We are Humanity: Volunteering on Chios

Translators without Borders has been working with aid organizations responding to the European Refugee crisis since September. Every day, TWB deploys its Words of Relief Rapid Response Teams in Arabic, Farsi and Greek to improve communications between refugees and aid organizations, governments and local residents. Having spent months engrossed in the crisis from afar, TWB Deputy Director, Rebecca Petras, decided to go to Greece with her family in late December and early January as an independent volunteer. Below is part one of her experience volunteering on Chios. Part two will focus on the language divide.

Volunteering on chios

There’s a boat! There’s a boat!” screamed my daughter from her perch 50 meters above the sea, correctly identifying the approaching black blob. Everyone mobilized. The ‘pirates’ grabbed rescue gear, cars were called to bring dry clothes. The nurse grabbed her kit. We ran to the van to get it warm for babies. And then the boat took a sharp turn up the coast. As often was the case, they had heard us and did not know if we were friend or foe.

When the cold, wet, scared bodies finally reached the shore and emerged from the brush, 200 meters up the coast, we were there, ready to help. Chaos ensued. Lifejackets thrown off. Arms gestured to determine if anyone was still in the water. Children clung to moms. A crying and soaked baby was thrust into my arms.

For the next hour we did what volunteers all along the shores of eastern Greek islands do every night. Helped take wet clothes off tiny children. Stood guard at brush where women could privately change their garb. Threw our coats around freezing babies. Held the emergency kit for the nurse as she treated a tiny figure. Put gloves on dozens and dozens of very cold hands. Gave families small change so they could take the bus to registration in town. All in the pitch dark, -4 degrees Celsius night.

And when they had all loaded on the bus, we sighed, dazed and confused. We stumbled around picking up wet clothes, saving the trousers and shoes that could be recycled for the next night, and waiting for the next call.

More than 1,500 refugees scrambled ashore that night on Chios.

Hungry and tired, these individuals and families hail from as far away as Afghanistan. They carry almost nothing. They wear the same clothes for days, weeks, months. When we give them a fresh pair of trousers, they leave the old, not wanting to carry more than required.

But their joy shines through. This is Greece. This is Europe. Safety. They think not about the hardships to come – they made it – and everyone in the boat made it. They were not the mother who lost her son at sea the next night, or the woman who was thrown out to lighten the load a couple nights later. Tonight they will sleep in a cold warehouse, dry and together. And that is good.\

Yet as volunteers, hailing from all over Europe and North America, we have a different view.

We see the hunger. With bad weather in Turkey, people wait days in the woods, waiting for their chance to get on a boat. Food is not the focus, getting across 6 kilometers of water is. When we feed this group and hundreds of others the next day, we feel inadequate: One cup of vegetarian high-protein soup per person with one piece of bread and a piece of fruit does not fill stomachs. But when all is sourced and financed by volunteers, it is the best we can do.

We see the misunderstandings, miscommunication and confusion.

At any given time, at least three languages are in play. Unlike other crises, where the affected population is generally on their home turf, in this crisis the local population does not speak the language of the affected population. They don’t even share common scripts; only a tiny minority understand Greek and one of the main languages of the refugees, Arabic or Farsi. As this is my particular area of interest, I’ll share more on this is my next posting.

We see the incredible care of the locals. Before the crisis, Toula was a single mom running a small tourist hotel south of Chios Town – she is now the heart and soul behind search and rescue, mobilizing teams every evening at her hotel, giving volunteers huge discounts at her hotel, and washing trousers every day to give to the next group. The pirates are three local guys who patrol the coast on their motorbikes every night. Despoina gave away all her clothes when she saw people emerging from the water in front of her home. Then she gave away all her husband’s clothes. When she had nothing for the wet and cold children who approached her, she knew it was time to create a donation shop where she works every day, organizing donations, giving out clothes to those who just came ashore, handing a small toy to each child.

We see the endless lack of leadership in this crisis. The Greek government. The Turkish government. The EU. The UN. The governments responsible for the bloodshed. Where are they?

And finally, when we leave, returning to our daily lives, we see and feel the emptiness in our hearts. Where did they go? Will they make it? Will they be able to carry the babies all that way? Will we learn to live together?

I left a piece of my heart on Chios. But I gained an understanding of what it means to be a true contributor to a better world, and I hope to hold on to that as I work to help from afar.

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Twenty-seven million words donated, and counting!


Between 2011 (when the Translators without Borders Workspace powered by ProZ.com started running) and September 2015, TWB delivered 27 million translated words to humanitarian organizations.

In the 12 month period to July 2015 TWB delivered more than 7.4 million words, an average of almost 620,000 words per month. This represents a 10.4% reduction with respect to the previous 12 month period.

When the monthly variations are “smoothed” by graphing six month averages over a longer term, we can detect a sustained period of growth peaking in mid-2014 followed by a gradual downward trend (Figure 1).

Trends last 12 months
Figure 1: Trends last 12 months


2,839  translators had been approved by TWB by July 2015, a 7.5percent increase over the number reported in our December 2014 newsletter.

Interestingly, only 62 percent of this pool has delivered translated words. The remainder are either inactive or work on language pairs with low or no demand. Our top five volunteers, representing only 0.1 percent of the pool, have donated around 5 percent of our total translation output (a total of one and a half million translated words in the past 12 months.

They are Eric Ragu (360,655 words), ishaklamia (355,808 words), Ashutosh Mitra (283,212 words), Raquel Bentué (256,447 words) and Carine Toucand (256,151 words). One explanation for lower translator engagement is that individual language pairs show imbalances between translator availability and demand. This means that some translators have few opportunities while others are over-burdened; some pairs also show a high level of cancelled requests.

We are currently evaluating a revised recruiting procedure, to help us increase the average output of individual translators and focus on language pairs where we have the most work. This will increase the proportion of approved translators who are actively engaged in TWB’s translation work.

Language pairs

During the last 12 months our translators accepted volunteer assignments in 128 language pairs. The top language pair was English to French, representing 23 percent of the operation, followed by English to Spanish (16 percent), French to English (11 percent), English to Portuguese (6 percent) and Spanish to English (6 percent). Overall, the top three pairs represented 50 percent of the words posted for translation in the last 12 months, up from 48 percent in December 2014.


Words per language pair
Figure 2: Words per language pair

TWB strives to deliver translations in many languages, including hard to source languages of Africa and India. In reality our operation tends to concentrate on a few Eurocentric languages. In particular our top language pair is English to French, where demand tends to be stronger than our resources can deliver. French is a language of under-resourced countries and a major humanitarian language, so it is not surprising that it is our top language pair.

Additionally, the TWB board is re-evaluating the focus on quantity of output, instead considering more carefully how we can measure the type of content we are translating. For example, translating a short disease prevention poster into many Indian languages may not contribute to a high word count, but it does significantly increase access to information.

Figure 3 shows the monthly evolution of the top language pairs. The top pair shows moderate fluctuations around its average value of 23 percent. The top three and top five pairs average 48 percent and 61 percent respectively, but the most relevant factor is their clear upward trend. During the 12-month period reported, the top five language pairs went from 50 percent to 76 percent of total delivered words.


Language pairs trends
Figure 3: Language pairs trends


Partner non-profits

A record 188 humanitarian organizations requested our services during the last 12 months, a 17.5 percent increase with respect to the 160 reported in our last newsletter.

Top partners during that period were Médicos Sin Fronteras de España (775,221 words delivered), Wikipedia (571,925 words), The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) (361,411 words), Acción contra el Hambre de España (313,931 words) and Centre for Access to Football in Europe (228,469 words). In other words, 30 percent of the words TWB translated last year were submitted by 3 percent of partners.




Our response to the Nepal earthquakes

How would you feel if you were trapped deep inside a collapsed building after a massive earthquake, and the only sounds you can hear are people  the rescue teams working to locate you  shouting in a foreign language? And how can Translators without Borders (TWB) help?

News of the Nepal earthquake reached TWB almost as soon as it happened on 25 April.  We immediately issued a request for translation volunteers and activated a Rapid Response Team, consisting of 25 professional translators and bilinguals.  That team worked tirelessly to ensure that Nepalis affected by the disaster had access to timely, accurate and understandable information after both the first and second major earthquakes and during the severe aftershocks.

Specifically, TWB:

  • translated over 500 terms into Nepali, Newari and Hindi for search and rescue workers and for people monitoring messages coming from the affected populations;
  • translated, approved and sanctioned Twitter messages which contained crucial information about first aid and protection during and after the earthquakes;
  • translated and distributed a comprehensive First Aid document from English to Nepali;
  • translated and distributed ‘after earthquake’ messaging and public service announcements from the Centers for Disease Control;
  • monitored local language media, including print, radio and video, and provided transcripts of videos to help aid organisations improve their responses;
  • provided translations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for their #familylinks programme to help find missing persons; and
  • created a text-to-speech tool for Nepali, specifically designed for first responders.

“Translation really matters,” said Andrew Bredenkamp, TWB’s Board Chair. “The TWB translation team delivered aid by enabling the flow of critical communications in the native languages of Nepali and Newari.”

Heartfelt thanks to all our volunteers, and especially to the Nepali translators, many of whom were also coping with injuries to family members and damage to property.  Our thoughts are with them.

New Project Manager role and more freedom with files

The Translators without Borders Workspace powered by ProZ.com is now also available to ProZ.com corporate members. Several translation companies are using it to manage their commercial translation work, and their feedback and requests keep the platform evolving and improving.

New PM roles for the Workspace

The project manager role has been redefined with the following characteristics:

  • PMs can create work orders and access and manage the work orders and jobs they create;
  • PMs will have no access to jobs created by others, unless specifically invited;
  • PMs can be invited to a new work order (and all associated jobs) created by others;
  • PMs can also be invited to participate in a job already created by others; and
  • PMs will have no access to other critical information in the Workspace.

More freedom with source files

One of the main requests received was for a more flexible management of source files when creating a new work order. To this end:

  • all restrictions on file type were removed for the upload of source and reference files;
  • the restriction on file size remains (up to 10 MB) but it is now possible to create a work order without uploading a source file. Larger files can, for instance, be stored in a cloud service (such as Dropbox), while including the access information and the word count in the work order form;
  • this new feature is also useful for deploying and assigning a project while awaiting the final source file; and
  • it is also appropriate for creating a work order from a mobile device with bandwidth or file handling limitations.
Source file not to be uploaded
Source file not to be uploaded

Selecting “Source file not to be uploaded” will allow a work order to be created without uploading a source file. Information on how the file(s) can be accessed should be included in the Notes or Special Instructions areas. Also, a box will open to enable the file word count to be manually entered.

Client work order codes

When creating a new work order, it is now possible, to record a client code in the work order and all jobs associated with it. This code is searchable and will enable clients to track their translation requests in line with their own project management systems.

Client codes
Client codes

New support platform

Information on these new features and other TWB Workspace characteristics can be found on the new support page.

Comprehension matters! The Words of Relief impact study

From November 2014 through February 2015, Translators without Borders (TWB) deployed its Words of Relief crisis relief program to West Africa to combat the Ebola crisis. The extension from the Words of Relief pilot in Kenya was funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, a program managed by ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance), and the Indigo Trust. Following the intense four-month program, the organization took time in Kenya to answer a very important question: Does information in a local language actually improve understanding?

The resulting impact study on Ebola information, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and entitled Does Translated Health-Related Information Lead to Higher Comprehension? A Study of Rural and Urban Kenyans, was commissioned as part of TWB’s Words of Relief crisis program in Kenya, the first translation crisis relief network intended to improve communications with communities when crisis response aid workers and affected populations do not speak the same language. The objective of the study was to examine the level of comprehension of health-related information when presented in English and then the same information provided in Swahili. The results of this study demonstrate just how important it is to have crucial healthcare information widely available in the local language.

197 Kenyans in urban and rural areas who spoke Swahili plus some English were surveyed on what they knew about Ebola. Participants were asked questions about language competence and preferences and some pre-task questions on their knowledge of Ebola – only eight per cent of participants answered basic questions on the disease correctly. Participants were then given an English-language information poster on Ebola prevention and symptoms and the correct answers to questions rose to 16 percent. But when given this same poster in Swahili, respondents got 92 percent of the questions correct. The information was in the form of a simple poster created and translated by TWB and used throughout West Africa after the disease had fully taken root.

“The results of the Impact Study on Ebola Information demonstrate just how important it is to provide crucial healthcare information in the local language and in the right format,” said Grace Tang, Global Coordinator, TWB Words of Relief. “We will use the results of the survey to continue to raise awareness to aid organizations that language matters and true comprehension should be considered in all development and crisis programs.”

Summary of Key Findings:

  • 16 percent answered correctly when shown Ebola information in English
  • 92 percent answered correctly when shown Ebola information in Swahili
  • 82 percent of participants would prefer to receive health-related information in spoken format
  • Apart from information leaflets, public gatherings, church and radio were listed as preferred modes of communication for health-related information
  • Prior knowledge of Ebola was low among participants, regardless of age, gender, or abode
  • Reading of the English poster did not lead to any increased comprehension of Ebola
  • Reading of the Swahili poster led to a significant increase in comprehension of Ebola.

Translators without Borders has produced an infographic, showing the key findings from the study. To view the infographic in pdf format,click here.

As part of its ongoing advocacy work, TWB now uses the impact study with aid organizations to highlight the importance of comprehension in all communications with affected populations. Communications is aid – but it needs to be in the right language. #LanguageMatters.

Life changing exposure in Europe

Paul Warambo has been a very important member of the Translators without Borders (TWB) team since 2012. He was our first trainer at Translators without Borders Kenya (TWBK), and as we built the center there, he became increasingly involved in overall management and training. Since spring of this year, he has been full time Translation and Training Manager for TWBK. Keen to integrate our TWBK team in all we do, we sent Paul to Europe in July to attend the annual CDAC-Network Forum in Geneva, and to Moravia headquarters in Brno, Czech Republic. It was his first trip beyond the Kenyan border. Below, he describes some of his experience there.

Attending the CDAC Network Forum was not only insightful and eye opening to the real need to have translation factored into the Communicating with Communities agenda. It was also a real testimony that TWB has gone further than most in making sure the global south is not left behind in accessing information relating to crisis and health.  Among the issues that came up very strongly during the summit is that people from the global south and affected populations that need humanitarian assistance must be represented at the decision making level.  Over the years, humanitarian organizations have neglected the translation component and assumed that delivering material aid was enough. But that is not the case anymore, as Rebecca Petras clearly illustrated in a thrilling evidence-based presentation on research arising from the Ebola crisis and Nepali earthquake.


Paul with Rebecca Petras and Andrew Bredenkamp talking about TWB's work at the CDAC-N Forum.
Paul with Rebecca Petras and Andrew Bredenkamp talking about TWB’s work at the CDAC-N Forum.

Attending the summit made me appreciate the fact that translation can be a game-changer in a crisis situation. It brought out the fact that in a crisis, rapid response translation can be life-saving. For that reason, managing translation in such a circumstance has to be super efficient.

It is with that understanding that TWB saw the need for me to get more project management skills by taking up onsite training in the Czech Republic at Moravia. Moravia, being one of the top translation firms in Europe, has very sophisticated technology and highly experienced project managers who were very willing to teach me. My full-week training and interaction with staff at Moravia opened my eyes to a number of new ways to manage translation projects, and enhance project efficiency. In particular, I learned that quality in training can be enhanced by proper project management skills in the areas of managing terminology databases, glossaries and use of modern translation tools.

Paul getting training at Moravia headquarters in Brno.
Paul getting training at Moravia headquarters in Brno.

Other than achieving one of life’s dreams of stepping into a top translation firm in Europe, the skills I acquired have greatly changed and enhanced my project management skills. I will forever be grateful to TWB and Moravia for making the training possible.


Joining forces to provide free medical education



Whether they are supporting a floating health training facility in the Amazon or running training sessions with solar-powered hardware stored in a single backpack, the volunteers at WiRED are dedicated to delivering health and medical education to remote communities in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. Many of these communities have no access to the electricity or Internet grids. WiRED offers healthcare training and provides access to free computer-delivered courses so that remote communities are health-aware and health educated, thereby being better able to address routine and epidemic health problems.

Translators without Borders has been part of this adventure, translating WiRED’s Express Series and other health training modules on a broad spectrum of topics. The training modules were brought to Amazonian communities on WiRED’s most recent field trip, with its partner Project Amazonas. “Language is central to all of our educational efforts. Health education material is useless to people who cannot understand the language in which it is written. TWB greatly extends the reach of our programs and enables us to fully serve these remote areas,” explains Allison Kozicharow, a WiRED Board member. The results that the organization has achieved though its two-year collaboration with TWB volunteers are significant: with more than 250,000 donated words, TWB volunteers have delivered professional translations of training modules into Spanish, Portuguese and French.

A volunteer in an Amazonian classroom
A volunteer in an Amazonian classroom

WiRED’s Learning Center currently carries more than 300 interactive modules, serving grassroots audiences and medical professionals in under-resourced countries. TWB has worked with WiRED to translate 70 health and medical education modules. These included community- and individual-level Ebola and infectious disease training, professional-level medical training in new and improved procedures, and non-communicable disease training. While community workers and individuals can learn about basic health issues, prevention and treatments, medical professionals can gain knowledge on the most recent techniques such as how to treat severely malnourished infants, polio, or interpret echocardiograms. Many modules are also appropriate for school children to learn about basic biology and health.

Like TWB, WiRED is a volunteer-driven organization with limited resources to cover translation costs. “To translate our materials, we used to put the word out, usually to universities, where we often relied on translators without special skills in medical translations.” By cooperating with TWB, WiRED resources can be focused on creating professionally written, peer-reviewed health and medical education modules and fully serving remote areas.

Find out more about the WiRED Learning Center here.





Rapid Response Translators: Burundi

This past summer, political conflict in the small central African nation of Burundi forced thousands to flee. Refugee camps were set up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania for thousands pouring over the borders. While French is spoken in many regions of Central Africa, the refugees were mostly Kirundi speakers. Aware of the growing crisis, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) East Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya, jumped to action with a Communicating with Communities response to assist the affected population.

As part of the effort, the UNOCHA asked Translators without Borders Kenya (TWBK) to organize a Rapid Response Team (RRT) modeled after the RRTs developed in West Africa and the spider network system developed in Kenya. TWBK jumped to action, putting the call out to Kirundi translators and bilinguals in the fields of teaching and journalism. The assembled team was trained and tested using the new Translator without Borders Words of Relief RRT Orientation, developed as part of the Words of Relief pilot. They then worked together over a five-week period to help aid organizations communicate better with affected populations in the refugee camps. One of the most significant outputs was cholera information in Kirundi to assist with a major cholera outbreak in one of the Tanzanian camps.Two of the RRT translators were Crescent Niyontwari and Alexis Yesashimwe. Below, they tell their stories in their own words.

Crescent Niyontwari

Crescent Niyontwari
Crescent Niyontwari

“I am Crescent Niyontwari, and I speak Kirundi, English, French and a little Swahili. A few months ago, when I was following news on Burundi via Twitter, I came to find a note from Translators Without Borders that there was a need for Kirundi – English translators to help in the Burundi crisis. I stopped and read carefully as it is my habit to pay attention whenever I see a tweet containing the word “Burundi”. It was the very first time I learned of the organization, and then I came in contact with the team in Kenya. That’s how everything started.

“It was not the first time I worked as a volunteer; in 2012, I volunteered with onlinevolunteering.org. I am very happy to offer my services. In the case of RRTB (Rapid Response Team Burundi), it was something special since my services would help to save lives of my fellow citizens who were in desperate need of help. I think my services really helped as access to information can save lives. I would have liked to offer more than what I did, but I hope to do so in the future. I appreciate the way the team co-operated with me via skype and e-mails during the training and the work itself. It was marvelous.”


Alexis Yesashimwe

Alexis Yesashimwe
Alexis Yesashimwe

“I am Alexis Yesashimwe, and I speak five languages:  French , English , Swahili (East and Central Africa), Kirundi and Kinyarwanda (and some Lingala). I drew my inspiration from my convictions and values as well as from the philosophy of the organization itself (focused on communications). I have been in very vulnerable situations, so I dedicated my life to serving mankind; offering my services, skills and talents is a small contribution I can give to my fellow human beings in distress.

“The orientation [Words of Relief RRT Orientation] was so informative and encouraging; it personally motivated me to serve more.

“Together with the team I believe we empowered the new Burundi refugees to prevent some incidents that may have resulted in loss of lives when not aware. Some of the messages were “Knowledge is power” and “Prevention is better than cure”.  Sure I would work again for RRTB and for TWB with pleasure!”

‘Simple Words for Health’ now complete!

Our team at Surrey Translation Bureau has been working hard over the summer months to complete the last stage of ‘Simple Words for Health’, a terminology project launched by two Translators without Borders’ (TWB) board members; Val Swisher (Content Rules, Inc. founder) and Andrew Bredenkamp (Acrolinx founder). This English language database of simplified medical terms was put together with the goal of making medical terminology more accessible and our task has been to weed out any unnecessary duplicate entries.

We first volunteered our services following a chance encounter at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s conference in Newcastle earlier this year, where TWB’s Sue Fortescue and I struck up a conversation when our stands were placed side by side. Sue really inspired me and our team to do something to help and as soon as we were back in the office we put our heads together to see what we could do for TWB! This project was a great match for us as our in-house team has a strong medical translation background and a keen interest in terminology, plus it was something our translators and project managers (who are fully-qualified linguists) could work on collectively.

The project has required a real team effort and our staff put in the hours to make sure this really important work was completed to a high standard. Special thanks go to our in-house translator, Jenny Mallinowski, who, as well as completing the lion’s share, has coordinated the project internally and even made an FAQs and software ‘How to’ guide for the rest of us to keep things running smoothly.

Last year we donated to TWB at Christmas instead of sending presents to our clients and this year we have tackled this rewarding terminology project. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can do next to help such a fantastic cause.