Written by Alice Castillejo, Programme Advisor for Translators without Borders
For every new response, we need the right words to fight sexual abuse
I work for Translators without Borders, an organization that highlights the importance of language and clear communication. I am blessed to work with colleagues who expose me every day to subtle linguistic and cultural differences. Some of those differences result in hilarious misunderstandings, others are more challenging. They always point to the importance of choosing our words with care.
I was reminded of that again last week when I stood in front of a room full of my multicultural professional peers to discuss sexual abuse. I suddenly found myself acutely aware of the need to get my words right to avoid embarrassing myself or offending the audience.
100 Translations to Prevent Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
Understanding what sexual exploitation and abuse mean in a humanitarian emergency is not as simple as it seems. For local staff, who may never have worked for humanitarian organizations before, it can be even more complicated. Principles aimed at preventing sexual exploitation and abuse contain new ideas about power relationships, new terms to understand, and new rules and responsibilities to learn and put into practice. Providing the information in a language that local staff can understand is the least we can do and an important first step toward addressing the problem.
In collaboration with the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), Translators without Borders (TWB) developed a plain-English version of the key humanitarian messages on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. The benefit of a plain-English version is twofold:
It promotes wider understanding, particularly among those with limited English proficiency.
It removes ambiguity and legal terminology, increasing the chances of an accurate translation into other languages. For example, we replaced legalese like “constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of contract” with “humanitarian workers can be disciplined – even fired – for unacceptable behavior in relation to sex”.
Distribution of the 100 Translations
We then translated the plain-English version into more than 100 languages, and started to distribute them to communities around the world.
A sudden-onset crisis often mobilizes people who have never thought about sexual abuse or power dynamics in their regular day jobs. The new local staff may come from a context where going to sex workers is commonplace, or where informal exchanges and bribes, including transactional sex, are part of getting things done. And often they live in a hierarchy where reporting one’s peers or seniors is dangerous.
We need to explain in clear language that these practices are forbidden in the humanitarian context, and that staff must report them. In translation, there are compromises in this process – is it better to find a word with no stigma or a word that will be more widely understood? For example, while the term “sex worker” is a more empowering term, we found that “prostitute” is more widely understood, despite its negative connotations. And if terms are gendered, have we chosen words that clearly indicate that sexual abuse may include sexual abuse of men? Are we sure the words we’ve chosen are neither so crude that they offend nor so euphemistic that they are incomprehensible?
Working with Partners to Ensure the 100 Translations are Effective
Since the launch of this joint IASC-TWB project in 2018, TWB’s team of translators and supporters has worked hard to produce accurate translations, which have then been reviewed and validated by local humanitarian staff from across the world. Our local reviewers have played an essential role, offering specific local terms, checking suitability, and adjusting translations to reflect local dialect. That is why, for example, we have several Arabic and Spanish language versions, as well as audio versions for Rohingya and Chittagonian.
We know that 100 languages is a drop in the ocean. But for each new multilingual humanitarian crisis, we hope to build the portfolio to meet the needs of newly engaged humanitarian staff.
How to start using the 100 Translations to Prevent Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
The key messages are just a start. Crisis-affected communities need to understand what behaviour from humanitarians is unacceptable. We may need to deliver the message in more hard-to-source languages and also in audio or pictorial formats. Staff training packages must be in languages that staff understand. And, of course, when someone is exploited or abused, they must be able to report in the language they are most comfortable in and receive support in that language.
You can help make sure that humanitarians understand what Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) is and what it means for them. Please join us in this effort by distributing the translations to your colleagues, making sure your training is in languages they truly understand, and providing new translations in additional languages.
You can find more information about this project, and the growing number of translations, here.
The Core Humanitarian Standard Commitments are now available in plain English
Written by Kate Murphy, Plain-language editor for Translators without Borders, and Ellie Kemp, Head of Crisis Response for Translators without Borders.
Translators without Borders (TWB) helps its humanitarian partners apply plain language principles to written content. We worked together with the CHS Alliance to develop a plain-language version of the Core Humanitarian Standard’s Nine Commitments.
As humanitarians, we use tools like the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) to hold ourselves accountable to the people we assist. We know that the best responses are those shaped by those directly affected. The CHS provides a great opportunity to institutionalise Accountability to Affected Populations in a way that effectively translates at field level for our work.
But ironically, many of the people we assist themselves aren’t yet aware of our commitments to them. Many don’t have the literacy skills to read, understand, or react to them. Others simply won’t have the time, motivation, or emotional energy to read through the full Nine Commitments of the CHS.
Teacher writing sentences in Rohingya Zuban (Hanifi Script). Kutupalong Refugee Camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
The question for CHS Alliance was how to make information on quality and accountability accessible to the affected population. Could plain language help everyone to hold aid organisations to account, in line with CHS Commitment 4? TWB jumped at the chance to help with this. For us, it was another opportunity to highlight the importance of communicating with people in an appropriate and usable language and format.
Everyone appreciates plain language
Plain language makes text easier to understand, easier to put into practice, and easier to recall later. For English materials, such as the new CHS onepager, this means using plain-English. Non-native English speakers appreciate it, especially those with limited education and limited English language skills. But highly literate speakers also benefit, especially those operating in high-pressure environments. And of course, it makes translation easier too.
That’s the thing about plain language: everyone who appreciates clear, concise information benefits from it.
Plain language reduces that reading effort for everyone.
To make the CHS Commitments easier to read, we helped the CHS Alliance apply three established plain-language principles:
Use personal pronouns, including “you” and “we.” That engages readers and adds certainty about who is responsible for different actions.
Rewrite sentences so they contain fewer than 20 words. Shorter sentences are easier to comprehend.
Replace uncommon or technical terms with alternatives that are familiar to all readers.
Photo credit TWB.
We used word-frequency data to identify words in the CHS Commitments that occur less commonly in English print and audiovisual media. The more frequently a term occurs in different media, the more likely it is to be familiar to readers. So, we replaced less frequent words with more common alternatives. For instance, we replaced ‘assistance’ with ‘support’.
Some words like “resilient,” “entitlements,” “competent,” and “efficiency,” are included in the original CHS Commitments, and experienced humanitarians are likely to comprehend them easily. However, word-frequency data suggests that they may reduce reading speed and therefore reader engagement for people who are less familiar with them. Because we wanted to reduce general reading effort, we replaced them.
Spread the word
CHS Alliance members and partner organisations can access the plain language English version of the CHS commitments. Over the coming months, the CHS Alliance expects to provide translated versions in an increasing number of languages and will keep you updated on progress.
In the meantime, CHS Alliance members who are part of the new AAP Community of Practice have suggested various ways we could use the plain-English version to communicate our commitments more effectively to affected people:
Provide an audio version of the plain-English commitments for less literate audiences.
Develop graphics to accompany the text and make it available as a poster or leaflet.
Develop a child-friendly version.
Provide staff with guidance on how to use the plain-English version as part of accountability to affected populations.
Agree a common way to track understanding of the plain-language versions, possibly as part of regular perception and satisfaction monitoring activities.
We’re excited to see how the new plain-language CHS will help make accountability a reality for all those we serve.
What do you think?
To find out more about how plain language could benefit your organization please get in touch with Kate Murphy, Plain-language editor at [email protected].
“Sir, I want to ask you some questions if you agree?”
With that one sentence, our enumerator summarized the 120-word script provided to secure the informed consent of our survey participants – a script designed, in particular, to emphasize that participation would not result in any direct assistance. Humanitarian organizations, research institutes and think tanks around the world are conducting thousands of surveys every year. How many suffer from similar ethical challenges? And how many substandard survey results fall under the radar due to lack of effective quality assurance?
We were conducting a survey on the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movement, and durable solutions in Borno, a linguistically diverse state in northeast Nigeria. Before data collection began, Translators without Borders (TWB) translated the survey into Hausa and Kanuri to limit the risk of mistranslations due to poor understanding of terminology. Even with this effort, however, not all the enumerators could read Hausa or Kanuri. Although enumerators spent a full day in training going through the translations as a group, there is still a risk that language barriers may have undermined the quality of the research. Humanitarian terminology is often complex, nuanced, and difficult to translate precisely into other languages. A previous study by Translators without Borders in northeastern Nigeria, for example, found that only 57% of enumerators understood the word ‘insurgency’.
We only know the exact phrasing of this interview because we decided to record some of our surveys using an audio recorder. In total, 96 survey interviews were recorded. Fifteen percent of these files were later transcribed into Hausa or Kanuri and translated into English by TWB. Those English transcripts were compared to the enumerator-coded responses, allowing us to analyze the accuracy of our results. While the process was helpful, the findings raise some important concerns.
Consent was not always fully informed
Efforts to obtain informed consent were limited, despite the script provided. According to the consultant, enumerators felt rushed due to the large numbers of people waiting to participate in the survey – but people were interested in participating precisely due to the misbelief that participation could result in assistance, which underlines the need for informed consent.
Alongside these ethical challenges, the failure to inform participants about the objectives of the research increases the risk of bias in the findings, prompting people to tailor responses to increase their chances of receiving assistance. Problems related to capacity, language, or questionnaire design can also negatively impact survey results, undermining the validity of the findings.
The enumerator-coded answers did not always match the transcripts
During data quality assurance, we also identified important discrepancies between the interview transcripts and the survey data. In some cases, enumerators had guessed the most likely response rather than properly asking the question, jumping to conclusions based on their understanding of the context rather than respondents’ lived experiences. If the response was unclear, random response options were selected without seeking clarification. Some questions were skipped entirely, but responses still entered into the surveys. The following example, comparing an extract of an interview transcript with the recorded survey data, illustrates these discrepancies.
Interviewer: Do you want to go back to Khaddamari?
Respondent: Yes, I want to.
Interviewer:When do you want to go back?
Respondent: At any time when the peace reigns. You know we are displaced here.
Interviewer:If the place become peaceful, will you go back?
Respondent: If it becomes peaceful, I will go back.
Do you want to return to Khaddamari in the future?Yes
When do you think you are likely to return?Within the next month
What is the main reason that motivates you to return? Improved safety
What is the second most important reason? Missing home
What is the main issue which currently prevents return to Khaddamari? Food insecurity
What is the second most important issue preventing return? Financial cost of return
At no point in the interview did the respondent mention that he or she was likely to return in the next month. Food insecurity or financial costs were also not cited as factors preventing return. Without audio recordings, we would never have become aware of these issues. Transcribing even just a sample of our audio recordings drew attention to significant problems with the data. Instead of blindly relying on poor quality data, we were able to triangulate information from other sources, and use the interview transcripts as qualitative data. We also included a strongly worded limitations section in the report, acknowledging the data quality issues.
We suspect such data quality issues are common. Surveys, quite simply, are perhaps not the most appropriate tool for data collection in the contexts within which we operate. Certainly, there is a need to be more aware of, and more transparent about, survey limitations.
Despite these limitations, there is no doubt that surveys will continue to be widely used in the humanitarian community and beyond. Surveys are ingrained in the structure and processes of the humanitarian industry. Despite the challenges we faced in Nigeria, we will continue to use surveys ourselves. We know now, however, that audio recordings are invaluable for quality assurance purposes.
A manual audio recording strategy is difficult to replicate at scale
In an ideal world, all survey interviews would be recorded, transcribed, and translated. This would not only enhance quality assurance processes, but also complement survey data with rich qualitative narratives and quotes. Translating and transcribing recordings, however, requires a huge amount of technical and human resources.
From a technical standpoint, recording audio files of surveys is not straightforward. Common cell phone data collection tools, such as Kobo, do not offer full-length audio recordings as standard features within surveys. There are also storage issues, as audio files take up significant space on cell phones and stretch the limits of offline survey tools or browser caching. Audio recorders are easy to find and fairly reliable, but they require setting up a parallel workflow and a careful process of coding to ensure that each audio file is appropriately connected to the corresponding survey.
From a time standpoint, this process is slow and involved. As a general rule, it takes roughly six hours to transcribe one hour of audio content. In Hausa and Kanuri – two low resource languages that lack experienced translators – one hour of transcription often took closer to eight hours to complete. The Hausa or Kanuri transcripts then had to be translated into English, a process that took an additional 8 hours. Therefore, each 30-minute recorded survey required about one day of additional work in order to fully process. To put that into perspective, one person would have to work full time every day for close to a year to transcribe and translate a survey involving 350 people.
Language technology can offer some support
In languages such as English or French, solutions already exist to drastically speed up this process. Speech to text technologies – the same technologies used to send SMS messages by voice – have improved dramatically in recent years with the adoption of machine learning approaches. This makes it possible to transcribe and translate audio recordings in a matter of seconds, not days. The error rates of these automated tools are low, and in some cases are even close to rivaling human output. For humanitarians working in contexts with well resourced languages like Spanish, French, or even some dialects of Arabic, these language technologies are already able to offer significant support that makes an audio survey workflow more feasible.
For low-resource languages such as Hausa, Kanuri, Swahili, or Rohingya, these technologies do not exist or are too unreliable. That is because these languages lack the commercial viability to be priority languages for technology companies, and there is often insufficient data to train the machine translation technologies. In an attempt to close the digital language divide, Translators without Borders has recently rolled out an ambitious effort called Gamayun: the language equality initiative. This initiative is working to develop datasets and language technology in low-resource languages relevant to humanitarian and development contexts. The goal is to develop fit-for-purpose solutions that can help break down language barriers and make language solutions such as this more accessible and feasible. Still, this is a long term vision and many of the tools will take months or even years to develop fully.
In the meantime, there are four things you can do now to incorporate audio workflows into your data collection efforts
Record your surveys using tape recorders. It is a valuable process, even if you are limited in how you are able to use the recordings right now. In our experience, enumerators are less likely to intentionally skip entire questions or sections if they know they are being recorded. Work is underway to integrate audio workflows directly into Kobo and other surveying tools, but for now, a tape recorder is an accessible and affordable tool.
Transcribe and translate a small sample of your recordings. Even a handful of transcripts can prove to be useful verification and training tools. We recommend you complete the translations in the pilot stage of your survey, to give you time to adjust trainings or survey design if necessary. This can help to at least provide spot checks of enumerators that you are concerned about, or simply verify one key question, such as the question about informed consent.
Run your recordings through automated transcription and translation tools. This will only be possible if you are working in major languages such as Spanish or French. Technology is rapidly developing, and every month more languages become available and the quality of these technologies improve. Commercially available services are available through Microsoft, Google, and Amazon amongst others, but these services often have a cost, especially at scale.
Partner with TWB to improve technology for low-resource languages. TWB is actively looking for partners to pilot audio recording and transcription processes, to help gather voice and text data to build language technologies for low resource languages. TWB is also seeking partners interested in actively integrating these automated or semi-automated solutions into existing workflows. Get in touch if you are interested in partnering: [email protected]rswithoutborders.org
Chloe Sydney, Research Associate at IDMCEric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager at Translators without Borders
Volunteering with TWB is a rewarding and enriching experience.
Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) have a range of experience and skills and share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.
Iris Soliman sets out to prove that when the cause matters to you, giving back comes naturally. Since early 2018,this translator’s enthusiasm for TWB’s work has shone through in her personal and professional life. Her support for the cause extends far beyond the translation work itself, as Iris has thrown herself into TWB’s Kató Community forum and social media platforms. Driving TWB’s vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers is a dedicated community of translators. They all volunteer because of a shared set of values: they believe in the need to make information available in languages that people understand. Iris embodies the energy and passion shared by many TWB translators.
Advancing a career in translation
The 35-year-old Belgian translator of Egyptian descent works in English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and French. Iris began her professional translation career five years ago. And in just one year with TWB, she has participated in over 100 projects and translated over 200,000 words. Those words have helped individuals supported by a plethora of organizations including the NEAR network, Concern Worldwide, and Humanity and Inclusion.
Humanity and Inclusion is where Iris began her volunteering career in the Brussels office and in the field, 10 years prior to discovering TWB. More recently, she has been able to achieve a personal goal of translating a text from Arabic to French and participating in numerous meaningful projects.
Iris is touched by the knowledge that her work with TWB makes a real and discernible impact on lives. A fondly remembered translation was for a smartphone app called Miniila, by Missing Children Europe. The app provides migrant children with information about their rights and the services available to them on their arrival in Europe. In a separate project, she learned that important vaccine stocks in Syria had to be destroyed because they were in a location occupied by Daesh. For Iris, these translations are personal reminders of her lucky situation, while others sometimes struggle to meet basic needs.
“Now I hope I’ll help all kinds of people – elderly, grownups or children – particularly those fleeing conflict, starvation or natural disasters.”
As an engaged member of the TWB community, Iris is thankful for the knowledge-sharing, the friendly environment and the opportunity to help others while gaining humanitarian experience.
Fitting TWB volunteering into a busy life.
Though she is busy, Iris finds time to dedicate to her volunteer work. For her it is about so much more than doing a job: she is part of a thriving community. While still volunteering for TWB regularly, Iris is completing various online courses and preparing for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi Chinese proficiency examination.
Iris hopes that her energetic approach to the translator community will encourage other translators to join. For anyone who is curious, she offers words of advice: “You can always ask the project managers questions (they are more than simply available). And don’t worry if you need to double check, make corrections, or have your work revised. I was like you less than a year ago!” This is all part of her endless desire to make a difference and grow professionally.
“Iris has contributed a substantial number of words on TWB’s translation platform, Kató. But what really distinguishes her is the great enthusiasm she is showing in the Kató Community” Paulina Abzieher, Translation Project Manager for TWB.
Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) have a range of experience and skills and share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.
On 22 December 2018, a tsunami struck the Banten Province in Western Java, Indonesia. It devastated buildings and homes along the coasts of Java and Sumatra. It caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The international response offered monetary aid and supplies for the Indonesian community. Meanwhile, TWB’s translators volunteered to ensure that those in need got vital information in a language they understood.
This is the story of how one translator’s dedication, skill, and speed made a difference. Indras Wulandar has worked as a professional translator for many years. She translates from English into Indonesian (her mother tongue) and Javanese. In the last four years, she has translated over 25,000 words for TWB. She also facilitated the translation of many more as a quality reviewer.
During the tragedy, Indras’ contribution was outstanding in reviewing Indonesian translators’ tests. This allowed TWB to recruit the Indonesian translators required to respond to language support needs during the crisis.
Indras and the rest of TWB’s community of Indonesian linguists responded to our call. We needed to translate vital documents to support people affected by the tsunami in Western Java. Indras had already helped with crisis projects, like the response to the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, a few months earlier. For those who speak Indonesian as their mother language, this was a significant project. It provided health and safety information in a language shared by people caught in the natural disaster.
“The experience showed that even the tiniest act of kindness and help can really matter.” Indras Wulandar, Translator.
During the crisis, TWB worked with Humanity Road, a non-profit specializing in disaster response. There was a need for life-saving warnings and emergency advice in local languages. While the common language is Indonesian, the most widely spoken in the area are Javanese and Sundanese. In some humanitarian responses such as this, there is little information on the languages spoken by crisis-affected people.
Our translators provided that information in the necessary languages. TWB also created a map of languages spoken in the area affected by the tsunami. Maps like these give information on the languages spoken, literacy, and best means for communication. Humanitarians can use this information freely to plan and refine their communication with affected people. See more TWB maps here.
Reaching out to others
As a strong believer in life-long learning and self-improvement, Indras is a keen translation reviewer. Reviewers ensure we provide high-quality translations to non-profits over the world. In situations like this, it is vital that people get the information they need in a timely manner, and in a language they understand. Her quick review work made that happen. Indras understands the magnitude of her work as a reviewer. “Reviewing tests is particularly challenging for me, because it means, more or less, that I take part in shaping the quality of the work.”
“Never stop learning and improving yourself. Like the old saying goes, ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know.’”
For Indras, being able to live off of her passion, translation, makes her feel privileged. She loves her work, and she likes to volunteer her skills to give back to society. She describes knowing that she can be useful as “therapeutic.”
“It’s good to know that I can expand my own knowledge while helping to connect these non-profit communities with people who need their service.” – Indras Wulandar
“I signed up to TWB because it is a platform that I can trust. With its global and broad outreach, I hope to help those in need. Including minority groups and those who live in remote places.” Indras Wulandar.
21 February. This is the date chosen by UNESCO for International Mother Language Day, which has been observed worldwide since 2000. This year deserves special attention as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Both initiatives promote linguistic diversity and equal access to multilingual information and knowledge.
Languages can be a huge resource. At the same time, the mother language that people speak can be a barrier to accessing opportunities. People who speak marginalized mother languages often belong to remote or less prosperous communities and, as a result, they are more vulnerable when a crisis hits.
Yet, the humanitarian and development sector has been largely blind to the importance of language. International languages such as English, French, Arabic, and Spanish dominate, excluding the people who most need their voices heard. Marginalized language speakers are denied opportunities to communicate their needs and priorities, report abuse, or get the information they need to make decisions.
If aid organizations are to meet their high-level commitments to put people at the center of humanitarian action and leave no one behind, this needs to change. To understand better how to address language barriers facing marginalized communities, two actions can lead our sector in the right direction.
Putting languages on the map
The first is language mapping. No comprehensive and readily accessible dataset exists on which language people speak where.
TWB has started to fill that gap by creating maps from existing data and from our own research. Our interactive map shows the language and communication needs of internally displaced people in northeast Nigeria. The map uses data collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix team. This data shows, for instance, that access to information is a serious problem at over half of sites where Marghi is the dominant language. Aid organizations can use this map to develop the right communication strategy for reaching people in need.
Humanitarian and development organizations can add some simple standard questions to their household surveys and other assessments to gather valuable language data. Aid workers will then understand the communication needs and preferences of the 176 million people in need of humanitarian assistance globally.
But communication in a crisis situation – or in any situation – should not be one-way. That’s where the second action comes in.
Building machine translation capacity in marginalized languages
Language technology has dramatically shifted two-way communication between people who speak different languages. In order to truly help people in need, listen to and understand them, we need to apply technology to their languages as well.
TWB is leading the Gamayun Language Equality Initiative to make it happen. We have built a closed-environment, domain-specific Levantine Arabic machine engine for the UN World Food Programme. This initiative will improve accountability to Syrian refugees facing food insecurity. Initial testing indicates that Gamayun will provide an efficient method for accessing local information sources. It will enable aid organizations to better understand the needs of their target populations, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
We need to continue building the parallel language datasets from humanitarian and development content that make machine translation a viable option. That will expand the evidence that machine translation can enable better communication, including by empowering affected people to hold aid organizations to account in their own language.
These two actions can help the humanitarian and development sector improve lives by promoting two-way communication with speakers of marginalized languages. These actions will need to be expanded to be truly effective, but International Mother Language Day in the Year of Indigenous Languages is a great time to start.
The IFRC 2018 World Disasters Report, which includes clear and compelling recommendations about the importance of language to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people are not “left behind”
If the aid sector is to communicate more effectively, we must do more than tame the rampant devspeak that Duncan highlighted in his recent blog. Instead we should focus on presenting a clear and consistent message using plain language principles, which cover so much more than the individual words that we choose.
I’m the Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders so devspeak is my constant companion. Much of my working day is spent deciphering terms and encouraging writers to use simpler alternatives. I’m aware of the chaos and confusion that devspeak can cause. But I think the bigger communication challenge facing our sector is a general lack of clarity and focus in our writing, and an inexplicable resistance to plain-language writing.
All aid workers should write in plain language
Whether we write for colleagues, government ministers, or refugees, plain language makes exchanging information a more efficient process. We operate in a multilingual environment that is full of linguistic tripwires and pitfalls. Native and non-native English writers of varying competencies communicate with native and non-native English readers of varying competencies. All of us face conflicting demands on our limited writing and reading time.
Ellie Kemp oversees Translators without Borders’ humanitarian work in Nigeria and in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh. She believes that plain language is an overlooked factor in many humanitarian responses.
“Humanitarians can’t promote two-way engagement, empower affected people, or stimulate informed debate if we write in a convoluted way,” she says. “In Bangladesh, the response uses five languages; if the original English is unclear, the consequences are amplified across the other four.”
Earlier this year, Translators without Borders interviewed 52 humanitarian field workers responsible for surveying internally displaced people in north-east Nigeria. The findings highlight potential data quality issues stemming from a failure to use plain language.
“We tested the field workers’ comprehension of 27 terms that they regularly use in survey questions and responses,” Ellie explains. “We identified misunderstandings and misinterpretations at every stage of the data collection process.”
Plain-language writing can help navigate our multilingual environment, yet native-English writers in particular are oblivious to the confusion we cause as we extrude our un-plain language onto the page.
So what are the characteristics of plain-language writing? Here are the ones that I think have the biggest impact on readability.
Define your peak message and state it early
Plain language requires writers to define the most critical aspect of their content and to communicate that consistently. Before I edit any content, I ask the writer to define the “peak message,” or the message that must stand out. In a move that makes me one of the most annoying people in our organization I insist that the peak message is fewer than 20 words.
But to win back the affections of my colleagues, I apply the same rule to myself. So before I drafted this blog, I defined my 16-word peak message as, “Plain-language writing is not only about avoiding devspeak; it’s about presenting a clear and consistent point.”
Create a logical structure and layout
The inverted pyramid model helps to arrange content logically and keep the reader focused on the peak message. It requires writers to arrange paragraphs in order of importance, and to arrange the sentences within them in order of importance too.
The next step in plain-language writing is to make the content physically clear. Four basic formatting principles that improve clarity are:
limit paragraphs to five sentences;
maintain an average sentence length of 15-20 words, and a maximum of 25;
use informative headings every four or five paragraphs; and
use graphics, but only if they make your message clearer.
Then worry about individual words.
Favour bold, direct verbs in the active voice
Verbs are powerful tools for clarifying your message. As with so many of life’s big choices, favour the strong, confident, single type. “It is recommended that writers give consideration to selecting verbs that might be more bold,” is only a slight exaggeration of the evasive verb structures that I regularly encounter. I’d change that to “Use bold verbs.”
And in choosing your bold verb, remember that passive voice is one of the last refuges of the uncertain writer. Consider the following passive voice construction:
“It is thought [by unnamed and unaccountable people] that the active voice should be used [by unnamed and unaccountable people].” This sentence provides little clarity for the reader. Compare it to “The Plain Language Editor wants writers in the humanitarian sector to use the active voice.”
Use the simplest tense
Some tenses require less cognitive processing than others. For non-native speakers the simple present and simple past tenses are typically the clearest. For example, “we write” or “we wrote.”
Continuous tenses (“we are writing” or “we were writing” or “we will be writing”) are less clear. So are future tenses (“we will write”, “we will have written”).
Use pronouns carefully
Pronouns can make a sentence ambiguous, so use them sparingly. “When communicating with refugees, humanitarians should provide information in their own language,” leaves the reader wondering whether to use the refugees’ or the humanitarians’ language. A confident English speaker might assume they know, but plain language relies on clarity, not assumptions.
From a plain-language perspective most devspeak is merely pretentious and annoying. Readers typically understand a sentence even if it contains an unexpected neologism. Few editors care if readers need to use a dictionary occasionally; most of us pretentiously and annoyingly believe that an extended vocabulary is a thing to aspire to. But confusion and ambiguity is not something to aspire to, so before you use devspeak, look for a simpler alternative.
You’ll probably find that if your peak message is solid, and the flow and format is logical, you won’t need devspeak after all. Clearly, it’s not essential.
You can stop reading here if you like, but I thought I’d add a worked example of how all this works….
A practical illustration
Here’s an example of applying plain-language principles to a donor report earlier this year.
The paragraph on the left is the original. What opportunities can you see for applying plain-language principles to that version? I saw several, so the author and I worked together to improve the original. We agreed to replace it with the paragraph on the right.
This short training course was designed to enhance [name removed] and other humanitarian organisation staff’s capacity to act as interpreters in the course of their work, often in the context of sensitization sessions, case management or household surveys. The content focused on the role of interpreting for humanitarian action, while also shedding light on broadly applicable modes and principles of interpreting. Learning methods combined exposition with interactive sessions, including group work and simple role play exercises that were not only meant to illustrate how to interpret effectively but also laid an emphasis on key ethical issues to be considered while interpreting. Topics covered included interpreting for children and vulnerable populations, and developing multilingual terminology for humanitarian interpreting.
Bilingual staff at [name removed] and other humanitarian organisations often interpret informally during sensitization sessions, case management activities or household surveys. We designed this course to help them interpret more effectively. The course covered:
● the role of humanitarian interpreting; ● broad interpreting principles; ● interpreting modes; ● interpreting for children and vulnerable populations; and ● developing multilingual glossaries.
Trainers combined instructional with interactive learning methods such as group work and role play exercises. The interactive exercises illustrated effective interpreting techniques and emphasised key ethical issues related to interpreting.
(83 words, or a reduction of 28 percent. Now imagine that reduction extrapolated across an entire report).
Here’s what I saw. From a plain-language perspective, there were several issues:
Long sentences (average 29 words, maximum 40 words).
Passive voice (“the course was designed”).
Uncommon words (“exposition”).
Complex terms (“multilingual terminology for humanitarian interpreting”).
Related ideas were separated in the text.
Did you get them all? Did I miss anything? Which version do you think is clearer? What techniques do you use to make your own writing as clear as possible? Let us know (in plain language, of course).
A Translators without Borders study found that access to information has improved in the Rohingya refugee response as a result of an increased humanitarian focus on communicating with communities. Yet language barriers still leave many Rohingya refugees without the critical and life-saving information they need.Prioritizing spoken communication in Rohingya and a mixed approach on formats and channels is key to effective communication.
From the outset, language challenges have played a central role in the Rohingya refugee response. There are at least five languages — Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English — used in the response. Low literacy levels and limited access to media compound the situation.
To find out how humanitarians can effectively communicate with refugees, Translators without Borders assessed language comprehension and support needs among the refugees. We surveyed more than 400 Rohingya men and women living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We asked them what languages they spoke, how they preferred to receive information, and we tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.
Here is what we found.
Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed
Twenty-eight percent of refugees say they do not have enough information to make decisions for themselves and their family. Extrapolated to the whole camp population, this suggests that about 200,000 people feel that they lack the basis to make properly informed decisions. Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement from a year ago when an assessment by Internews found that 79 percent of refugees did not have enough information.
Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical
Rohingya is the only spoken language that all refugees understand and prefer. Our study shows that 36 percent of refugees do not understand a simple sentence in Chittagonian. Women are less likely than men to understand spoken Bangla or Burmese. Refugees prefer to receive information in spoken Rohingya, either by word-of-mouth, loudspeaker, or phone call.
This preference for spoken Rohingya coincides with strong trust levels in imams, family, aid and medical professionals, and majhees (government-appointed community leaders) as sources of information. Radio, TV, and the internet are less trusted by and less familiar to women.
After spoken Rohingya, simple visual messaging is the most widely understood format. Comprehension rates for visual communication are high regardless of gender, age, or education level.
Burmese is the preferred written language, and is relatively well understood
After Rohingya, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Although two-thirds of refugees prefer written communication in Rohingya, the language lacks a universally accepted script. Refugees prefer written information to be given in brochure or leaflet form. This allows them to take information away with them and ask a friend or family member to help them understand it.
Sixty-six percent of refugees said that they cannot read or write in any language, and comprehension testing broadly confirmed this. When tested for reading comprehension, 36 percent understood Burmese, a similar rate to Bangla and English.
Investment in language will improve the response
These findings make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community. They show that different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats and sources of information. Nonetheless, practical actions for effective humanitarian communication exist.
Using Rohingya for spoken communication, and Burmese for written information is important. Providing information in a mix of formats and channels to account for varied preferences and education levels will also help.
Investing in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and in humanitarian interpretation techniques is key. Staff should be supported to communicate in the language understood and preferred by the whole community.
As time goes on, communication and language preferences may change. Ongoing assessments on information and language support needs should be coupled with further research to better understand communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee response. Sustained coordination among humanitarian organizations can help ensure communication is consistent, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.
This study is part of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and by European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO). It was conducted in partnership with IOM Needs and Population Monitoring and REACH Initiative. Translators without Borders has been working in Bangladesh in support of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017, conducting research on language barriers and communication needs, advocating for local language and cross-cultural competence, providing translation and localization support, and training humanitarian staff on the Rohingya language and culture.
Written by Mahrukh 'Maya' Hasan, Evidence and Impact Consultant for the Rohingya refugee crisis response in Bangladesh.
One year into the Rohingya refugee response, a language evolves with its people.
Language is fluid. It is subject to environment, culture, and the whims of communities. It’s been one year since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. And it is here in these cramped refugee camps that a language is shifting and evolving right in front of us.
The early days
In the early days of the response, the language challenges for the refugee community were immense. First responders struggled to communicate where and how to access lifesaving services, and to document individual accounts of trauma. The community struggled to explain its essential needs (According to one report, more than 60% of refugees said they could not communicate with aid workers), and dozens of untrained interpreters emerged overnight to fill the need for linguistic middlemen. Many of these amateur interpreters spoke the local Chittagonian; while somewhat similar, there are very distinct differences in the languages that create confusion, misinformation and miscommunication. Rohingya speakers estimate that there is around a 70% similarity between Chittagonian and Rohingya (Rohingya Zuban report). That might sound pretty good – but keep in mind that there is more than 80 percent similarity between Spanish and Italian, and no one would ever hire an Italian interpreter for a Spanish refugee!
“Only a few of our men knew Bangla or English. The locals were helping, but even they couldn’t fully understand us. We couldn’t explain to them why we were fleeing, what was being done to us across the river.”
Woman in her mid-30s, living in Nayapara, an informal camp in the region.
For example, early in the response, the phrase ‘violence against women’ was frequently misinterpreted as ‘violent women’. Certain kinship terms, like husband (beda / zamai / shwami) and daughter (zer-fua / maya-fua / mela-fua), led to some families being separated when shelters were assigned. Then there was gaa lamani — in Rohingya it means diarrhea, but in Chittagonian, it literally translates as ‘body falling down.’ This certainly led to some confusing sessions with health workers.
Signs directing the community to health centers, food distribution sites and other essential services were written mostly in English (although less than 5 percent of the population is literate in English). The main avenue to complain or give feedback was the complaints box – a concept that not only requires a level of literacy, but is also culturally alien to the community.
A new way forward
A year on, many organizations are creating innovative ways to communicate. For example, many are working with the community to develop image-based signage.The challenges in developing images that represent such seemingly simple concepts as ‘caution’ or ‘hospital’ give an insight into the complexities of communicating symbols amongst different languages and cultures.
“A white hand means clean hand. If you want to stay ‘stop’ or ‘caution’, use red. A red hand will stand out. It will tell us to stop.”
Middle-aged man, testing shelter signage
More than a million Rohingya refugees now live in camps spread across the southernmost tip of Bangladesh. Here, older refugee communities that arrived over the last 30 years live side by side with new arrivals and the host community. Throw into the language ecosystem the institutionalized jargon spoken by English speaking aid workers and you have a fascinating interplay of language and culture.
Language is influenced by its surroundings. For example, the Rohingya dialect spoken by the older arrivals now differs from the Rohingya spoken by the newer arrivals. Decades of living amongst a Bangladeshi host community has seen their mother tongue adopt a number of Bangla words. For example, a newly arrived refugee might use the word hefazot, to refer to ‘security’ or ‘safety’ while the more established refugee community now borrows from Bangla nirapotta. Older refugees might use the word janela (actually borrowed from the former Portuguese colonizers) meaning window, while newer refugees use kirkiri.
“When I go to the clinic, the doctor can’t understand when I explain what’s wrong using Rohingya language. The health interpreter sometimes teaches me the word for my condition in Bangla. This is helping me communicate better with the doctor.”
When speaking to a newly arrived Rohingya refugee, you will notice the influence of Burmese, Arabic, and Farsi in their terminology. Serama (from siyama in Burmese, meaning ‘female teacher’), serang (‘to make a list’) and atwarta (‘documents’) show the Burmese and Rakhine influence on the language. While mosiboth (‘danger’) and izzot (‘honor’) come from Arabic, aramiyoth (‘health’), moroth (‘male’), and rong (‘color’) are Farsi words either borrowed directly or via Urdu.
“Sometimes it’s even difficult for us to understand the new Rohingyas, especially if they come from fuk-kool” (literally, ‘the east side’ of the mountain range). “Their accent is distinct, and they use words that many other Rohingyas don’t use. Maybe they use more Rakhine words.”
Salim, Rohingya interpreter from Teknaf.
In the last year it has become clear that humanitarian responders are giving more than aid to the community. New English words are creeping into Rohingya dialogue every day. For example, the Rohingya word for ‘toilet’, tatti is now commonly replaced by the word lettin (from ‘latrine’) and modotgoroya, the word for ‘aid worker’, has become bolontiyar (from ‘volunteer’) in everyday Rohingya vocabulary. While the registered Rohingya community uses the Bangla word shoronati, the newer arrivals have replaced the Burmese dokasi with the English word ‘refugee’ (pronounced rifuzi). Interestingly, even English words that they picked up while in Myanmar are now being replaced with “newer” English words, like the word for intravenous saline (deep from ‘drip’ in Myanmar; selain from ‘saline’ in Bangladesh).
“Most of us now say ‘hosfital’ for medical centers, but the older women still prefer to ‘dattahana.’”
Young woman, focus group discussion
The camp is full of different languages; Burmese rhymes compete with Arabic hymns and Hindi pop songs. The community is eager to learn new languages. Burmese is regularly cited as the most desirable language to learn, closely followed by English and Bangla (in that order). And while the teaching of Bangla is officially banned by the government, some Rohingya men – particularly the youth – study informally at night among themselves and with the older, registered Rohingya refugees.
This is what makes our work here so fascinating. It’s riveting watching language twist and turn to fit into its new environment like you would squeeze into a pair of new jeans. That’s why resources like our glossary, resources, and the training we provide to field workers in this response is so crucial. This ensures important information is delivered in the right language and that as their language needs shift and evolve, we are able to move with them. Over the next year we’re sure to see more change, as more children have access to learning centers that teach English and Burmese, and interactions between the community and aid workers from around the world increase. Listen carefully; language matters.
This blog post is based on dozens of conversations and focus groups held by TWB with the community over the last year.
Written by Irene Scott, TWB Program Director, Bangladesh, and AK Rahim, TWB Sociolinguistic Researcher.
Humanitarian emergencies know no language boundaries.
In the 13 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises, people speak over 1,200 languages. Yet, humanitarians operating in these crises often do not have the necessary language support, making their jobs even more difficult.
World Humanitarian Day on 19 August is an opportune moment to reflect on this challenge. On this day, we honor all aid workers risking their lives to help people facing disasters and conflicts. At Translators without Borders (TWB), we believe that language should not stand in the way of the ability of these dedicated and brave people to deliver life-saving support.
Yet, too often, aid agencies do not give their staff the appropriate resources and tools to engage with communities and local responders in a language they understand. Translation is a consistent challenge, but mostly overlooked in humanitarian budgets amid other more tangible items. As a result, humanitarian workers are often forced to rely on unsupported national colleagues, untrained interpreters, English-centric jargon, and procedures that may exclude those who speak local languages.
The consequences of overlooking the need for language support are dire for the people in need of humanitarian aid – and pretty tough for humanitarian workers themselves.
Many of these aid workers are forced to rely on national staff or local community members to act as translators or interpreters. These staff members are largely expected to deal with the many challenges that differences in languages present on their own, although translation skills are rarely what they are recruited for. Program documentation such as guidelines, manuals, and other materials including specialized terminology is translated without training or support. Some may be working between two languages when neither is their first language.
Situations where interviews with community members pass through three or four languages are not uncommon. An international aid worker may speak in English, a national staff member interprets into the national language, and then a local school teacher interprets into the language of that village, and back again. This approach multiplies the potential loss of information in translation and lacks proper quality assurance. It also forces under-supported humanitarian staff or community members to perform a stressful task with little or no confidence that people’s information and communication needs are being met.
The fact that complex humanitarian terms and concepts in English are not directly translatable into other languages compounds the problem for humanitarians. TWB’s research in different contexts has found that even aid workers do not always understand the English concepts they are asked to interpret. For example, “violence against women” was translated into Rohingya as “violent women” and “food security” in northeast Nigeria as “food protected by guards”. Comprehension rates among humanitarian data collectors are as low as 35 percent in some places. The result may be, at best, confusion or misunderstanding, and, at worst, inaccurate data upon which response plans are built. It is also undoubtedly stressful for those trying to do their best in challenging circumstances.
A lack of language support can also undermine coordination with and involvement of local responders. When meetings are held in a national or international language, for example, local language speakers are excluded from decision-making. This is not only a matter of dignity and mutual respect, but it is also a crucial precondition for tapping into local knowledge and capacities, allowing those on the frontline of a response to avoid delays in making potentially life-affecting decisions.
In short, humanitarian aid workers are better equipped to ensure people affected by crisis receive timely and relevant aid when they have proper language support.
This support begins with collecting the data needed to plan for language needs, and resourcing those needs appropriately. Training and capacity development programs can help build translation and interpreting capacity in languages for which there are no professional translators. A library of resource materials and tools in the relevant languages can be built up for all aid providers to make use of.
As we mark World Humanitarian Day on August 19, it is time to shift our attention to how we can use language services to support humanitarian workers trying to help in the most dire of circumstances. Addressing language barriers between humanitarians and crisis-affected communities can deliver the humanitarian world’s commitment to quality and accountability across responses, helping support and empower those who need it most.