The latest from TWB’s language technology initiative

Leaping over the language barrier with machine translation in Levantine Arabic

When a language you don’t understand appears in your Facebook news feed, you can click a button and translate it. This kind of language technology offers a way of communicating not just with the millions of people who speak your language, but with millions of others who speak something else. 

Or at least it almost does. 

Like so many other online machine translation systems, it comes with a caveat: it is only available in major languages. 

TWB is working to eliminate that rather significant caveat through our language technology initiative, Gamayun. We named it after a mythical birdwoman figure in Slavic folklore — she is a magical creature that imparts words of wisdom on the few who can understand her. We think she’s a perfect advocate for language technology to increase digital equality and improve two-way communication in marginalized languages.

We have reached an important Gamayun milestone by leaping over the language barrier with a machine translation engine in Levantine Arabic. Here is how we got here, what we learned, and what is next.

This is the Arabic word for ‘security.’
This is the Arabic word for ‘security.’

What is behind developing a machine translation engine in Levantine Arabic?

In November 2019, we joined forces with a group of innovators and language engineers from PNGK and Prompsit to address WFP’s Humanitarian Action Challenge. Our goal was to use machine translation to enhance the way aid organizations understand the needs and concerns of Syrian refugees, to improve food security programming. 

So we developed a text-to-text machine translation (MT) engine for Levantine Arabic tailored to the specifics of refugees’ experiences. To achieve this, we collaborated with Mercy Corps’ Khabrona.Info team. The team runs a Facebook page for Syrian Arabic refugees to provide them with reliable information and answers, such as about accessing food and other support. We took content shared on the Khabrona.Info Facebook page and manually translated it into English to adapt the engine. The training data and a demonstration version of our MT are available on our Gamayun portal.

How well does this machine translation engine perform?

To answer this question, we conducted an evaluation based on tests widely used by MT researchers. We found that our MT engine produced better translations for Levantine Arabic than one of the most used online machine translation systems. 

We first asked experienced translators to rate the translations for both accuracy and fluency. We provided them with ten randomly selected source texts and translations generated by humans, Google’s MT, and our MT. All translations were fairly good, with scores ranging from zero for no errors to three for critical errors. Our MT engine performed slightly better than Google’s MT because it was adapted to the specifics of Levantine Arabic and its online colloquialisms about food security and other topics relevant to refugees’ experiences. The human translations performed slightly better than our MT, but were not perfect. 

We also asked the experienced translators to rank the best, second best, and worst translations based on each source text. While the human translations were consistently ranked higher than both machine translation engines, our MT was preferred 70% of the time over Google’s MT. 

We then used the standard metric for automated MT quality testing called BLEU. The bilingual evaluation understudy scores an MT translation according to how well it matches a reference for human translation. Scores range from zero for no match to 1.0 for a perfect match, but few translations score 1.0 because all translators will produce slightly different texts. Our generic MT engine trained on publicly available parallel English-Arabic text obtained a 0.195 score on a testing set of 200 social media posts. With further training with a small but specific set for Levantine Arabic and its online colloquialisms, it reached a 0.248 score. Instead, the Google MT translations scored 0.212 on the same testing set. 

Take the short sentence أسعار المواد الغائية مرتفعة as an example: humans translated it as “food is expensive” and our MT returned “food prices are high;” Google’s MT, instead, translated it as “the prices of the materials are high.” All are grammatically correct results, but our MT tended to better pick up the nuances of informal speech than Google’s MT. This may seem trivial, but it is critical if MT is used to quickly understand requests for help as they come up or keep an eye on people’s concerns and complaints to adjust programming.

What makes these results possible?

We specifically designed our MT engine to provide reliable and accurate translations of unstructured data, such as the language used in social media posts. We involved linguists and domain experts in collating and editing the dataset to train the engine. This ensured a focus on both humanitarian domain language and colloquialisms in Levantine Arabic.

The agility of this approach means the engine can be used for various purposes, from conducting needs assessments to analyzing feedback information. The approach also meets the responsible data management requirements of the humanitarian sector.

What have we learned?

We have demonstrated that it is possible to build a translation engine of reasonable quality for a marginalized language like Levantine Arabic and to do so with a relatively small dataset. Our approach entailed engaging with the native language community and focusing on text scraped from social media. This holds great potential for building language technology tools that can spring into action in times of crisis and be adapted to any particular domain.

We also learned that even human translations for Levantine Arabic are not perfect. This shows the importance of building networks of translators for marginalized languages who can help build up and maintain language technology. Where there are not enough—if any—professional translators, a key first step is training bilingual people with the right skills and providing them with guidance on humanitarian response terminology. This type of capacity building can not only make technology work for marginalized language speakers in the longer term, but also ensure they have access to critical information in their languages in the shorter term. 

What’s next?

We are refining our approach, augmented by external support, to achieve the full potential of language technology. We are currently working with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and IMPACT Initiatives using natural language processing and machine learning to transcribe, translate, and analyze large sets of qualitative responses in multilingual data collection efforts to inform humanitarian decision making. We have also joined the Translation Initiative for COVID-19 (TICO-19), alongside researchers at Carnegie Mellon and major tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to develop and train state-of-the-art machine translation models in 37 different languages on COVID-19. 

Stay tuned to learn how we move forward with these projects. We’ll continue to develop language technology solutions to enhance two-way communication in humanitarian crises and amplify the voices of millions of marginalized language speakers.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders.

COVID-19 rumors highlight the need for facts  

Disseminating clear, accurate and accessible information in a language that people understand is critical to tackling misinformation and slowing the spread of COVID-19. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that alongside the virus itself the world faces a “dangerous epidemic of misinformation.”

Misinformation fills the spaces left when people’s voices aren’t heard and their questions aren’t answered. 

Monitoring social media and other discussion platforms are important ways to understand people’s concerns and identify the false information circulating. Health officials and humanitarian organizations involved in the response need to invest in multilingual fact-checking to ensure people have access to the information they need and want. Translators without Borders has partnered with Internews to monitor social media channels in Simplified Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Indonesian and Urdu to identify trending misinformation. Here is what we are hearing, how it relates to lessons from past outbreaks, and what responders should do about it.

What are we hearing? 

Our monitoring reveals that people are looking for answers and wide-ranging rumors are abundant. Questions such as “Can mosquitoes transmit COVID-19?”, “Can the virus survive in hot weather?”, or “Are people with Type A blood more likely to catch COVID-19?” are common across language groups. Often these questions are left unanswered or answered only with speculation from other social media users. 

The most persistent rumors we hear are around ways to avoid catching the virus. Eating garlic, ginger, eggs, pepper or bananas, taking Vitamin D, drinking local herbal infusions, or gargling with salt water are just some of the preventive measures circulating. None of them is true. Trending posts containing inaccurate information about supposed cures often misrepresent it as recommendations from “health experts.” Some incorrect information and advice has been wrongly attributed to organizations like UNICEF. 

Some proposed “cures” have negative consequences, like those that encourage excessive alcohol, smoking or taking various medications. In extreme cases, misinformed posts have had life-threatening consequences. Another recurrent dangerous theme is fear of people who have contracted COVID-19. This escalates sometimes to posts inciting violence against sick people to stop the spread. 

Our team has heard rumors which link mosquito bites to COVID-19. To date, there has no been evidence to suggest that the virus could be spread by mosquitoes. See the WHO myth-busting page for more information.

Simple and accessible formats work 

Our work shows that the rumors that spread quickly are often very simple and use words or images that are easily accessible. Memes and messages including video or audio have greater potential to go viral, whether they contain factual information or not. These formats are easily shareable and digestible by all audiences. 

This is a stark reminder that both language and format matter to ensure fact-checked information reaches everyone, including the most vulnerable and non-literate individuals. 

Lessons from past outbreaks apply 

The problem of misinformation in public health emergencies isn’t new. Lessons from the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide insight into its impact and how to address it. TWB found that people wanted answers to their questions about the disease, not just general instructions. Without up-to-date information in plain and accessible languages and formats, people wondered if they were being told the truth, and rumors persisted. The use of technical terms and concepts that were not consistently or clearly translated and explained in local languages created further confusion, frustration, and fear. Several people told us they did not seek treatment for fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood – and being misdiagnosed with the disease as a result. Health communicators often lacked detailed knowledge of the latest developments to calm people’s fears and address questions. 

This contributed to an environment of distrust between responders and community members. While the Ebola outbreak is not yet over, concerted efforts to address communities’ concerns and counter misinformation in their languages has played a crucial role in controlling it.  

Trust in the source is linked to whether a message is believed  

Trust in the source is an important determinant of whether a message is believed. When information is delivered by a trusted friend or family member, or via a trusted news source or local authority, it is more likely to be believed. Our recent research in Bangladesh confirms that people often prefer to receive information about COVID-19 from these trusted sources. This lesson should be leveraged in rumor-countering strategies.   

What should COVID-19 responders do? 

 Rumors about COVID-19 are circulating widely, repeated across multiple media and in multiple languages. Ignoring or dismissing them isn’t wise, even if some may seem less influential. These rumors will persist unless people have the information they want. Health officials and organizations involved in the response can ensure people have access to timely and factual information that they can understand. Here are three key actions responders must take: 

1. Understand people’s questions and concerns.

That means not just giving them information, but listening to them. Monitor social media and other discussion platforms to understand what information people need and want, especially where expert information on COVID-19 is not available in their languages. Language technology such as natural language processing, machine translation, and automated keyword tracking make this possible at scale, even for marginalized languages.

2. Develop rumor-countering messaging based on people’s questions and concerns.

That messaging should be multilingual, accessible, and actionable. Don’t stick to communication only in the official or dominant languages; instead, translate key messages and materials into the languages people understand. And consider people’s literacy levels and intellectual and physical impairments: audio and audiovisual formats can increase the reach of key messages. Avoid jargon or technical terms that many people won’t understand; instead, use simple words that engage with people’s concerns and don’t stigmatize. Develop messaging that makes the situation feel manageable, with advice that is relevant to people’s specific situations. 

For example, WHO is developing pictorial myth-busting postcards, and IFRC publishes a weekly factsheet to dispel popular rumors. Such resources are urgently needed in a wider range of languages and in formats that people can easily share through different channels. 

3. Partner with trusted, local influencers.

Community leaders, religious leaders, health workers, and local media outlets can amplify dissemination and engagement efforts. Involving them will increase the uptake of key messages in relevant languages and formats.


Here are some useful resources: Internews: rumor tracking methodology and CDAC: Rumour has it: guidance on working with rumours

For more information on TWB’s COVID-19 language services, please contact us at [email protected].

Written by Manmeet Kaur, COVID-19 Response Lead, and Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.


সাইনবোর্ডের ভাষা: ক‍্যাম্পের ভেতরে রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীদের…রাস্তা খুঁজে পেতে সাহায‍্য করার জন‍্য

This blog is also in English: 'Signage language: helping Rohingya refugees find their way.'

Signage in Rohingya Refugee camps feature photo

বাংলাদেশের রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীদের আমরা যে প্রশ্নটি করেছিলাম সেটি হলো:

“ওনে কি কেমফোর মদোতোর ঘরোর সাইনবুধগইন বুজোন্নে? ”  

এই প্রশ্নটির অর্থ কি তা বুঝতে সমস‍্যা হচ্ছে?  

আসলে, শুধু আপনারই সমস‍্যা হচ্ছে এমন নয়। এই প্রশ্নটি করেছি, তার মধ‍্যে ৮০% এরও বেশি লোকের এ প্রশ্নটির উত্তর দিতে সমস‍্যা হয়েছে, কিন্তু সেটি অন‍্য একটি কারণে। 

একটু পরে আমরা আবার এই প্রশ্নটি দেখব। তার আগে রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীদের মধ‍্যে সাক্ষরতার হার কত তা জানা দরকার। রোহিঙ্গা একটি মৌখিক ভাষা, এবং যে কোনো বর্ণমালা ব‍্যবহার করেই লিখিত রূপে এ ভাষার ব‍্যবহার অত‍্যন্ত সীমিত; অংশত এ কারণে সাক্ষরতার হার এত কম। সম্প্রদায়টির মধ‍্যে সবচেয়ে জনপ্রিয় ভাষা হচ্ছে ইংরেজি, এমনকি ইংরেজির ক্ষেত্রেও আমরা সম্প্রতি যাদের সাথে কথা বলেছি তাদের মাত্র ৩১% এ ভাষাটি পড়তে পারে। আর তাদের ইংরেজি জ্ঞানও প্রাথমিক পর্যায়ের, কারণ যারা পড়তে জানেন তাদের প্রায় অর্ধেকই কেবলমাত্র সংখ‍্যা বা বর্ণ চেনেন। এই কারণে সাইনবোর্ড ব‍্যবহার করে তাদের কোনো তথ‍্য জানানো খুবই কঠিন।  যে সব মানুষের তথ‍্য জানা প্রয়োজন, তাদের এমন ফরম‍্যাটে তথ‍্য দিতে হবে যা তারা বুঝতে পারে। কিন্তু লিখিত ভাষা পড়তে না পারার এই অবস্থা যদি পশ্চিমা ধরনের গ্রাফিক্স বা ছবির ক্ষেত্রেও প্রযোজ‍্য হয়? অর্থাৎ রোহিঙ্গাদের কাছে যদি তীর চিহ্ন, ইমোজি বা পিক্টোগ্রামগুলো ফরাসি বা জাপানি ভাষার মতোই কঠিন মনে হয়? তাহলে চিত্র ব‍্যবহারের মানদণ্ড এবং শব্দ কোনোটিই ব‍্যবহার না করে আমরা কিভাবে মানুষকে নির্দেশনা দেওয়ার জন‍্য  ছবিভিত্তিক সংকেত ও চিহ্ন ব‍্যবহার করবো?

এখন দেখা যাক আমাদের প্রশ্নটি কী ছিল?

শুরুতে আপনাদের সামনে যে প্রশ্নটি তুলে ধরা হয়েছিলো – “ওনে কি কেমফোর মদোতোর ঘরোর সাইনবুধগইন বুজোন্নে?’ – যার অর্থ হলো: ‘আপনার ক‍্যাম্পে বিভিন্ন সেবার জন‍্য যে সাইনবোর্ডগুলো রয়েছে আপনি কি তা বুঝতে পারেন?”, জরিপকৃতদের মধ‍্যে ৬৫% (৪০৪ জনের ২৬১ জন) এর উত্তরে জোরালোভাবে বলেছেন “না!”

ক‍্যাম্পের মধ‍্যে আপনি… পথ খুঁজে পাবেন (না কি পাবেন না)

বাংলাদেশের কক্সবাজারে ছড়িয়ে ছিটিয়ে থাকা শরণার্থী ক‍্যাম্পগুলোতে এই সমস‍্যাটির প্রকৃতি অনুসন্ধান করার দায়িত্ব ছিল ট্রান্সলেটর্স উইদাউট বর্ডারসের (টিডব্লিউবি)। ২০১৭ সাল থেকে এই ক‍্যাম্পগুলোতে ৮,৫০,০০০ জনেরও বেশি রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থী বসবাস করছে। এছাড়াও রোহিঙ্গা জনগোষ্ঠীকে সহায়তা প্রদানকারী ১৩০টিরও বেশি জাতীয় ও আন্তর্জাতিক সংস্থা ও এজেন্সি এখানে কর্মরত। প্রায় দশ লাখ মানুষ অর্থাৎ পুরো একটা শহরের সমান জনসংখ‍্যার চাহিদা মেটানো সহজ নয়। যেকোন শহরের মত এই ক্যাম্পগুলোর বাসিন্দাদেরও প্রতিদিন বিভিন্ন ধরনের সেবার প্রয়োজন হয়। কিন্তু এসব সেবার সরবরাহ-কেন্দ্র খুঁজে পাওয়াটা অনেক সময় কঠিন হতে পারে। এখানে স্মার্টফোনে গুগল ম‍্যাপ বা রাস্তার মানিচত্র দেখার কোনো সুযোগ নেই। এখানের বাসিন্দাদের  ইন্টারনেট ব্যবহারের অনুমতি নেই, নেই ক্যাম্প বা রাস্তার বিশদ কোনো মানচিত্র বা ডিরেক্টরি। তাহলে, হয়তো তারা সাইনবোর্ডগুলো দেখলেই পারে। কিন্তু আপনি যদি সেটা বুঝতে না পারেন তাহলে কিভাবে ব‍্যবহার করবেন?

স্বাস্থ্যকেন্দ্র বা ক্লিনিক, খাদ্য বিতরণ-কেন্দ্র, তথ্যকেন্দ্র ইত্যাদির মত সেবা ব্যবস্থাগুলো হাজার হাজার ঘরবাড়ির মধ্যে ছড়িয়ে ছিটিয়ে রয়েছে। এগুলোতে পৌঁছতে হলে সাপের মত আঁকাবাঁকা সহস্র রাস্তা আর অলিগলির গোলকধাঁধা পার হতে হয়। এক জায়গা থেকে আরেক জায়গায় সবসময় সরলরেখায় যাওয়া যায় না, গুরুতর অবস্থায় বা জীবন-মরণের প্রশ্নে হাসপাতালে পৌঁছোবার সময়ও নয়। ক্যাম্পগুলো সাইনবোর্ড আর চিহ্নে ভরা থাকলেও সাইনবোর্ডগুলোতে রয়েছে নানা ফরম‍্যাট, ধরন, রঙ এবং বিভিন্ন ভাষার ব‍্যবহার, এগুলোর জন‍্য অনেক ক্ষেত্রেই বিভ্রান্তি সৃষ্টি হয়। একটি সমস্যা ক্যাম্পগুলোতে কর্মরত ক্যাম্প ব্যবস্থাপনা কর্মীদের চোখে পড়েছে: ক্যাম্পের অনেক বাসিন্দাই চলাফেরা করতে গিয়ে পথ হারিয়ে ফেলেন। তাঁদের মনে হয়েছে যে, গন্তব্যে পৌঁছাবার জন্য সেখানে স্পষ্ট পথ-নির্দেশক চিহ্নের প্রয়োজন। ক্যাম্পের বাসিন্দাদেরও এ বিষয়ে একই মত।

আমরা কী করেছি?

২০১৯ সালের জানুয়ারিতে, আমরা বের করি যে ক্যাম্পের সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক চিহ্নগুলোর ক্ষেত্রে সমস্যাগুলো কী। আমাদের লক্ষ্য ছিল স্থানীয় সম্প্রদায়ের সাথে মিলে এমন কিছু নির্দেশক চিহ্ন তৈরি করা যা সেখানকার বাসিন্দারা বুঝতে পারে। এক্ষেত্রে নিম্নলিখিত সেবাব্যবস্থা ও কেন্দ্রের দিকে বিশেষভাবে লক্ষ রাখা হয়েছিল: 

  • স্বাস্থ্যসেবা কেন্দ্র/হাসপাতাল/ক্লিনিক
  • তথ্যকেন্দ্র
  • মহিলাদের জন‍্য নিরাপদ জায়গা (সেফ স্পেস)
  • শিশুবান্ধব স্থান 
  • পুষ্টিকেন্দ্র
  • খাদ্য বিতরণকেন্দ্র

স্থানীয় সম্প্রদায়ের জানানো চাহিদা ও সুবিধার উপর ভিত্তি করে সাইট ব্যবস্থাপনা এজেন্সিগুলো যেন নির্দেশক চিহ্নের ডিজাইন তৈরির ক্ষেত্রে সমন্বিতভাবে কাজ করতে পারে তা-ই ছিল এই গবেষণার লক্ষ্য। পর্যবেক্ষণের জন্য মাঠ পর্যায়ের পরিদর্শন, ডিজাইন-পূর্ব ও ডিজাইন-পরবর্তী ফোকাস দল আলোচনা (এফজিডি), এবং সাইট ব্যবস্থাপনা সেক্টরের ওয়ার্কিং গ্রুপ ও ক্যাম্পের সব ম্যানেজারদের নিয়ে তৈরি একটি আলোচনা-দল এই গবেষণার অন্তর্ভুক্ত ছিল। আমরা নির্দেশক চিহ্নের প্রোটোটাইপের বোধগম্যতা পরীক্ষা করি, এবং একটি প্রি-পাইলট বেসলাইন স্টাডি পরিচালনা করি। 

রঙ, বিষয়বস্তু ও ভাষার ক্ষেত্রে সম্প্রদায়টির পছন্দ এবং নানা রকমের আকৃতি ও লোগো সম্পর্কে তাদের জ্ঞান নিয়ে এফজিডিগুলোতে আলোচনা করা হয়। সময় ও দূরত্ব তারা কীভাবে বোঝে তা এবং বিভিন্ন প্রকার ছবির ক্ষেত্রে তাদের সংশ্লিষ্ট সাংস্কৃতিক সংবেদনশীলতা নিয়েও কথা বলে হয়। গবেষণার এই পুরো সময় জুড়ে গ্রাফিক ডিজাইনারদের সাথে নিয়ে আমরা উন্নত মানের এমন কিছু নির্দেশক চিহ্ন তৈরির চেষ্টা করেছি যা সম্প্রদায়ের সদস্যরা দেখে বুঝতে পারবে। 

আরও ভাল নির্দেশক চিহ্ন কতটা দরকার তার পক্ষে-বিপক্ষে মানুষের সংখ্যা কেমন?

গবেষণার বিভিন্ন পর্যায়ে রোহিঙ্গা সম্প্রদায় থেকে জানানো হয়েছে যে, আরও উন্নত মানের নির্দেশক চিহ্ন তাদের প্রয়োজন। ২০২০ সালের জানুয়ারিতে আমরা ক্যাম্পের ৪০৪ জন বাসিন্দাকে প্রশ্ন করি যে তাঁরা ক্যাম্পের সেবা ব্যবস্থাগুলো খুঁজে বের করার সময় বর্তমানে যে সাইনবোর্ড ও নির্দেশক চিহ্নগুলো রয়েছে তা কতটা ব্যবহার করে থাকেন। আমরা দেখি যে –

  • ৪৫% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “কখনোই না” 
  • ১২% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “খুব কম” 
  • ১৫% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “কম”
  • ৬% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “মাঝে মাঝে”
  • ৬% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “প্রায়ই”
  • ১৬% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “সবসময়”।

সেবা ব্যবস্থার সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক চিহ্নগুলো পড়তে/অনুসরণ করতে কোনো সমস্যা হয় কি না তাও অংশগ্রহণকারীদের জিজ্ঞাসা করা হয়। এতে দেখা যায় –

  • ৬০% উত্তর দিয়েছেন “হ্যাঁ”
  • ৫% তাঁদের পরিচিতদের এমন সমস্যায় পড়তে হয়েছে বলে উল্লেখ করেছেন 
  • ৮৯% জানিয়েছেন যে, ক্যাম্পে আরও ভাল নির্দেশক চিহ্ন থাকলে সেবা ব্যবস্থাগুলো খুঁজে পেতে তাঁদের সুবিধা হবে 
  • ৯১% বলেছেন যে, আরও ভাল নির্দেশক থাকলে তাঁদের সেবাব্যবস্থা ব্যবহারের সম্ভাবনা বাড়বে। 

২০১৯ সালের অক্টোবরে সম্প্রদায়ের ১৭৯ জন সদস্যকে নিয়ে পরিচালিত বোধগম্যতা পরীক্ষায় একই প্রশ্নের জবাবে ৯৭% অংশগ্রহণকারী একই জবাব দিয়েছেন। জরিপটির সময় ৯৯%-এরও বেশি (১৭৯ জনের মধ্যে ১৭৮ জন) জানিয়েছেন যে, আরও ভাল নির্দেশক থাকলে বিভিন্ন সেবা পাওয়াটা তাঁদের জন্য আরও বেশি সহজ বা সুবিধাজনক হবে।

সময়নির্দেশক চিহ্ন বা সাইনবোর্ড

নির্বাচিত ছয় প্রকার সেবাব্যবস্থার জন্য ক্যাম্পে ব্যবহৃত বিভিন্ন ফরম্যাট ও ধাঁচের নির্দেশকের নমুনা আমাদের দল থেকে পর্যবেক্ষণ করা হয় এবং সেগুলোর ছবি তোলা হয়। সেগুলোতে বেশিরভাগ ক্ষেত্রেই তথ্য শুধু লেখা হিসাবে দেওয়া ছিল, আর তাও অধিকাংশ ইংরেজিতে আর মাঝে মাঝে সাথে বাংলা এবং/বা বর্মি ভাষায় অনুবাদ। তাৎক্ষণিকভাবেই কয়েকটি প্রবণতা আমাদের দলের চোখে পড়ে:

  • সবচেয়ে জনপ্রিয় ভাষা হচ্ছে ইংরেজি
  • সাইনবোর্ডগুলোতে একটা বড় অংশ জুড়ে সংস্থাগুলোর লোগো থাকে (বাড়াবাড়ি রকমের বেশি – কোনো কোনো ক্ষেত্রে ৬টি বড় বড় লোগো রয়েছে এমনও দেখা গিয়েছে)
  • তীরচিহ্ন দিয়ে দিক নির্দেশ করা হয়
  • নির্দেশক বা সাইনবোর্ডগুলোর আনুমানিক ৮০% ইংরেজিতে লেখা এবং সেগুলোতে কোনো ছবি বা আইকন নেই (সংস্থার লোগো ছাড়া), অথচ পড়তে পারে শরণার্থীদের মাত্র ৩০% 
  • একটি দিক নির্দেশনা অনুসরণ করে কিছুদূর যাওয়ার পর দেখা যায় সামনের গুরুত্বপূর্ণ মোড়গুলোতে আর কোনো সাইনবোর্ড নেই, যার ফলে এই দিক নির্দেশনাগুলো খুব একটা কাজে আসে না
  • নির্দিষ্ট করে কোনো সেবাব্যবস্থা বোঝাতে কোনো রকম ছবি বা আইকন ব্যবহার করা হয় না
  • নির্দেশক চিহ্নগুলোর মধ্যে মিলের খুবই অভাব, এমনকি দিক নির্দেশনা আর নির্দেশিত সেবা ব্যবস্থাগুলোর চিহ্নের মধ্যেও অসামঞ্জস্য দেখা যায়। 

চারটি ক্যাম্পে পর্যবেক্ষণের ফলে আমরা নিশ্চিত হই যে, বেশিরভাগ সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক চিহ্নের নকশা যেভাবে করা হয়েছে তা রোহিঙ্গাদেরকে—বিশেষ করে, যারা খুব বেশি পড়তে পারে না বা একদমই পারে না তাদেরকে—তথ্য জানাবার জন্য উপযোগী নয়।

গবেষণাটি থেকে আমরা কী জানতে পেরেছি?

সাইট ব্যবস্থাপনা কর্মী, রোহিঙ্গা সম্প্রদায়ের সদস্য এবং গ্রাফিক ডিজাইনারদের সাথে একসাথে মিলে টিডব্লিউবি-র গবেষকরা চিহ্নগুলোর প্রোটোটাইপ তৈরি করে। এসব নির্দেশক কেমন হওয়া উচিত তা সম্পর্কে সম্প্রদায়ের বেশ কিছু পছন্দ আমরা ফোকাস দলের আলোচনা এবং অন্যান্য পরামর্শদাতার সহায়তার মাধ্যমে শনাক্ত করি।


  • নির্দিষ্ট রঙ প্রায়ই নির্দিষ্ট সংস্থাকে বুঝিয়ে থাকে (যেমন- নীল রঙ জাতিসংঘকে, গোলাপি রঙ ব্র্যাককে বোঝায়)। 
  • যারা পড়তে পারে না তাদের জন্য নির্দেশক বা সাইনবোর্ডের অর্থ বোঝার সবচেয়ে ভাল বা একমাত্র উপায় হচ্ছে রঙ দেখে চেনা, বিশেষ করে লেখার সাথে যখন কোনো ছবি থাকে না। তাই অন্তত কিছু রঙের ব‍্যবহার এখানে কাম‍্য। 
  • সম্প্রদায় থেকে কালার কন্ট্রাস্ট বা রঙের তীব্রতার পার্থক্যযুক্ত ডিজাইনের প্রতি পছন্দের কথা জানানো হয়েছে — গাঢ় রঙের পটভূমির উপর-হালকা রঙের লেখা/ছবি দেখা/পড়া সহজ হয়। 
  • চূড়ান্ত প্রোটোটাইপের পরীক্ষার সময় ১০০% অংশগ্রহণকারীই (১৭৯ জন) মূল ছবির চারদিকে রঙিন সীমানা আঁকা থাকলে ভাল হয় বলে জানিয়েছেন।

কোথায় এবং কখন

  • ফোকাস দলে অংশগ্রহণকারীদের মধ্যে তীরচিহ্নের প্রতি সন্তুষ্টি দেখা যায় নি। 
  • তাঁরা জানিয়েছেন যে, আঙুল দিয়ে দিক নির্দেশ করা হলে তা তাঁরা বেশি পছন্দ করবেন। 
    • চিহ্নগুলোর প্রোটোটাইপের চূড়ান্ত পরীক্ষার সময় অংশগ্রহণকারীদের ৯৩% আঙুলের ছবি দিয়ে নির্দেশিত দিক সঠিকভাবে সনাক্ত করতে পেরেছেন। 
    • ৭৬% অংশগ্রহণকারী জানিয়েছেন যে, গন্তব্যে পৌঁছে গেছেন বোঝাতে পাশাপাশি খোলা দুই হাতের ছবির পরিবর্তে নিম্নমুখী আঙুলের ছবি বেশি ভালো।
  • গন্তব্যে পৌঁছতে কত মিনিট লাগবে তা বোঝানো বেশ কষ্টসাধ্য বলে দেখা যায় – নানা রকম প্রচেষ্টার পরও উল্লেখযোগ্য ফল আসে নি। 
  • অংশগ্রহণকারীদের সাক্ষরতা অনুযায়ী, চূড়ান্ত প্রোটোটাইপ পরীক্ষায় ৫৪% অংশগ্রহণকারী প্রতিটি গন্তব‍্য পৌঁছানোর হন‍্য কতটুকু সময় লাগবে তা বুঝতে পেরেছেন।
here sign_ BGL Signage blog_ Apr 2020

বলা বাহুল্য, লেখা শুধু তাদেরই কাজে আসে যারা পড়তে পারে। 

  • লিখিত ভাষার মধ‍্যে বর্মি ও ইংরেজি সবচেয়ে বেশি মানুষ বুঝতে পারে।
  • সম্প্রদায়টির একটি বিশাল অংশই বাংলা পড়তে পারে না। কর্তৃপক্ষও সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক চিহ্নে বাংলা ভাষা ব্যবহারের পক্ষপাতী নয়। 

format image

জনপ্রিয় নয় এমন ধরনের ছবি;
অংশগ্রহণকারীদের পছন্দ বাস্তবসম্মত আঁকা ছবি

  • ছবির নানাবিধ প্রকারের মধ্যে সেবা গ্রহণরত মানুষের বাস্তবসম্মত আঁকা ছবিই সবচেয়ে বেশি জনপ্রিয়।  
  • প্রোটোটাইপের পরীক্ষার সময় যাঁদের পরামর্শ নেওয়া হয়েছে তাঁদের ৮৩% বলেছেন যে, সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশকে ছবি/কার্টুন এবং লেখা—দুটোর একসাথে থাকাটাই তাঁদের বেশি পছন্দ।
  • ৩%-এরও কম কেবল লেখা (বর্ণ/বাক্য) থাকলে ভাল হবে বলেছেন।
  • তোলা ছবি (ফটোগ্রাফ) জনপ্রিয়তা পায় নি (৮৯.৪% বলেছেন তোলা ছবি তাঁদের পছন্দ নয়)।  
  • মানুষের ছবির সরল রূপ (বা ইমোজির মত রূপ) বিভ্রান্তি সৃষ্টি করেছে, অংশগ্রহণকারীদের অনেকেই বলেছেন সেগুলোকে তাঁদের ভূত বলে মনে হয়।  
  • অংশগ্রহণকারীদের নব্বই শতাংশ জানিয়েছেন যে, তাঁরা সাধারণত ছবি দেখে কোনো সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশকের অর্থ বোঝার চেষ্টা করে থাকেন। 

image designs

অবশেষে উন্নতির লক্ষণ দেখা যাচ্ছে!

Women safe space sign

মহিলাদের জন‍্য নিরাপদ স্থান: আমাদের অন‍্যতম একটি প্রোটোটাইপ

টিডব্লিউবির গবেষকদের সাথে কর্মরত আমাদের গ্রাফিক ডিজাইনাররা সমাধান হিসাবে এই চিহ্নটি ব‍্যবহার করতে পরামর্শ দিয়েছেন।  ক্যাম্পের রোহিঙ্গা বাসিন্দাদের পছন্দ ও চাহিদার উপর ভিত্তি করে তৈরি ছয়টি নির্দেশকের মধ্যে এটি একটি। এই নকশায় সম্প্রদায়ে পরীক্ষিত সচিত্র যোগাযোগ পদ্ধতি (জীবন্ত চিত্র, আঙুলের সাহায‍্যে দিক নির্দেশনা) ব‍্যবহার করার সাথে সাথে যারা পড়তে পারেন তাদের জন‍্য বর্মি ও ইংরেজি ভাষায় তথ‍্য সংযুক্ত করা হয়েছে। চিহ্নগুলোকে দেখতে খুব সাধারণ মনে হলেও, এগুলো সম্প্রদায়টির জটিল ও সুনির্দিষ্ট চাহিদাগুলো সামনে রেখে তৈরি করা হয়েছে। 

এই চিহ্নগুলির চূড়ান্ত প্রোটোটাইপ পরীক্ষার সময় সম্প্রদায়ের যেসব সদস্যের সাথে কথা বলা হয়েছে তাঁদের সবাই বলেছেন যে, এই ফরম্যাট মেনে ক্যাম্পে সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক লাগানো হলে তা তাঁদের জন্য সহায়ক হবে (৯৭% “অনেক সহায়ক”, ৩% “সহায়ক”)। চারটি ক্যাম্পে উল্লিখিত ছয়টি সেবা ব্যবস্থার সাইনবোর্ড বা নির্দেশক নিয়ে প্রারম্ভিক পরীক্ষার (পাইলট টেস্ট) প্রস্তুতি চলছে, আর এই ফলাফল পাওয়ার প্রত্যাশিত সময় ২০২০ সালের মাঝামাঝি। 

আশা করা যায় এবার রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীরা ক‍্যাম্পের ভেতরে পথ খুঁজে পাবেন!

Peter Squires, Evidence and Impact Officer for the Rohingya Response, Translators without Borders

Clarity is the overlooked opportunity in the rush to produce COVID-19 information

Clarity is an important but often overlooked factor in COVID-19 communication. The World Health Organization, UNHCR, and the Centers for Disease Control emphasize the importance of clarity in health communications. These and other agencies urge us to use established plain-language principles to achieve that required clarity. 

The great benefit of plain language is that it requires a relatively low reading effort to understand and be able to use the information. It helps all of us, regardless of our socioeconomic or educational status, professional skills, linguistic ability, or literacy level. In a crisis, we are all anxious, rumors are common, and timing is critical. We all want to have and to offer certainty. In the COVID-19 pandemic, plain language has the potential to change behavior, overcome rumors, and ultimately to save lives. We should use it more than we currently do.

We can and should communicate more clearly, and plain language shows us how to do that

Many documents that Translators without Borders receives from humanitarian organizations don’t follow basic plain-language principles. That’s a missed opportunity, not just in how we communicate with communities. It’s also a missed opportunity to communicate more effectively with our colleagues, donors, boards, governments and other partners. Plain language can revolutionize how we communicate in general. 

I recently reviewed and edited 10 documents that 10 humanitarian organizations produced as part of their COVID-19 response. All organizations sent the documents to Translators without Borders as final versions ready for translation and distribution.

Each of the documents contains multiple opportunities to add clarity for readers. Several even contain spelling and grammatical errors. In isolation, individual issues and examples can seem pedantic. But collectively they highlight an opportunity for us to communicate more effectively. 

I identified five relatively easy ways to improve document clarity. Writers should use:

  • active voice
  • short sentences
  • correct terminology
  • consistent terminology
  • concise wording.

Use the active voice

The active voice is clearer than the passive voice because it specifies who is responsible for an action. That helps our readers to be accountable for their actions; it also allows them to hold us accountable. The active voice typically uses fewer words, leading to shorter sentences. It also makes the verb more dominant, which focuses the reader’s attention on the relevant action.

Despite those obvious advantages, passive voice is an issue in eight of the 10 documents. Two documents contain 25% or more sentences in the passive voice. Two others include passive voice in more than 18% of sentences.

Use short sentences

Sentence length influences reader comprehension. A general plain-language recommendation is to limit sentences to 20 words or fewer, although most readers can comprehend longer sentences. Longer sentences require simple syntax and grammatical structures to help the majority of readers understand them. But rather than expect untrained writers to use simple syntax and grammatical structures, it’s easier to suggest they use short sentences.

Long sentences are an issue in eight of the 10 documents I reviewed. They use multiple complex sentences with up to 50 words. The complex opening sentence of one document contains 42 words, several clauses, various tenses, and multiple verbs. It also addresses several ideas:

“In several countries and on global level, persons with disabilities have spoken out that government information is not being shared in accessible formats or that measures are not made to compensate for reduction in support services that persons with disabilities depend on.” 

A plain-language alternative with 33 words in three simple sentences is:

“Many persons with disabilities have said that they are not adequately supported by their government. Some governments don’t provide information in accessible formats. Others don’t compensate well enough for reduced disability support services.” 

coronavirus clarity

Use key terms correctly

A clear document saves your reader having to assume or infer any information. That’s important because incorrect assumptions and inferences can cause misunderstandings and rumors. Misused or unclear terms also undermine your credibility as a trusted information source. 

Three of the 10 documents that I reviewed use a significant term incorrectly. They incorrectly assert that COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus. The actual message we need to convey is that COVID-19 is the disease caused by a type of coronavirus.

Several of the other documents use “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” interchangeably. Errors or oversights like this confuse readers, and require them to apply extra reading effort to untangle the true meaning.

Use terminology consistently 

Synonyms confuse readers. So a key plain-language principle is to use one term to describe one concept. That increases reader understanding, which is a critical aspect of changing readers’ behavior. In the 10 documents I reviewed, the majority used multiple terms to refer to the same concepts.

For example, some documents use both “separate” and “isolate” to refer to the same concept. Others use “the disease” and “the illness” to mean the same thing. One document uses “germ” and “virus” to mean the same thing. 

All of these pairs are legitimate synonyms. In some contexts readers might even view such variation as a sign of creativity. But in an urgent humanitarian response, always choose clarity over creativity.

Use concise wording

Use the minimum number of words to make your point. It’s a fundamental plain-language principle and a powerful way to engage your readers and keep their interest. 

One document uses 47 words to explain how to wipe a surface:

“Bleach usually comes in a 5% solution. Add cold water (hot water will not work) to dilute it, using 2 cups of bleach in a 5 gallon bucket of water. First clean with soap and water, then clean with the bleach solution and let it air dry”

A more concise 28-word alternative is:

“Clean surfaces with soap and water. Then wipe the surfaces with a mix of 2 cups of household bleach in 5 gallons of cold water.”

Let’s clear up the confusion and the rumors

The urgent and changeable nature of the COVID-19 response partly explains the lack of clarity in the 10 documents. But it doesn’t make it excusable, especially given the ongoing concerns among responders about uncertainty, rumors, misinformation, confusion, and undesirable behavior. Plain-language writing offers a way for all of us to communicate more clearly. We should all try to understand it better and apply it more consistently.

Written by Kate Murphy, Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders

Signage language: helping Rohingya refugees find their way

Bangla: সাইনবোর্ডের ভাষা: ক‍্যাম্পের ভেতরে রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীদের…রাস্তা খুঁজে পেতে সাহায‍্য করার জন‍্য

Signage in Rohingya Refugee camps feature photoHere is a question we asked Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh:

Oney ki kemfor modotor ghoror sainbudhgin buzonne?” 

Having some trouble understanding what this question means?  

Well, you’re not alone. The majority of refugees we asked, over 80%, would also have trouble answering this question, but for a different reason. 

We’ll revisit this question again in a moment. First, it is important to note the levels of illiteracy amongst Rohingya refugees. The low levels stem partly from the fact that Rohingya is a verbal language, with very limited use of it in written form in any alphabet. Even with English, the most popular written language amongst the community, only 31% of those we spoke to recently can read it. Their ability is mostly at a basic level, with almost half of those reading only numbers or recognizing letters. This makes communicating information using signs very challenging.  Information must be provided in forms that are understandable to those who need it. But what if this illiteracy also applies to western forms of graphics as well as written languages? Where arrow symbols, emojis, and pictograms are as hard to interpret as French or Japanese to Rohingya refugees? How then do we create visual signs to show people the way without using established graphic standards and words?  

What was the question?

The question put to you earlier –Oney ki kemfor modotor ghoror sainbudhgin buzonne?” – translates to “Do you understand the signage for services in your camp?” The answer was a resounding “no!” for 65% of those surveyed (261 out of 404).

Finding your way… through the camps (or not)

This is the problem Translators without Borders was asked to look at within the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Since 2017 these camps are home to more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees. They also accommodate more than 130 national and international organizations and agencies offering assistance to the Rohingya community. Meeting the needs of a city-sized population of close to a million people is no easy feat. Like all “city” populations, the residents of these refugee camps need a range of services to meet their daily needs. Locating these services can be a challenge. There are no smartphones with Google Maps or street maps. Residents are not allowed to access the internet, nor are there detailed street directories or maps of the camps. So, maybe they should just follow the signs? Not if you do not understand these either.

Services such as medical clinics, food distribution centers and information hubs are scattered throughout tens of thousands of makeshift homes and buildings. Each must be found by navigating the maze of thousands of roads and alleys which snake through the camps. Making your way from point A to point B is not always straightforward, including when it comes to critical and even lifesaving services such as hospitals. While the camps are littered with signs, these come in a variety of format, style, color, and language combinations, many of which lead to confusion. The camp management staff who work in the camps had observed something problematic: many camp residents were getting lost. They saw a need for clear directional signage to guide residents to their destinations and, as it turns out, so did the community.  

What did we do?

In January 2019, we set out to find out what was going on with signage in the camps. Our goal was to work with the community to develop signs they understand. The research focused on developing signs for the following key services and facilities: 

  • health centers/hospitals/clinics
  • information hubs
  • women safe spaces
  • child-friendly spaces 
  • nutrition centers
  • food distribution centers

The research aims to influence site management agencies to adopt a consolidated approach to the design of signage, based on community-identified needs and preferences. The research included observational field visits, pre- and post-design focus group discussions (FGDs), and a discussion group with camp managers and the site management sector working group. We tested comprehension of sign prototypes, and conducted a pre-pilot baseline study. 

The FGDs explored the community’s color, content, and language preferences and their knowledge of forms, shapes, and logos. They also explored their understanding of time and distance, and their relevant cultural sensitivities around imagery. Throughout the research process, we worked with graphic designers to develop improved directional signage the community understands. 

What do the numbers tell us about the need for better signage?

The Rohingya community confirmed the need for improved signage in the camps at various stages of the research. In January 2020 we asked 404 camp residents how often they used existing signs to locate services and facilities in the camps. We found that

  • 45% answered “never” 
  • 12% answered “rarely” 
  • 15% answered “occasionally”
  • 6% answered  “some of the time”
  • 6% answered “often”
  • 16% answered “all of the time”.

We also asked the respondents if they had faced difficulties reading/following existing signage for services in the camp. We found that:

  • 60% answered “yes”
  • 5% reported knowing others who had experienced difficulties 
  • 89% indicated that better signage would make it easier for them to locate services in the camps 
  • 91% said that better signage would increase the likelihood of them using services. 

In response to the same question during comprehension testing with 179 community members in October 2019, 97% responded the same way. During that survey, over 99% (178 out of 179) reported that better signage would make it easier or more convenient for them to access services.

The signs of the time

Our team observed and photographed a variety of signage formats and designs in the camps for the six service types targeted. The majority of signs provide information in text only, predominantly in English, sometimes accompanied by Bangla and/or Burmese translations. Our team immediately found some obvious trends:

  • English is the most popular language
  • Organization logos take prominence (way too much- some signs even contained 6 large logos)
  • Arrows give directions
  • Approximately 80% of the signs were in English and contained no icons or images (aside from the organization logos), even though  only 30% of refugees can read them 
  • Where there was directional signage, there was little follow-through on the directions at key intersections and crossroads, making the trail hard to follow
  • Icons or images are not used to signify specific services
  • There is little consistency in signage, including correlations between directional signage and the signs on the actual facilities. 

Our observations in four camps confirmed most of the signs are not designed in a way that communicates information to the Rohingya community, especially those with low or no literacy. 

What did the research tell us?

To develop our sign prototypes  researchers from TWB worked with site management staff, members of the Rohingya community, and graphic designers. Through the focus group discussions and other consultations, we identified a variety of community preferences about how signs should be designed.

  • Specific colors are often associated with specific organizations (e.g. blue for the United Nations and pink for BRAC). 
  • For those who cannot read, color is often the best or only way of interpreting signage, especially when there are no pictorial aides and so at least some color is still preferred. 
  • The community indicated a preference for designs with contrast – light-colored text/graphic content on dark backgrounds increases readability.
  • During final prototype testing, 100% of participants (179) indicated a preference for signs with a colored border around the central picture.
Where and when

  • Arrows were not popular with focus group participants. 
  • Participants preferred an image of a pointing finger to indicate direction. 
  • In the final testing of the sign prototype, 93% of all respondents correctly determined the direction using the image of a pointing finger. 
  • A finger pointing down was also preferred by 76% of participants to indicate arrival at a destination, as opposed to two open hands.
  • Communicating the number of minutes to arrive at a destination proved challenging – all variations tested poorly. 
  • In line with participant literacy levels, 54% of respondents in final prototype testing could identify the time required to reach the destination.
here sign_ BGL Signage blog_ Apr 2020

Not surprisingly, text/script is useful to those who can read. 

  • Burmese and English are the most widely understood written languages.
  • The overwhelming majority of community members cannot read Bangla. There is also opposition from authorities to including Bangla in signs.

format image

Unpopular image designs;
participants preferred realistic drawings

  • Realistic drawings of people using the service were by far the most popular image style. 
  • 83% of people consulted during prototype testing preferred signs that combined drawings/cartoons and text.
  • Less than 3% preferred signage with text (letters/script) only.
  • Photographs were not popular (89.4% did not prefer photos). 
  • Simplified images (or emoji styles) of people caused confusion, with a large number of participants associating these with ghosts. 
  • Ninety percent of respondents in final prototype testing reported looking at the picture to understand the meaning of the sign. 

image designs

Finally, a sign of progress!

Women safe space sign

Women Friendly Space: one of our final sign prototypes

In response,  our graphic designers working with TWB researchers suggested this sign.  It is one of the six signs developed based on the preferences and needs of the Rohingya community living in the camps. The design incorporates community-tested pictorial communication (life-like diagram, pointing finger), as well as information in Burmese and English for those who can read these languages. Although this sign appears simple, it is specially designed for one community who, like all communities, have complex and specific communication needs. 

All community members consulted during the testing of the final prototype of this sign said that it would be helpful (97% “very helpful”, 3% “helpful”) if signage in this format was used in their camps. Preparations for pilot testing of signs for the six services in four camps is under way, with findings from the pilot test expected in mid-2020. 

Here’s to helping Rohingya refugees finally find their way through the camps!

Written by Peter Squires, Evidence and Impact Officer for the Rohingya Response, Translators without Borders

Countries with lower literacy levels need different COVID-19 communication strategies

People have a right to access the information they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the format and language of that information need to evolve as COVID-19 spreads to nations with lower literacy rates and more vulnerable groups of people.

covid-19 literacy rates communication strategies

The information should be easy for people to find, understand and use. It’s unwise to assume that written formats are always the most efficient way to convey information. As the disease rapidly expands into countries with lower rates of literacy, organizations involved in the response need to shift focus from written information to developing significantly more pictorial, audio, and video content. 

That is the best way to ensure that older people, women, and other vulnerable people in those countries have the best chance of understanding lifesaving information. 

It’s also a necessary adjustment where infection control limits in-person community engagement. Social media, SMS services, call centers, television, and radio will be essential communication channels. Formats need to diversify accordingly if the message is to get across.

Literacy dynamics are rapidly changing

COVID-19 is now rapidly spreading in countries with lower literacy rates. The average literacy rate in countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases on February 19 was 94%. One month later it was 89%.

The highest rates of change in new COVID-19 cases being recorded are predominantly in countries with lower literacy rates. Between March 16 and 22, the 15 countries with the highest percentage change of new COVID-19 cases had an average literacy rate of 85%. These include countries like Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo. All these countries saw increases in confirmed cases of at least 900% during this seven-day period.

Women’s literacy rates are often lower than men’s

In countries where UNESCO measures literacy, average literacy rates are 6% higher for men than for women. For example in Yemen, 73% of men and only 35% of women above the age of 15 can read or write a basic sentence about their life, a difference of 38%. The gender difference is also stark in Pakistan (25%), DRC (23%) and Mali (20%). 

The map below highlights the gender difference in adult literacy in individual countries. Orange shading indicates countries where male literacy rates are higher than female literacy rates. Blue shading indicates the few countries where female literacy rates are higher than male literacy rates. 

Older people often have lower literacy rates than people under 65 

In many countries, older people are less likely to be able to read than younger adults. This limits their ability to access written information on COVID-19.

The average elderly literacy rate in countries UNESCO reports literacy data for, is 65%. UNESCO defines elderly people as those aged 65 or older. In countries with documented literacy rates from the same year, people aged between 15 and 64 have an average literacy rate 19% higher than people 65 years or older. The difference is greatest in Libya (63%), Timor-Leste (53%), Cabo Verde (50%), and Iran (49%).

Use data to design more inclusive communication strategies

To design effective COVID-19 communication strategies, responders need reliable data about language and literacy. As part of our COVID-19 response, we are making the necessary data openly available.

This is part of a Translators without Borders initiative to help make targeted information strategies more data driven. Language and literacy maps and datasets exist for DRC, Guatemala, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ukraine, and Zambia. 

Along with these existing maps and the interactive global literacy map above, we are also scaling up our efforts to release more subnational language and literacy data for countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This week we released national and sub-national data for Thailand. We will release more datasets and data visualizations over the next few weeks and months, so stay tuned to our COVID-19 webpage or the Humanitarian Data Exchange for updates.

We derived most of those datasets from historical census data, typically available down to the Admin 2 (district or county) level. Such data is most useful when it is analyzed alongside up-to-date information on language and communication needs. To help us with our ongoing language data initiative, we urge organizations to include four simple language questions in needs assessments and surveys related to COVID-19.

Make content available in multiple formats

Organizations responding to the pandemic should use improved data to develop communication strategies that are geared to the needs of the target population. Preparedness is a critical component of this. Organizations should develop content in as many formats as possible, recognizing that pictorial, audio, and video content is easier to access and absorb for many people. Additionally, older people often benefit from content that is easier to read. This requires incorporating design considerations such as larger fonts and good contrast. Plain-language principles also offer a useful model for creating clear and concise written and verbal content. The WHO proposes several key principles for improving understanding of health content.

In the rapidly evolving context of the COVID-19 response, organizations should complement written information with other formats. This is vital to ensure information is both believed and understood. We need to do this early to ensure people living in places with lower literacy levels don’t receive information too late to make a difference. 

Written by Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, Translators without Borders

The project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.

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In the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Communicating in the languages of affected people is a priority for the latest Ebola response plan, and beyond

On 2 March, the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that the last Ebola patient had been discharged from a treatment center. The epidemic isn’t over yet. But, after 18 months during which more than 3,400 people have been infected and over 2,250 died, the relief is palpable. Looking ahead, the Congolese government and its humanitarian partners turn their attention to implementing lessons from this 10th Ebola outbreak. In a country where more than 200 languages are spoken, prioritizing communication in the languages of affected people is one key lesson to help address the next emergency faster. The latest Ebola strategic response plan (SRP 4.1) points the way.

DRC Ebola response plan

The languages of affected people are finally a priority

The plan highlights the importance of improving risk communication and community engagement by using the languages and the formats preferred by people at risk. This includes developing communication tools and feedback mechanisms in appropriate languages, formats, and channels. The plan also emphasizes the need to equip health communicators to relay accurate information in local languages and with culturally acceptable wording.

For the first time since the beginning of this outbreak, the SRP mentions these issues. This is a key advance in adopting insights highlighted by health professionals, anthropologists, and communication specialists. It addresses three key factors TWB identified as critical to the effectiveness of Ebola-related communication: the languages that responders use; the content that responders deliver; and the way responders deliver that content. It also acknowledges the importance of feedback gathered from affected people by linking it to follow-up actions. People continue to have concerns and questions around Ebola and response efforts. Their concerns must be heard and their questions answered as the current outbreak draws to a close.

This is an important lesson that matters beyond Ebola

In multilingual DRC, to help people protect themselves responders need to listen, understand, and provide information and services in the languages of those at risk. Improving communication cannot alone guarantee better outcomes. But unless language is built into risk communication and community engagement strategies, response teams are unlikely to be effective.

Ebola DRC response plan

Recent actions by the risk communication and community engagement working group provide a case in point. Rumors and confusion have impeded efforts to contain the outbreak. So the group developed a multilingual tool to address the 25 most frequently asked questions. They collected the questions through the response-wide community feedback mechanism. The group members jointly drafted answers, and TWB supported with plain language editing to ensure accuracy and clarity. The group involved Ebola survivors to ensure the wording did not stigmatize them. Questions and answers were then translated into local languages for the widest possible reach and understanding. This tool equips responders to prevent the spread of misinformation and keep people safe.

Health professionals, social researchers, communication experts, and affected people worked together to provide and disseminate accurate, understandable information. This should be standard practice in mitigating the consequences of this outbreak, preparing for future health emergencies, and addressing wider humanitarian needs.

It is high time to turn evidence into action

The Congolese government and its humanitarian partners have a crucial role to play in implementing the latest response plan. And it seems they finally intend to give affected people’s languages and communication preferences the attention they deserve. TWB will work closely with those who are committed to a more language-aware approach. By proactively developing field teams’ capacity and resources, we can lift the language barriers to effective and accountable risk communication and community engagement.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer and Laure Venier, Community Engagement Program Coordinator for DRC, Translators without Borders.

Valérie travels the world and translates

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer as part of the Translators without Borders (TWB) Community have a range of experiences and skills. They share our vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

Valérie Thirkettle is a multi-talented translator who has worked with TWB since 2018 and has donated almost 550,000 words of life-saving information. Her dedication and motivation to take on new projects and the care she puts into her translations make it an absolute pleasure to collaborate. Valérie is a lawyer who spent the majority of her career working for a prestigious intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space. Recently, she retired to pursue her passion for translation.

Valérie travels and translates
“How I feel when I sit down to face a big revision task” – Valérie.

A flexible working life 

An avid traveler who divides her time between the Netherlands and South Africa, she enjoys the flexibility of TWB’s internet-based system. It gives her the chance to enjoy her other pleasures, studying literary translation, spending time with family and friends, golfing and enjoying nature, particularly in her beloved Africa. All the while, wherever she goes she can feed what she calls her “translation addiction.”

Valérie in Africa
Valérie enjoys the natural surroundings of Africa.

“I was attracted by TWB’s technology focus. I discovered how much language matters in humanitarian settings, so I hope my contribution can help people. And that it can improve the advocacy efforts of the organizations I translate for.”

Her ability to infuse her multi-sector knowledge into her translation work allows her to work on a number of different projects. “I am a trained lawyer and I have worked in international legal subjects and HR subjects. I like to make myself useful with the skills I have and contribute to the causes that resonate with me, and on a volunteer basis.” 

Valerie keeps in contact with TWB’s Language Services Team by email. She is celebrated as a central, fun member of the community. The team recalls sharing many laughs with Valerie. With her varied experience, Valérie has seen the funny side of translation and mistranslation. She told us a story about a translation she once reviewed in which  she noticed the section to sign and “date” the form mistakenly read “rendez vous d’amour.” “I loved it,” laughed Valerie, “filling in forms suddenly turned into something really exciting!”

Education for everyone

One of her favorite projects with TWB involved the revision and final linguistic sign-off of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network’s How-to Guide to Collective Communication and Community Engagement. This is essential for teaching better communication strategies on the ground. It helps inform people about their rights and situations in languages they understand. 

Translators can often become emotionally involved in a project. When working with Street Child, for instance, Valérie says, 

“I felt a strong resonance with the task, and, like with a good novel, the end came too early!” 

Children in Bangladesh
Children learning in school, Bangladesh.

In fact, projects that assist young people tend to stand out for Valérie. Her time working with Think Equal also left an impactful and memorable mark. Think Equal has developed an early years education program for social and emotional learning. It was a large project in which Valérie took care of the entire revision. It included revising French versions of the program, an extensive set of books, lesson plans, and teaching materials. “The size and spread of this project made it complex, but an opportunity to develop new organizational skills for my translations.” 

Overall, her translation experience has taught Valérie to appreciate the varied skills of other translators. She comments on how they build on one another’s strengths to deliver great work. She’s become increasingly involved in revising tasks and has embarked on qualifications in revising and proofreading. “My work with TWB gives me a great opportunity for continuous learning.”

One of her tips for other Kató translators is to “pay attention to the glossaries and be as consistent as possible with the terminology you use.” Valérie points out that you’re able to ask project managers for feedback throughout the process. “And of course, keep claiming more tasks, the humanitarian sector needs all the language help it can get!” 

Get involved with the TWB translator community.

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for Translators without Borders. Interview responses by Valérie Thirkettle, Translator for Translators without Borders.

Language data fills a critical gap for humanitarians

Until now, humanitarians have not had access to data about the languages people speak. But a series of open-source language datasets is about to improve how we communicate with communities in crisis. Eric DeLuca and William Low explain how a seemingly simple question drove an innovative solution.

“Do you know what languages these new migrants speak?”

Lucia, an aid worker based in Italy, asked this seemingly simple question to researchers from Translators without Borders in 2017. Her organization was providing rapid assistance to migrants as they arrived at the port in Sicily. Lucia and her colleagues were struggling to provide appropriate language support. They often lacked interpreters who spoke the right languages and they asked migrants to fill out forms in languages that the migrants didn’t understand.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a simple answer to Lucia’s question. In the six months prior to our conversation with Lucia, Italy registered migrants from 21 different countries. Even when we knew that people came from a particular region in one of these countries, there was no simple way to know what language they were likely to speak.

The problem wasn’t exclusive to the European refugee response. Translators without Borders partners with organizations around the world which struggle with a similar lack of basic language data.

Where is the data?

As we searched various linguistic and humanitarian resources, we were convinced that we were missing something. Surely there was a global language map? Or at least language data for individual countries?

The more we looked, the more we discovered how much we didn’t know. The language data that does exist is often protected by restrictive copyrights or locked behind paywalls. Languages are often visualized as discrete polygons or specific points on a map, which seems at odds with the messy spatial dynamics that we experience in the real world. 

In short, language data isn’t accessible, or easily verifiable, or in a format that humanitarians can readily use.

We are releasing language datasets for nine countries

Today we launch the first openly available language datasets for humanitarian use. This includes a series of static and dynamic maps and 23 datasets covering nine countries: DRC, Guatemala, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Ukraine, and Zambia.

This work is based on a partnership between TWB and University College London. The pilot project received support from Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund, managed by UCL Innovation & Enterprise. With support from the Centre for Translation Studies at UCL, this project was the first of its kind in the world to systematically gather and share language data for humanitarian use.

The majority of these datasets are based on existing sources — census and other government data. We curated, cleaned, and reformatted the data to be more accessible for humanitarian purposes. We are exploring ways of deriving new language data in countries without existing sources, and extracting language information from digital sources.

This project is built on four main principles:

TWB Language Data Initiative

1. Language data should be easily accessible

We started analyzing existing government data because we realized there was a lot of quality information that was simply hard to access and analyze. The language indicators from the 2010 Philippines census, for example, were spread over 87 different spreadsheets. Many census bureaus also publish in languages other than English, making it difficult for humanitarians who work primarily in English to access the data. We have gone through the process of curating, translating, and cleaning these datasets to make them more accessible.

2. Language data should work across different platforms

We believe that data interoperability is important. That is, it should be easy to share and use data across different humanitarian systems. This requires data to be formatted in a consistent way and spatial parameters to be well documented. As much as possible, we applied a consistent geographic standard to these datasets. We avoided polygons and GPS points, opting instead to use OCHA administrative units and P-codes. At times this will reduce data precision, but it should make it easier to integrate the datasets into existing humanitarian workflows.

We worked with the Centre for Humanitarian Data to develop and apply consistent standards for coding. We built an HXL hashtag scheme to help simplify integration and processing. Language standardization was one of the most difficult aspects of the project, as governments do not always refer to languages consistently. The Malawi dataset, for example, distinguishes between “Chewa” and “Nyanja,” which are two different names for the same language. In some cases, we merged duplicate language names. In others, we left the discrepancies as they exist in the original dataset and made a note in the metadata.

Even when language names are consistent, the spelling isn’t always. In the DRC dataset, “Kiswahili” is displayed with its Bantu prefix. We have opted instead to use the more common English reference of “Swahili.”

Every dataset uses ISO 639-3 language codes and provides alternative names and spellings to alleviate some of the typical frustrations associated with inconsistent language references.

3. Language data should be open and free to use

We have made all of these datasets available under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike license (CC BY-NC-SA-4.0). This means that you are free to use and adapt them as long as you cite the source and do not use them for commercial purposes. You can also share derivatives of the data as long as you comply with the same license when doing so.

The datasets are all available in .xlsx and .csv formats on HDX, and detailed metadata clearly states the source of each dataset along with known limitations. 

Importantly, everything is free to access and use.

4. Language data should not increase people’s vulnerability

Humanitarians often cite the potential sensitivities of language as the primary reason for not sharing language data. In many cases, language can be used as a proxy indicator for ethnicity. In some, the two factors are interchangeable.

As a result, we developed a thorough risk-review process for each dataset. This identifies specific risks associated with the data, which we can then mitigate. It also helps us to understand the potential benefits. Ultimately, we have to balance the benefits and risks of sharing the data. Sharing data helps humanitarian organizations and others to develop communication strategies that address the needs of minority language speakers.

In most cases, we aggregated the data to protect individuals or vulnerable groups. For each dataset, we describe the method we used to collect and clean the data, and specify potential imitations. In a few instances, we chose to not publish datasets at all.

How can you help?

This is just the beginning of our effort to provide more accessible language data for humanitarian purposes. Our goal is to make language data openly available for every humanitarian crisis, and we can’t do it alone. We need your help to:

  1. Integrate and share this data. We are not looking to create another data portal. Our strategy is to make these datasets as accessible and interoperable as possible using existing platforms. But we need your feedback so we can improve and expand them.
  2. Add language-related questions into your ongoing surveys. Existing language data is often outdated and does not necessarily represent large-scale population movements. Over the past year, we have worked with partners such as IOM DTM, REACH, WFP, and UNICEF to integrate standard language questions into ongoing surveys. This is essential if we are to develop language data for the countries that don’t have regular censuses. The recent multi-sectoral needs assessment in Nigeria is a good example of how a few strategic language questions can lead to data-driven humanitarian decisions.
  3. Use this language data to improve humanitarian communication strategies. As we develop more data, we hope to provide the tools for Lucia and other humanitarians to design more appropriate communication strategies. Decisions to hire interpreters and field workers, develop radio messaging, or create new posters and flyers should all be data-driven. That’s only possible if we know which languages people speak. An inclusive and participatory humanitarian system requires two-way communication strategies that use languages and formats that people understand.

Clearly, the answer to Lucia’s question turned out to be more complicated than any of us expected. This partnership between TWB and the Centre for Translation Studies at UCL has finally made it possible to incorporate language data into humanitarian workflows. We have established a consistent format, an HXL coding scheme, and processes for standardizing language references. But the work does not stop with these nine countries. Over the next few months we will continue to curate and share existing language datasets for new countries. In the longer term we will be working with various partners to collect and share language data where it does not currently exist. We believe in a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. Putting language on the map is the first step to achieving that.

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

William Low is a Senior Data and GIS Researcher at University College London.

Funding for this project was provided by Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund, managed by UCL Innovation & Enterprise.

TWB intern is recognized as a Young African Leader

Cédrick Young African Leader YALI
Cédrick Irakoze

At Translators without Borders (TWB), we are lucky to have extraordinary team members who are recognized worldwide. We are always grateful to have uniquely skilled members of the international community choose to be part of our cause. Today, we are proud to share the story of Cédrick Irakoze, Crisis Response and Community and Recruitment Intern for TWB. He was recently awarded a place to be part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) network. The YALI network invests in the next generation of African leaders, providing invaluable opportunities to connect and learn from experts. Learn more about the YALI network here.

Cédrick is a young Burundian language professional. He holds a bachelor’s degree in TESOL  (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from the University of Burundi, and has years of experience as a professional translator. He believes that language can improve or even save lives in this global world. And interaction in the right language can be vital for everyone, no matter people’s language, culture, or the color of their skin.

“TWB is my professional home” – Cédrick

In 2018, Cédrick first featured in our blog as a volunteer translator from English and French into Rundi. This was his introduction to the world of language in humanitarian work: “When I joined TWB as an intern, I joined a community of like-minded individuals serving the global community. Now I call TWB my professional home.” Day-to-day, Cédrick engages and collaborates with our translator community to help create a world with no language barriers. 

But in late 2019, he did something different. He successfully applied for the Young African Leaders Initiative program.

The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)

In 2016, Cédrick joined the Young African Leaders Initiative network with over 25,000 other young and talented individuals. In 2019, he met with 108 successful candidates from over 7000 applicants to attend a one-month leadership training course.

A group of YALI network members in Nairobi.
A group of YALI network members in Nairobi.


Energetic public officials, business owners, and local and international nonprofit leaders from all over Africa came together in Nairobi, Kenya. On hearing their stories, Cédrick reflected, “The way they are each committed to making their communities better inspired me.” The Translators without Borders team is delighted to have witnessed a team member take on such an exciting, formative challenge.

“Thank you very much. TWB showed me so much love and support before and during the program!” – Cédrick

Cédrick Irakoze, right, with TWB Kenya Manager Paul Warambo, left.
Cédrick Irakoze, right, with TWB Kenya Manager Paul Warambo, left.

It’s all about communication

The course was about inspiring and equipping one another to become better leaders. Participants developed their communication skills and built solutions-oriented networks. These factors are central to the changes these young leaders want to see in society. Each member of the diverse group – native speakers of over fifty languages – played a vital part.

Cédrick Irakoze, left presenting to the YALI network members.

This richness and diversity are reflected in TWB’s own community of translators and supporters, and in our way of working. We too rely on the power of teamwork to make change — to improve communications and access to information worldwide. Cédrick’s big takeaway is that when we come together we can innovate, we can flourish and we can make each other feel valued. 

“Diversity is richness in professional life” – Cédrick 

With the skills he’s learned through this course, Cédrick hopes to make a positive impact in his professional and social circles. “I can’t wait to contribute more and better to our common mission: to create a world that knows no language barriers.” 

Cédrick Irakoze and friends at the YALI network meetup in Nairobi.
Cédrick Irakoze and friends at the YALI network meetup in Nairobi.


Start your own journey as part of the TWB community.


Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for Translators without Borders. Interview responses by Cédrick Irakoze, Crisis Response and Community and Recruitment Intern for Translators without Borders.