high waves.

Within hours, Translators without Borders was “activated” to provide emergency translation support to a number of groups including World Vision, Save the Children, UNOCHA, Standby Task Force, Frontline SMS and Humanity Road.

One story of how our translations saved lives comes from Humanity Road. This particular incident happened on November 16th, nine days after the start of the crisis. A woman who was being cared for at a relief facility passed on a note in Tagalog, which was translated by Noemi, one of the fantastic TWB volunteers:

My 2 children need help, especially water and food.  PLEASE HELP THEM. 

Noemi immediately translated the message for a supervisor from one of the aid organizations, giving the exact whereabouts of the children. As a result, the children were located and airlifted to safety with their mother.

Today Translators without Borders has been recognized by two major organizations for the importance of our work for disaster relief. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund and Microsoft have both awarded us grants to develop Words of Relief, our real-time solution for translation in a crisis.

We don’t know where or when the next crisis will happen, but already we’re getting ready to help.