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। 

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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

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.

uk aid logo H2H logo

On the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo: language support can help earn people’s trust in the Ebola response

The communication challenges between communities and responders aiming to stop the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo are deep. Until a few weeks ago, I had only a faint understanding of the reasons behind them. I knew that the linguistic diversity of the area meant information about Ebola is not fully understood, even among the relatively well-educated population of Goma. Since landing in Goma and being confronted with a hand-washing station and vaccination poster even before I could go through immigration, I started to gain more insight. 

Developing the resources and capacities to communicate effectively with people at risk is a challenge in itself. Yet, a bigger challenge is getting responders to pay more attention to language to earn the trust of people through meaningful two-way communication.

It’s been over a year, and the outbreak has not yet been controlled. People’s fear of an indiscriminate disease and a medical process that can be intimidating are still affecting responders’ ability to provide care in outbreak areas.

No matter how effective prevention measures and treatment are, if people don’t trust or understand them, they will not use them.

Communication in the languages of people at risk can help ensure comprehension and establish trust. That is why TWB has deployed a team to eastern DRC to provide language support across the Ebola response. Improving understanding of the language dynamics affecting the response and building the capacity of responders to communicate with communities, in their languages, are ambitious tasks. 

We use language assessments to identify where breakdowns in comprehension and translation problems are happening. Together with a team of local linguists and partner organizations like IRC, IFRC, and UNICEF, we then identify language solutions to improve existing communication strategies and materials. 

To support field staff and community mobilizers, we are developing tools to improve their understanding of key concepts and multilingual communication skills. Research by the Groupe de recherche en sciences sociales (GRSS) has found important knowledge gaps among health workers, impeding their capacity to inform community members. We will also train speakers of the relevant local languages to provide translation and interpreting services across the response. This will have the added benefit of building translation capacity in local languages for future needs.

But I fear that getting responders to focus on language as a key component of communications will be more difficult than providing high quality language support.

Language is still too often an afterthought.

As my colleague Aimee Ansari said in an op-ed last year, language intersects with everything humanitarians do. Meaningful two-way communication fulfills a vital function in a crisis like this Ebola outbreak. It’s as pivotal as providing health services. 

In this response, a lot depends on whether the many responding aid organizations prioritize the languages of affected people. It’s critical that organizations mobilize the appropriate resources to fill the persistent communication gaps across the response. It’s not good enough to assume that people don’t face language barriers or to expect field staff to address them with little or no support. 

The gravity of the outbreak and an agreement to improve community engagement may provide the traction for a more language-aware approach to stop Ebola. That can show that responders are here to listen, understand, and provide trustworthy information and services to help people protect themselves and their families from the disease.

Despite the challenges, our team is determined to help make this happen. You can do so too by:

    • Asking what your organization, or the organization you donate to, is doing to communicate in the languages people speak and understand;
    • Sharing this blog with speakers of relevant Congolese languages who may be able to support;
    • Contacting us at [email protected] to learn more about our language support services and to discuss partnership opportunities in DRC. 

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid from the UK government. It is also supported by grant funding from Gilead Sciences, Inc. Gilead Sciences, Inc. has had no input into the development or content of these materials.

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

Farewell thoughts from TWB Ambassador Sue Fortescue

In the beginning

Sue Fortescue TWB Ambassador
Credit: ITI/

Like many interesting events in life, my first encounter with Translators without Borders (TWB) was pure serendipity. I was completing the Master of Arts in Audiovisual Translation Studies at the University of Leeds. An excellent component of the course is the series of presentations given by speakers from language service providers, the EU, the UN, and NGOs. In January 2015 Andrew Bredenkamp, Chair of TWB, gave a presentation – and I was hooked!

I had come to translation quite late in life, having worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language in Italy, Nepal, and the UK, then as an IT Manager in Belgium and the US. When I retired I missed the international atmosphere in which I had lived and worked. A friend’s daughter had followed the Leeds Master of Arts course (serendipity again), which is why I enrolled. But I didn’t want to work full time, so volunteering for TWB was the perfect solution.

What was my role?

I started in January 2015, as TWB’s Volunteer Manager, recruiting volunteers and interns to help with our website, accounting, graphics design, and more.  Since then I have hosted stands for TWB at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conferences in Newcastle, Cardiff, and Sheffield. I wrote numerous articles for ITI and CIOL magazines, and gave presentations at various events throughout the UK. I also helped to set up the TWB customer relationship management tool and the criteria for admitting nongovernmental organizations. I even set up (with help!) the TWB Cookbook. And I enjoyed every minute!

TWB was the cover story in the ITI Bulletin September-October 2018, edited by Radhika Holmström

What were the high spots?

Definitely top of the list was meeting, in person or digitally, the many supporters who do so much to make TWB such a successful organization. There are too many to name but I want to single out Noura Tawil, who has lived in Latakia, Syria throughout the war. She is bringing up her children and overcoming hurdles such as intermittent electricity. Throughout all of this, she not only continues to translate texts from English to Arabic for TWB but also supplied several recipes for the TWB Cookbook. Thank you, Noura!

Also high on the list is the satisfaction gained from knowing that I have done something practical, however small, to help people in distress. The first earthquakes in Nepal hit during the ITI Conference in Newcastle in 2015. Having worked in Nepal for three years in the 1970s, I could imagine the distress caused, and was grateful to participants at the conference for spreading the word that we needed translators to and from Newari and Nepali. 

It was also good to know that we helped the refugees fleeing war zones and arriving at the camps in Greece. We did practical things such as translating into Arabic and other languages the instructions on how to register and what to do next. 

It was also very satisfying to know that we helped out after the fire at Grenfell Tower in London, when the British Red Cross asked us to translate the leaflets they were distributing. Our wonderful volunteer translators completed the translations from English into Arabic, Farsi, Pushto, Somali, and Tigrinya, mostly within 24 hours. That made a huge difference to the survivors. 

I gained immense satisfaction from our work during the Ebola crisis, in Nigeria, and our work with the Rohingya escaping to Bangladesh from Myanmar. I’m also grateful to have been able to witness the huge technological advances we have made in our translation tools over the past few years.

It is also gratifying that my work for TWB has been recognized. In 2016 I was presented with the TWB Access to Knowledge Excellence Award. And in 2018 the ITI presented me with its Industry Ambassador Award.

ITI President Sarah Bawa-Mason presents me with the 2018 ITI Industry Ambassador Award. Photo credit: ITI

What next?

I always promised myself that I would step down when I was 70, and I will be 72 this year, so it is time to leave! I will continue to do translations for TWB but will no longer represent TWB through events or writing.

I had always thought that in my retirement I would sit in my rocking chair and read books – but retirement in the 21st century is just not like that! So I will continue with my work as a freelance translator and also my work for organizations such as our local branch of Samaritans

I plan to spend time, especially each summer, on another retirement project – sailing! I volunteered for the 2012 London Olympics as an interpreter (Italian-English and Frech-English) and was assigned to the Paralympic sailing at Portland. I liked what I saw and have since joined my local sailing club, have obtained a Competent Crew certificate and passed the VHF radio exam in order to coordinate communications during races!

I will follow TWB on social media with great interest – and I know that when a crisis strikes anywhere in the world TWB will be there to help. #LanguageMatters

Left to right: Sailing off the Isle of Wight; members of my sailing club holding a fundraising event (I am holding the cash box!); and my RYA ‘Competent Crew’ certificate
Written by Sue Fortescue, Ambassador for Translators without Borders 2015-2019

On the ground in Mozambique: Supporting communication with people affected by Cyclone Idai

Photo credit and copyright: IOM/Andrew Lind

Translators without Borders is on the ground in Mozambique, evaluating the language needs and preferences of people affected by Cyclone Idai. If you’d like to help as we scale our response, you can become a volunteer translator or make a donation

Passport, rubber boots, protein bars, and a Portuguese phrase book. These are the things at the top of my packing list as I prepare to deploy to Beira, Mozambique. Making sure I can understand and be understood by the people affected by Cyclone Idai is my first thought.

Yet I know that Portuguese, the official language of the country, won’t take me very far. Mozambique has a linguistically diverse population and literacy levels are low. Knowledge of Portuguese is limited to coastal urban areas and only a third of women can read and write. I also know that humanitarian organizations cannot afford to have the reach, impact, and accountability of their efforts limited by language barriers.

It is estimated that 1.85 million people are in need of urgent assistance. At least 160,000 people have been displaced. Women reportedly make up at least half of the population in temporary accommodation sites, while older people and people with disabilities who are less mobile are likely to have been left behind or stranded.

In this context, effective communication in the local languages people speak is key to understanding what people need and want.

Even basic information about what humanitarian assistance is available and how it can be accessed must be provided in a manner that meets people’s language capacities and preferences. This goes beyond saving lives. It is about restoring people’s dignity and respect, fulfilling people’s right to know, to ask questions, and participate in their own relief and recovery.

Given the scale of the response, a collective approach to two-way communication can help make the best use of limited resources. This is why I’m headed to Mozambique on behalf of Translators without Borders (TWB). We’ve mobilized to provide language support services to organizations across the entire response. And we’re doing so alongside colleagues from the H2H Network – a new network that provides a range of services to improve the quality and impact of humanitarian action.

We have already translated 15,500 words into the key languages spoken by people throughout the most affected areas: Ndau, Nyanja, Portuguese, Sena, and Shona.

We are mobilizing translators with the most relevant local language skills for both remote and on-the-ground specialized support. We are focusing on mapping languages spoken in the affected areas in collaboration with MapAction. And we are collecting data on language comprehension and communication preferences among affected people. With that knowledge, we can work out the best combinations of language, format, and channel to ensure the widest possible comprehension. We can also help other organizations design communication tools to engage with all affected people.

TWB’s map of languages spoken in the areas affected by Cyclone Idai. Copyright: TWB

The fact that we’ve received funding* to provide language support at the onset of this response shows that as a sector we have come a long way in recognizing the importance of language for effective and accountable humanitarian action. As I set off for Beira, I feel this is truly a step in the right direction to make humanitarian action more inclusive, and to do so at scale.

I invite you to keep following our work in response to Cyclone Idai on TWB’s website, Facebook, and Twitter. We will be providing regular updates over the coming weeks. You can also contact us at [email protected] for further information about our language support services.

*This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid from the UK government.

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

From teacher to translator: meet Sybil

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) bring a range of experiences and skills, but they share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all of our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

This month, we are discovering how Sybil’s experience as a teacher makes her an invaluable humanitarian translator. From her home in Massachusetts, USA, she translates vital information, working from French into English. While we often talk about translating from ‘bigger’ languages like English into less commercial local languages, Sybil makes a difference in the lives of thousands by translating into her native English. Since 2011, she has completed almost a hundred tasks for TWB, providing over 200,000 words to nonprofit organizations and the people they support.

“Thanks to my experience in the classroom, I was already very familiar with a lot of the vocabulary and the context of many translation tasks.”

Natural progression: a freelance career

Sybil’s journey with TWB began seven years ago when the just-retired teacher found herself in search of a second career. As a newcomer to the world of translation, she appreciated the short tasks and generous deadlines offered by her first projects. Through feedback and collaboration, she learned how to work with translation project managers, accept assignments, meet deadlines, and continuously improve her translation work.

“My first published work as a translator was through TWB, in collaboration with other linguists.”

To build her skills further, Sybil completed a French and English Certificate in Translation Studies through New York University’s online program. This academic pursuit, coupled with her continued progression and practice with TWB, has allowed her to effectively build a new career after retirement.

As she built her skills, she relished the challenge, taking on more proofreading and revision tasks on top of her translation work. “This year has been particularly challenging in that I have been tasked with several transcription and subtitling projects.”

These projects have taken Sybil beyond translation: she’s transcribed from French to English, edited a French transcript, and synched English subtitles to a film.

“Without a doubt, working with TWB and obtaining a French and English Certificate in Translation Studies have been the two major influences shaping my freelance career.”

Serving communities across the globe

Throughout her time as a TWB volunteer, Sybil has translated documents from all over the world. She’s focused particularly on supporting communities in Africa, a continent which holds a personal interest for her. As a junior at college and a budding traveler, she spent a year abroad in Nigeria, and later served for the US Peace Corps in Francophone Cameroon. There she worked for two years as a teacher of English as a second language (ESL).

Now, serving TWB, she supports our mission by assisting individuals and populations who need the services of a French to English translator. So, while this is not her first time aiding communities in countries including Nigeria and Cameroon with her language skills, Sybil stays up-to-date with global humanitarian issues she has seen first-hand, through the challenging and meaningful tasks she encounters with TWB. And the TWB team certainly appreciates her know-how; Dace, TWB’s Translation Emergency Coordinator is quick to praise Sybil for being “ever supportive and responsive.”

“This photo was taken on Monday 13th January 1969 when I was serving in the United States Peace Corps, teaching ESL at the ‘middle’ school (Collège d”Enseignment Général de Sangmélima). The students, principal, and I are standing in front of the school draped with the green, red, and yellow flag of Cameroon. We were awaiting the arrival of President Ahdhijo who was visiting Sangmélima.”

Over 8,000 miles away in Bangladesh, another community benefits from Sybil’s expertise. In one personally significant project, she worked on guidelines for teaching English to Rohingya children who had recently arrived in Bangladesh. Her quick work enabled the syllabus to be immediately implemented and helped the community’s children continue their education in their temporary campsites. As a professional educator, she was able to collaborate with colleagues to produce lesson plans, syllabi, and curricula for English literature, ESL, and French language and literature classes.

While her now extensive experience in humanitarian and development translation means Sybil must have many poignant stories to tell, she describes how a few are forever ingrained in her memory. Take, for example, addressing the mental and physical health of people in Haiti immediately after the devastating earthquake in 2010. On another occasion, an in-depth assignment explained how women in an African country have to travel extraordinary distances, often by foot, for difficult operations, and why they are not always successful. These might seem like difficult topics, but in putting such important information into another language, this translator is truly bridging a gap of human experience, and sharing information that has the power to shape humanitarian approaches for the better.

A student in Haiti.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion, or send an email to [email protected].

Apply here to become a volunteer translator for TWB, and help serve communities across the globe.


Written by Danielle Moore, Digital Communications Intern for TWB, with interview responses by Sybil, Kató translator for TWB. 


An evolving crisis needs an evolving glossary

The expanded TWB Bangladesh Glossary app is now available for field workers and interpreters working on the Rohingya humanitarian response.

As a humanitarian crisis evolves, so do the information needs of affected communities. And so does knowledge of the associated language complexities. Humanitarian responders gradually understand the linguistic ambiguities and cultural nuances that affect our work. Glossaries help to consolidate our knowledge and make us more effective.

The initial information needs relating to critical things like how to build shelter and how to access services have been met. But humanitarian responders are now addressing more complex ongoing issues affecting the community. That means language requirements are changing and becoming increasingly complex too.

A glossary to help 

Translators without Borders (TWB) released its Bangladesh Glossary app in June 2018 for people working on the Rohingya humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It helps field workers, interpreters, and Rohingya refugees communicate between five languages: Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English.

You can view and use the TWB Bangladesh Glossary app here. It’s available offline for easy field access.

The initial TWB Bangladesh Glossary app included terms focused on WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene). But other humanitarian sectors clamored for a tool that could help them communicate more effectively too. TWB understands the importance of communicating in a language that affected people understand. So we responded to the clamor and added hundreds of new terms to the Bangladesh Glossary app.

Adding to the conversation

We’ve added 200 terms to improve conversations on key gender issues. For example, we learned that the term for puberty in Rohingya differs according to gender. Ghor-goille is literally translated as ‘entering the house’, and is used only for girls, as this is the beginning of their gender segregation. Certain words highlight how the community perceives women’s roles in society. Azad mela-fuain, commonly used by aid workers to refer to women’s independence, is often misunderstood by the Rohingya community as ‘a woman without morals’ (or a free or loose woman).  

“Conversations about sensitive gender issues can rely heavily on euphemisms,” says TWB Sociolinguistic Researcher, AK Rahim. “While there may be a correct term, there are euphemisms that the community prefers and feels more comfortable using. That’s why this tool is so important. It doesn’t only identify the correct word; it also helps humanitarians to respect the cultural importance of particular terms.”

This update also includes another 100 WASH terms and more health terms focusing on disability and inclusion. The addition of emergency terms will assist in discussions about disaster preparedness and response.

The expanded glossary is also easier to navigate, with sector-relevant categories now available on the left side of the app. We’ve also transliterated Chittagonian and Rohingya terms so that you can view and show them in both Latin English and Bengali scripts.

Of course, the tool can only make an impact when used, and we’re proud to say we have now trained close to 400 field workers to use it. In the next few months, we’ll be adding another 500 terms, focusing on the health, education, and nutrition sectors.  

The TWB Bangladesh Glossary app is a practical and evolving tool. We invite feedback from humanitarians and the community, so please get in touch with your suggestions and alert us to any faults. We want to know if you’re using the glossary, how you’re using it and when it’s not working.

As always, we are grateful to the partners who have contributed to this project, particularly Unicef, Oxfam, and Care International. The TWB Bangladesh Glossary app was developed with the support of IOM, the UN migration agency. It is co-funded by the UK Department for International Development, UNICEF, and Oxfam.

Basic download instructions for Android or iPhone are  here in English and Bangla.

Written by Irene Scott, TWB's Program Director, Bangladesh.