Africa’s Translation Gap

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.

By Patrick Cox

TWB Translator Training Session in Nairobi, Kenya

Meet Translators without Borders trainees in Nairobi, Kenya.

When the trainees have finished this module, they will begin translating a healthcare application into Swahili that can then be accessed via cell phones.

Translating For Humanity

In response to the demand for pro bono translation services worldwide… 

© BY FRANÇOISE HERRMANN, PhD

Founded 18 years ago in Paris by Lori Thicke (CEO of Lexcelera) and Ros Smith-Thomas (co-owner of Lexcelera), Traducteurs sans frontières was established as a charitable organization in France. The name Traducteurs sans frontières was selected because the organization’s first client was Médicins sans frontières/Doctors without Borders, the medical disaster-relief NGO (non-governmental organization) that later won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2010, Lori Thicke founded Translators without Borders, a sister organization in the United States with non-profit 501©(3) status. Until fairly recently, Traducteurs sans frontières brokered pro bono translation services of approximately 1 million words per year to NGOs, representing about $250,000 of donated services per year. In 2011, however, with the foundation of Translators without Borders in the US, this number doubled, with 1 million words already translated as early as June; a 10-fold projected increase within the next few years was envisioned. (For the most up-to-date figures, see the counter displaying the number of translated words at theTWB Translation Center.)

For all languages

Translators without Borders is equipped to provide pro bono translation services in any language combination. For the first half of 2011, the highest demands were: French to English (34.6%), English to French (16.7%), English to Spanish (9.84%), English to Arabic (3.87%) and English to Russian (2.07%), with the balance (32.92%) consisting of another 40 language combinations, including English to Yoruba (0.33%), English to German (0.90%), English to Turkish (1.13%), English to Persian (1.13%)*.

Translators without Borders vets any NGO requesting its services. This means that all NGOs with which it works are verified in terms of their status as charitable and non-profit organizations. It also means that translators may rest assured that their pro bono services are received for legitimate non-profit causes. The requesting organizations are also vetted to ensure that they do not advocate extreme religious or political views. There are currently 53 NGOs registered with Translators without Borders, and the organization has the capacity to take on 100 more. (Browse the list of NGOs and their descriptions at the TWB Translation Center).

In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Translators without Borders partnered with ProZ.com, an online community of 
professional translators and adopted their networking tools. Inundated with requests for translations in Haiti, where an international rescue effort was underway, Translators without Borders initially turned toProZ.com for more volunteer translators, and then to screen translators, because of the spectacular number of responses (800!) from the ProZ.com community of translators. Moving forward, this partnership, born in a crisis of catastrophic proportions, led to the development of the TWB Translation Center, an automated service and delivery platform, donated 100% by ProZ.com. It is this invisible technology quietly empowering Translators without Borders that explains the quantum leap in the number of pro bono translated words in response to an increased capacity to process NGO requests.

As Lori Thicke puts it:

The idea is that with a huge pool of talented volunteers on one side, and an enormous demand from non-profits on the other, the only bottleneck is getting those two groups together. Our guiding principle has been that we don’t need to be in the middle of this process. All we need to do is set certain standards for both translators and charities then put the technology in place to help them work together.” (Lori’s blog, posted May 30, 2011)

At the end of the day

To become listed in the Translators without Borders database of translators, linguists are required to submit an application at the Translators without Borders website (click on Translators>How to volunteer). Only professional translators are finally admitted. Translators are then evaluated via the automated ProZ.com testing platform using a series of Translators without Borders tests that the translator selects in his or her area of specialization and language combinations. A committee of three Translators without Borders translators then evaluates the tests. Once accepted, the translator’s name is registered in the Translators without Borders database of translators, and the translator is supplied with a login ID and password to gain access to the NGO requests via the TWB Translation Center. Once a translation request is fulfilled, it is uploaded to the TWB Translation Center for delivery to the NGO and pick-up. The turnaround time for projects is slightly longer, because this is pro bono work and translators are not expected to spend their entire week on a project.

There are currently 640 approved translators in the Translators without Borders database, and many more have recently submitted test translations. (See the list with photos, and query the database by language combinations and fields of specialization at the TWB Translation Center.) During the month of June 2011 alone, 319 translators were active, translating a total of 186,926 words. Among the 319 active translators, the top 10 (most active) volunteer translators averaged 6186 words of donated translation services, with jobs ranging on average approximately 1000 to 1600 words. As Gail Desautels, Translators without Borders super-superstar with 25 jobs and 16771 words to her credit during the month of June 2011, puts it:

…translating for TWB is the redemption in my day. Not only do I get to travel to countries around the world, but I can also say at the end of the day that I have done something very worthwhile.” (Gail Desautels, from a personal email communication, August 20, 2011)

Even if pro bono work hardly pays the rent, here is how the process completes for Corinne Durand, another Translators without Borders top contributor with 4 jobs and 6795 words to her credit for the month of June 2011:

I had often wondered how to go about bringing my personal contribution to the relentless work of NGOs. TSB/TWB has provided me with a way to do it that fits perfectly both with my personal and professional life. Indeed, I feel very privileged to be allowed to make a little difference by doing something I love.” (Corinne Durand, from a personal email communication, August 21, 2011)

In many fields

The types of NGO translation requests span such domains as legal, medical, healthcare, epidemiology, educational, and agricultural, including the following kinds of requests: translation of eyewitness or awareness reports in conflict areas; documentation for a campaign against child labor; field reports on urban violence; NGO web pages (see, for example,Goodplanet.org); instructions manual for dealing with child trauma victims; manuals for childcare of orphans developed in collaboration with local professionals; requests for micro-funding, directions for coordinating international disaster-relief teams; medical training manuals; medical information for childbirth, childcare, and first aid instructions. Projects range from one page to several hundred, with the larger projects divided among several 
volunteer translators so that no one is asked to translate more than 10 pages.

Translators without Borders clients i
nclude Doctors without Borders, Action Against Hunger, Zafèn, Trickle up, Oxfam, QuakeSOS, Make-a-Wish, AIDES, Handicap International, Partners in Health, Fair Start Training, Medical Aid Films, and many more. During the month of June 2011, the most active organization was Zafèn (representing 28.57% of the TWB Translation Center activity), an organization that organizes micro-financing opportunities in Haiti.

The Translators without Borders motto is “Every dollar we save for an NGO is another dollar that can be spent caring for people in the field.” At a rate of 1 million words (valued at $250,000) each year for 17 years, and the capacity for a projected 10 million words per year, with the empowerment of ProZ.com technology, this is indeed “changing the world, one word at a time” and is truly an impressive feat on more counts than one.

To get involved

If you want to get involved… this is the place to start. Despite moving mountains, Translators without Borders barely covers 1% of the translation needs of NGOs. As Lori Thicke has pointed out, it is not only diseases that kill. The absence of information, or misinformation, is also a major killer—for example, when mothers believe they must withhold fluids in case of diarrhea,
 when boiling milk becomes a cure for malaria, or when smoking is believed to be a cure for migraines and protection from stroke. The organization’s mission is to increase access to information through translation. As Lori puts it:

The elephant in the access to information room is translation.” (Lori’sblog, posted May 16, 2011)

Stay tuned—because Translators without Borders has taken yet another step forward, securing funding to open, as early as February 2012, a Translation Training Center in Nairobi, in the Horn of Africa, that is designed to train healthcare translators. This center is envisioned as a pilot for future Translators without Borders training centers across the world “…wherever there is a devastating mix of extreme poverty, poor health and a non-existing translation infrastructure,” according to Simon Andriesen, Translators without Borders Board Member. This center is envisioned to fulfill some of the tremendous needs for translation in local languages: in Swahili, spoken by 5 to 10 million people as a first language and 100 million people as a second language, and in other local languages such as Maasai, Kikamba and Luo.

Similarly, stay tuned for more exponential ProZ.com community-building activity, linking professional service providers and the demand for services, since the pro bono TWB Translation Center has proved an extremely rigorous field test of ProZ.com technology and its amazing and beautiful capacity for vibrant empowerment.

Now, that’s worshipping Ganesh! **

*All statistics are courtesy of Enrique Cavalitto atProZ.com.

** Hindu deity—Remover of obstacles—represented as an elephant.

AT A GLANCE –
 GUIDELINES FOR GETTING INVOLVED IN PRO-BONO TRANSLATION FOR HUMANITARIAN CAUSES

1. Translators without Borders (requires enrollment and registration to evaluate your credentials and capacities). This is the largest network of humanitarian translation opportunities and services. The non-profit status of the NGOs (non-government organizations) requesting translations, is verified, as well as their causes.

2. Work directly with an NGO or non-profit organization. In this case, verify the status of the requesting organization yourself with a non-profit watch organization such as Charity Navigator.

3. Regular translation agencies sometimes provide humanitarian translation services. In this case transparency is paramount and the best practice. Normally, if an agency accepts a pro bono translation project, it is the agency’s contribution and gift.

© Françoise Herrmann 2011

AT A GLANCE – HUMANITARIAN CAUSES IN 2011

Famine
Drought-stricken Horn of Africa—12.4 million people affected. (UN WFP)

Famine officially declared in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda with catastrophic proportions in Mogadishu.

Water & sanitation
Even without drought 300 to 500 million people in Africa do not have access to sanitation and safe drinking water. (UN WFP)

Japan: March 2011 Earthquake and tsunami resulting in a nuclear crisis—500,000 people homeless, 20,000 perished.

Haiti: Cholera epidemic following the 2010 earthquake that claimed 250,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people. (PIH)

HIV/AIDS
40 million people estimated living with HIV worldwide, with 95% in developing countries, two-thirds in sub-Saharan Africa. (PIH)

Tuberculosis
Curable lung disease killing 2 million people each year. (PIH)

Childbirth & labor
1000 women die from childbirth or the complications of labor each day: 300 in Asia and 570 in Sub-Saharan Africa. (WHO- UNICEF)

Childhood
22,000 children estimated to die each day from preventable diseases. (UNICEF)

© Françoise Herrmann 2011

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks for the information they have so kindly supplied for this article in a series of phone conversations: Lori Thicke (CEO Lexcelera), co-founder of TSF and TWB, located in France & Simon Andriesen (CEO of Medilingua) located in Holland, TWB Board Member in charge of Operations, and Enrique Cavalitto, ProZ.com Manager, located in Argentina, in charge of the ProZ.com ”white label” technology for the TWB Translation Center.

WEBSITES:

TWB

TSF

Translation Center

Lori Thicke Co-founder of TSF/TWB

Content Rules CEO Val Swisher Joins TWB Board of Directors

Swisher’s Appointment Highlights the Importance of Developing Global-Ready Content

San Francisco, CA (PRWEB) June 20, 2012 – Content Rules, Inc. today announced that CEO Val Swisher has accepted an invitation to join Translators without Borders’ Board of Directors. As a general board member, Swisher will act as an advisor on future Translators without Borders projects.

Prior to her appointment, Swisher led several collaborative efforts between Content Rules and Translators without Borders, including developing a training course on “How to Write Using Simplified English” for a new team of translators in Nairobi.

Currently, Val and her team at Content Rules are working with Translators without Borders on the “Simple Wikipedia Project.” Throughout this 2+ year endeavor, a total of 80 medical articles posted on Wikipedia will be translated into simple English, which will enable the pages to be translated into many languages around the world.

Val has already made a tremendous difference in our work in Africa so we are thrilled to welcome her to our board of directors,” says Lori Thicke, Co-Founder of Translators Without Borders. “With her passion and expertise in developing content that can be understood by people of all backgrounds, we look forward to having Val strengthen our impact.”

As CEO of Content Rules, I have worked with many top companies such as PayPal to make “global readiness” content a priority. However, a personal goal of mine is to extend this concept to people all over the world who need simplified content the most,“ says Swisher. “Now with my involvement with Translators Without Borders, I am certain that creating better content to save lives will undoubtedly become a reality.”

Val Swisher earned her B.A. in Social Psychology and Music from Tufts University. She founded Content Rules in 1994 and under her leadership the company has grown to serve 200+ customers and encompass a network of 2,000+ technically-astute content developers. Val is a frequent speaker on how to create, standardize, and get your content ready for the demands of the global marketplace. Before starting Content Rules, Swisher held management positions at 3Com and SynOptics.

Val lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Greg, her son Max who blogs at Good Morning Geek, and frequently travels to Denver to visit her son Matthew.

About Content Rules 
Formerly Oak Hill Corporation, Content Rules reduces the cost of globalizing your content, so you can expand your brands’ footprint into more markets. Implemented in the cloud, ContentRules™ IQ targets companies with an in-house team, reducing the cost of localizing content by up to 40% while enforcing control over content quality and brand standards. For those customers who don’t have an in-house team, Content Rules provides the people and expertise needed in four areas: technical documentation, training development, marketing collateral, and global readiness.

Subtitles for Mothers in India from Translators without Borders

Translators without Borders volunteer Leandro Reis is leading a project to subtitle health films into over a dozen Indian languages including Telugu, Gujarati and Kannada. These films, created by the Mother and Child Health and Education Trust, will encourage hospitals and community health workers to teach new mothers about breastfeeding their babies.

His subtitling work is being carried out on the dotSUB.com platform.

Why is this so important? Because each day 11,000 babies die in the developing world from preventable causes. Of those who die, 22 percent could survive if their mothers had better knowledge about breastfeeding.

Thanks to the volunteers you see here, and many others, Translators without Borders is working to ensure that in the future, mothers in India will know how to keep their babies healthy. Read more here.

Helping Haitians Rebuild

Raising funds to finance deserving projects is something every non-profit must master, and the challenge is exponential when your donors are global. That was the issue Zafènencountered when it launched in 2010. But it wasn’t a conundrum this online Haitian micro-credit program faced for long. Translators without Borders volunteered to translate project descriptions from English into French and Spanish, vastly expanding the number of people who might be inspired to support them.

TWB translators have worked on more than 50 documents that we were able to share with generous people around the world seeking to empower Haitians,” said Griselda Garibay,Vincentian Family administrator for Zafèn. “And they did it all for free, which is a price non-profits can afford!

Garibay said Translators without Borders’ work was especially valuable because the top three languages spoken by Zafèn’s Facebook users are English, French and Spanish. Furthermore, the Haitian Diaspora is active in funding projects, and many Haitians speak French. In sum, TWB has helped Zafèn successfully promote 26 individual projects in three languages that raised more than $500,000 in just seven months.

A recent project translated by Translators without Borders raised money to enroll Haitian families living in extreme poverty in a proven program that enables them to change the course of their lives. Selected families receive construction materials to build a house with a sturdy roof and a floor. They also build a separate latrine, gain access to free healthcare, a water filter and receive weekly visits from a case manager, who reinforces what they have learned to ensure progress along the path to prosperity. Translators without Borders’ translations helped fund a better life for about 1,000 Haitian parents and children as they work toward a fresh start in the New Year.

Dying for Lack of Knowledge

Research clearly shows that people prefer to buy products and services in their own languages (1). This is the reason that so many businesses have undertaken translation and localization projects to transform their websites and documents from English into the native language(s) of their target markets. This seems like a pretty basic concept, but unfortunately, one that has not been adopted by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) attempting to provide information that has the potential to save millions of lives.
 
For many years, numerous NGOs in Africa have been producing materials largely in English or French, based on the assumption that everyone now speaks the  languages once imposed by colonial administrations. The result of this logic is that many documents, manuals, reports, websites, posters and pamphlets are often in a language that many people can’t understand. This mistaken belief  – that everyone in Africa speaks English or French (and to a lesser extent Portuguese) – has significantly reduced the effectiveness of numerous projects, including disaster relief, education, nutrition and gender equality programmes. There are many people across Africa who speak neither English nor French, and if they do, it is often their third or fourth language. The people who do speak English or French fluently often comprise the elite minority who are highly educated and live in urban areas. But the majority of Africans live in more rural areas where local languages and dialects are often spoken.
 

Lori Thicke, co-founder of Translators without Borders (TWB), provides several examples of the need for African NGOs to have materials translated into local languages. For example, in Thange, Kenya, most villagers speak Swahili and barely understand English. But the large poster encouraging healthy practices to reduce the spread of HIV is in English, along with the village’s sole health manual. Another eye-opening example took place when Thicke traveled to Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya (and the second largest slum in all of Africa) with a delegation from Translators without Borders.3 Approximately one million of the world’s poorest people live in Kibera and it was here that the need for translation into local languages is particularly urgent.

On their visit, TWB had the opportunity to speak with 15 young girls working in the commercial sex industry. The girls also hold the honored position of being ‘peer educators’ in their community. Their responsibilities include educating other women living in the slum on important health issues, including family planning, nutrition and the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These young women are in the unique position of being able to reach other people in their community much more effectively than any ‘outsider.’ But there’s just one major problem. Language barriers and the resulting lack of information are killing people and destroying lives. This is especially evident in light of the number of people with HIV, the number of girls dying from unsafe abortions, the high rate of female cutting and the number of children orphaned by AIDS.

Peer educators are therefore justifiably frustrated with the lack of written health materials in the languages of the women in their community. One said that most of the women they work with speak and understand very little English, but that English is actually the language of over 90% of the written materials they have access to, resulting in a huge lack of understanding of the health practices that could save lives. Brochures in English often get tossed to the ground because recipients can’t understand the information they provide. As a result, these young women have asked Translators without Borders to train their entire group to be able to translate the brochures into local languages so they will be better able to communicate with the people they are trying to educate. They fully understand that access to materials in local languages can prevent diseases and STIs.
Thicke summarises the requirement to provide access to health information in local African languages in an interview with The Huffington Post’s Nataly Kelly: ‘in poorer regions, the information that people need, crucially, like how to protect themselves against AIDS, malaria, cholera and so on, is locked up in languages they don’t even speak. Ironically, the people who need that information the most – information about health, science, technology and so on – have zero access to it because of the language barrier.’6Thicke, too, endorses the direct relationship between access to knowledge and access to health: ‘knowledge is incredibly powerful. Knowledge ensures better health and longer lives, it reduces maternal mortality, it empowers women, it saves children from dying unnecessarily, it improves economic opportunities, it lifts people out of poverty, it encourages protection of the environment…’4 A closer look at Thicke’s statement reveals that many of the Millennium Development Goals hinge on the relationship between knowledge and health. Thicke stresses that without translation, worldwide access to knowledge, including the knowledge that can save lives, is impossible. And without global access to knowledge, the lofty goals of universal access to education and gender equality, as well as reducing poverty, maternal mortality and childhood deaths from preventable diseases, are also impossible.5

Since there are so few translators of African languages, TWB has focused on capacity building through mentoring local translators to be able to better provide translations in local languages. One of these projects is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that has been decimated by years of war, resource exploitation, systemic sexual violence and rampant disease. There are so many aid organizations working in the DRC and a project like this has the potential to provide the NGOs with the translators they need to communicate vital information concerning health, education, nutrition, sexual assault, etc.

The Rehydration Project, an organization that provides easy-to-understand and practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases, clearly illustrates the value of information in local languages right on their website: ‘Information available in the local language is much more effective than in a foreign language. This is true for engineering and construction projects (such as digging water wells), and agricultural projects (such as how to irrigate the land). But it is particularly important in healthcare. In many areas in the world people do not only die from diseases, but also from the fact that they do not have basic information about how to stay healthy and what to do to prevent disease.’8

However, disease prevention is not the only urgent need. When I was in Ghana working for a women’s rights NGO, I learned first-hand the need for people to have materials in their local languages that focused on domestic violence. Even though the official language of Ghana is English, there are dozens of languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. The number of languages spoken, particularly in the northern, rural parts of the country, posed specific problems to my organisation. Even though we had access to local interpreters, when we spoke with women who were survivors of domestic violence during interviews or training sessions, it was clear that many of the women had questions that could have been answered through materials such as brochures, posters or pamphlets in their native language. These materials would also have helped spread messages of equality that could have contributed to curbing domestic violence in their homes and communities. In this way, women who have access to NGOs could share vital information with those who do not. The importance of NGOs having materials translated into local languages so they can better communicate with the people they are trying to help cannot be stressed enough. Without information and materials in local languages, NGOs will be unable to facilitate necessary changes in healthcare, education, disaster relief, environmental protection and gender equality.

By Cheryl Rettig, a freelance writer with wintranslation and who has completed international human rights internships in Haiti, Ghana, India, Israel and Palestine and Washington, DC. Cheryl has also written extensively on commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, torture, sexual violence in conflict zones and gender equality. To see more of Cheryl’s work, please check out “Women Search for Justice” at http://womensearchforjustice.blogspot.com

Translators fight the fatal effects of the language gap

Volunteers translating health messages from English into local languages are providing a vital service for NGOs and freeing up millions of extra dollars to be used for medical aid.

 

Lori Thicke had an epiphany in Thange in eastern Kenya when she saw Aids orphans playing in front of posters with advice on Aids prevention. “The posters carried excellent advice, but they were in English, a language that people didn’t understand,” she said.

What was the use of this information provided by well-meaning NGOs, she wondered, if the people they were trying to reach could not read English. “People are delivering aid every day in Africa in English, French and Portuguese,” said Thicke. “That is fine for the educated elite, but they don’t need aid. It is the parents among the poor who need the information on symptoms of malaria.”

She saw the fatal effects of the language gap in India too, where mothers could have saved their children from dying from diarrhoea if they had followed the simple advice on health brochures and leaflets.

Thicke, a Canadian who came to Paris to write the great Canadian novel but founded a translation company instead, had pinpointed a glaring but little-noticed paradox in the information revolution. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, knowledge and information is disseminated far and wide and at speed. But that knowledge is wasted unless understood by those who need it most.

Translators without Borders was founded by Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas in 1993 after Médecins sans Frontières, the medical NGO, asked her company, Lexcelera, to work on a translation project. She asked if they needed translation often, and if giving them the words for free would be like a donation. They said yes to both questions, and TWB was born. But until that moment in Kenya two years ago, the group dealt mostly with European languages. Now Thicke is determined to bridge what she calls the “language last mile” in the developing world.

One of the group’s current projects is to teach sex workers in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, to translate material in English on sexually transmitted diseases into languages such as Swahili, Luo and Kikuyu. The project started last week, with Simon Andriesen, a specialist on medical translation who is on the TWB board. He will teach about 125 women from Kibera, who speak different languages, to translate four-page brochures in English into the different Kenyan languages.

He is teaching them translation skills so they can reach their own people,” said Thicke. “All the girls from Kibera represent different languages. They have been recommended to us by a health NGO and their job is to pass on information to other girls. We want to provide brochures in a language that can be understood so it doesn’t get thrown away.”

Paul Warambo, a recent masters graduate in the Kiswahili language living in Nairobi said: “The health translators training has come at a time when the country urgently needs translators in every sector, but especially in the health sector where little information is available in languages that can be understood by the majority of Kenyans.”

TWB is working on an even more ambitious project with Wikipedia. The aim is to take Wikipedia entries on the most important health topics, turn them into simple English and then translate them into as many languages as possible. The articles will then be accessible for free on mobile phones through new agreements between Wikimedia, which runs Wikipedia, and telecoms operators. A number of Wikipedia articles covering dengue fever, Aids, malaria, cholera and tuberculosis are awaiting translation from TWB’s army of volunteers.

The group has about 2,000 translators, who have passed its translation tests. Indian languages are well served but Africa is a big gap, with only about 15 of TWB’s translators able to deal with African languages. Africa has more than 2,000 different languages, such as Amharic, Swahili and Berber, spread across six major language families. Nigeria alone has more than 500 tongues spoken within its borders.

Until the 2010 Haiti earthquake, TWB had limited reach. But the crisis revealed not only the need for translations from thousands of aid groups that need humanitarian translations but also a critical mass of translators willing to help.

So the group created an online platform to bring the two communities together. Last year, ProZ.com, the world’s largest translator organisation, created an automated translation centre for TWB so it could broaden its reach. Approved NGOs can now post translation projects such as field reports, treatment protocols and websites. Alerts then go out to the translators in those language pairs. Those who are interested in the work of that particular NGO will take on a project, translate it, and return it to the platform for delivery. Most of the projects are picked up within 15 minutes.

Translators without Borders can easily handle projects for 100 non-profits at a time, but as its volunteer community grows, so does its capacity. Over the years, it has donated almost $3m in translation services, which means that money went towards medical supplies, vaccines, rehydration kits and more.

We are working to build a world where knowledge doesn’t have borders,” Thicke said. “With technology, and cellphone penetration in Africa, we have the potential to spread knowledge, but no one is talking about how people are getting information even if they are connected. People die not just of disease but from a lack of knowledge on how to avoid getting sick.”

Blog Authorby 

The Elephant in the Access to Information Room

When health information is not in the right language, it is useless.

Translation. Practically no one is talking about delivering appropriate information in a language that people understand. Because if they are to get the benefit of it, people need health information in their language, not ours.”

Lori Thicke writes about the “elephant in the room” in the discussion of information and knowledge access for all. Read her full article here.