Responding to the European refugee crisis with Words of Relief

Words of relief program

Since November 2015, as part of our response to the European refugee crisis, Translators without Borders has translated over 100,000 words of critical information into main refugee languages. We have reached tens of thousands of refugees on their journey from the Greek islands and along the ‘Balkan route’ and we have engaged over 100 professionals and volunteer translators for our Words of Relief European refugee response program.

Meet TWB

Meet Translators without Borders at the following upcoming events:

World Humanitarian Summit
Istanbul, Turkey 23 – 24 May 2016

Localization World Dublin
Dublin, Ireland 8 – 10 June 2016

LocWorld Flag Challenge Coastal Treasure Hunt Organized by KantanMT
Dublin, Ireland 11 June 2016

Words of Relief takes flight: Pilot of translation crisis relief network begins

During and immediately following a sudden-onset crisis, one of the most critical priorities for both relief workers and affected populations is sending and receiving information. Yet language barriers frequently complicate this effort. Most recently, aid workers assisting survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines had to manage communications with and among populations that spoke three indigenous languages: Filipino (Tagalog), Waray-Waray, and Cebuano.

Grace Tang
Words of Relief Global Coordinator, Grace Tang

Linguistic barriers are a longstanding, if unresolved, problem in humanitarian operations. In fact, a 2011 report from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Disaster Relief 2.0, cites lack of translation support as a “perennial hidden issue…delaying critical communications and disenfranchising affected populations.” It was the 2010 Haiti earthquake that was the catalyst for establishing Translators without Borders to bridge this communication gap by providing humanitarian NGOs around the world with pro-bono professional translation services.

Jane Nduta Mwangi
Words of Relief Project Manager, Jane Nduta Mwangi

And now with our Words of Relief translation crisis relief pilot in Kenya, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, we are tackling this issue head on. It is exciting—and frankly a luxury—to have the opportunity to explore the very real language and translation needs of crisis-response aid workers in a non-crisis environment. That allows us to take the time to get the various elements of the network just right.

Words of Relief is a translation crisis relief network intended to improve Communications with Communities (CwC) activities when the crisis-response aid workers and affected populations do not speak the same language. It is a tool to be used prior to a crisis (when there is a warning of impending crisis), during the first 72 hours, and then in the three months following the initial crisis. The network focuses on three key components:

  • translating key crisis and disaster messages into 15 world languages before crises occur (the pilot will focus on Swahili and Somali);
  • building a spider network of diaspora who can translate from one of the 15 world languages into regional languages and who are trained to assist right away; and,
  • creating a crowdsourced, online (and mobile) application that connects the translation team with aid workers and data aggregators who need immediate help.

With the New Year, Words of Relief is truly taking flight.  We spent the first month of the project interviewing for and securing the perfect team to implement the pilot. As a pilot of a worldwide system, it was important for us to find a global coordinator who could not only oversee the pilot, but also envision its scale-up to a global system. We have done that with Grace Tang, the Words of Relief Global Coordinator, who started this month and who brings with her 10 years leading and managing international teams in complex humanitarian emergencies with international NGOs such as Doctors without Borders (MSF) and Action Against Hunger (ACF).

Additionally, we have hired a dynamite project manager who will focus specifically on making the Words of Relief pilot successful. Jane Nduta Mwangi, the new Words of Relief Project Manager, holds a degree in International Relations/Political Science, sociology and law and brings to the table experience in establishing and managing teams and establishing structures. We are very excited to have Grace and Jane on board!

One of the first tasks of our team is to develop a monitoring and evaluation plan that will inform the pilot and, importantly, the eventual global scale-up. We are beginning that process this month, working with Nicki Bailey of the CDAC-Network, who is an MEL expert. More to come on our monitoring and evaluation plan in the coming months…

The team is also preparing for our first big pilot activity: A workshop with Nairobi-based aid workers that will focus on the type of disaster and crisis messaging that should be available in local languages before, during and after a crisis, and the way in which they would like to work with our translation crisis relief network. This workshop, to take place the beginning of March, will include professionals from a wide array of aid organizations, and we are currently sending invitations and encouraging involvement. Our March blog will report results from the workshop.

Stay tuned for more news as the Words of Relief build momentum.

TWB Honors Volunteers, Donors and Non-profit Partners with Second Annual Access to Knowledge Awards

Global translation charity, Translators without Borders (TWB) today announced the winners of its second annual Translators without Borders Access to Knowledge Awards. The awards, honoring six individuals or organizations who exemplify the mission to translate for humanity, are chosen by the non-profit’s boards of directors and advisors.

We have had an extraordinary year of growth,” said Lori Thicke, president and founder of Translators without Borders. “In addition to translating more than 7 million words in the year, we also grew our training and translation center in Nairobi, greatly expanded our 100 x 100 Wikipedia medical article project, created the largest simplified English medical terminology database, and received funding to pilot our Words of Relief crisis relief network. None of this would be possible without the generous support of our donors, the dedication of our volunteers, and the commitment of our non-profit partners.”

The organization created the Access to Knowledge Awards in 2012 to honor volunteers, donors, and non-profit partners. The awards are given within each of the Translators without Borders’ six ‘pillars’: Organizational Excellence, Translator Community and Workspace, Training, Nonprofit Partnerships, Financial Sustainability, Awareness and Communications.

The organization’s board of directors, program director and board of advisors nominate recipients and then vote on the candidates. In addition to six winners, a number of honorable mentions were also awarded.

The 2013 Winners of the Access to Knowledge Award

The Excellence Award awarded to an individual who has gone above and beyond the call-of-duty in helping Translators without Borders meet its mission.

Awarded to Josefina Zubillaga

Honorable Mentions

  • Kalinka Hristova
  • Anne-Marie Colliander-Lind

The Right to Knowledge Awar\d awarded to an individual (or company contributor) who has made a difference through his or her ongoing commitment to translation of humanitarian information.

Awarded to Ashutosh Mitra and Eric Ragu

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jacek Sierakovski
  • Vito Smolej

The Empowerment Award awarded to an individual whose work has allowed us to significantly move the barometer in increasing language capacity within a critical region of the world.

Awarded to Marek Gawrysiak and Lucjan Szreter

Honorable Mention:

  • Lesley-Anne Long
  • Marek Pawelec

The Humanitarian Communicator Award awarded to a non-profit who understands the critical link between language/translation and access to critical knowledge.

Awarded to Wiki Project Med Foundation

Honorable mentions:

  • CDAC-Network
  • Fairstart

The Donor Award awarded to the individual or company or foundation/trust that has made a significant financial contribution to aid TWB in meeting its mission.

Awarded to Rubric

Honorable Mentions

  • Moravia
  • Kilgray

The Communicator of the Year awarded to the person who has creatively used marketing and public relations to build awareness of the organization and the need to provide content in the right language.

Awarded to Gary Lefman

Honorable Mentions:

  • Scott Abel
  • Anna Harju

The Translators without Borders’ Access to Knowledge recipients will receive a Translators without Borders T-Shirt, a lapel pen and a certificate of gratitude.

I wish we could recognize by name every single person who contributed to Translators without Borders in 2013—there are so very many people who make it work,” said Rebecca Petras, program director. “And the real winners are the people who can better understand vital information because of the hard work of ALL our volunteers and support from ALL our donors. Thank you very much to everyone!

The Wikipedia Project Update

Some time ago, Translators without Borders launched the Wikipedia project together with Wikiproject Medicine and Wikimedia Canada. The aim of this project is to translate 100 selected and reviewed health care Wikipedia articles into 100 languages, and thus create an universal repository of medical knowledge, especially in languages where good health information is scarce and hard to get.

We are proud to announce that we have released the first article into Quechua (ócica_kaqqa ) and K’iche’ (ócica ). A second article, on Croup, is being translated in these two languages and into Guarani.

The deployed article deals with Streptococcal pharyngitis and it was first translated by Susana Rosselli into simplified Spanish and then by the teams coordinated by the Spanish company IDISC into these Native American languages.

Thanks to this deployment, the Wikimedia Foundation created an incubator Wiki for K’ichi. A Wiki incubator is a wiki where content can be added and read, but it does not become a full Wiki until there is a certain amount of content and a certain size of community to manage it. 

If you know of people interested in the development of Quechua and K’iche’ please let them know about this development. They could become active in the corresponding versions of Wikipedia, and in particular help turn the K’iche’ incubator into a full-fledged Wikipedia page.

Translators without Borders would be also delighted to receive volunteer translators into any Native American language.

Translators without Borders response to the Philippines Typhoon

Thursday (November 7) night at the tcworld Conference this year was like none other for me. Normally a relaxing second moment in the middle of this particular conference, this time I had only one thing on my mind: an enormous typhoon was barreling toward the central Philippines, and Translators without Borders was being asked to activate a team to help deal with the chaos that was bound to ensue.

After dinner I worked through the night assembling our team, putting communications pieces in place, and keeping the vast and wide network of humanitarian aid responders with whom we partner apprised of our capabilities. Meanwhile, I watched as the typhoon made landfall and the area of greatest impact went dark. Mother Nature reminding us who is in charge: A circumstance that has become more familiar over the past four years but, fortunately, one that we are learning to address more quickly in an attempt to use language to save lives.

It was almost four years ago now since Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake. That crisis was a wake-up call for the translation industry—and, more importantly, the international aid organizations—regarding the vital role translation plays during such a crisis. The silver lining to that disaster was the growth of Translators without Borders, with a dedicated board and a committed advisory committee. We now handle more than 750,000 humanitarian words every month through the Translators without Borders Workspace (powered by and we have a vast network of translators ready to help out. This infrastructure was critical in setting up our response to last week’s typhoon. Tagalog (or Filipino) and English are the national languages of the Philippines. There are also eight major dialects; in central Philippines the most important being Waray and Cebuano. We were able to quickly assemble a team of Tagalog translators who could also handle the major dialects. A key factor was that the members of this team of dedicated volunteers were geographically dispersed, allowing us to offer assistance quickly at any time of the day.

With the team assembled, the real work began on Friday, November 8. The initial activation came from UN OCHA via the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). As a member of DHN, we work with a wide array of committed aid response organizations that help the major responders to quickly put together a picture of the situation, often using micro-mapping and big data to assist. Social media is mined for this work, and our initial role in this activation was to handle the non-English Tweets and public Facebook messages. Additionally, we created a list of key terms – everything from ‘flood’ through ‘damaged’ and ‘injured’ to ‘dead’ – in Tagalog and Cebuano in order to help data miners sort through and prioritize the mountains of information being generated.

As the activation continued and responders on the ground gained a clearer picture of the devastation, we were called in by other partners to be ready to respond. One of our translators worked directly with Humanity Road, a DHN partner that educates the public before, during, and after a crisis. We are also a full member of the CDAC-Network (Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities), which was created by major aid organizations, including UN OCHA, Save the Children, WorldVision, Internews, the International Federation of Red Cross, and Red Crescent Societies, to improve ‘Communications with Communities’ (or CwC). CwC is being recognized more and more as critical factor during a crisis. While it might seem obvious, it is not simple when all telecommunications are down, cell phone batteries die, and people speak an array of different languages. Through CDAC-N we are on call to assist with communications from aid workers to the affected populations as they work feverishly to get materials and information out. Finally, we are on call with UNHCR, which is the lead organization for refugees, to provide translations of more long term and longer format materials for refugees who will not have proper shelter for many months to come.

Throughout the process, our team of translators has been engaged and committed to help. Unlike many of the other responders to a crisis, Translators without Borders volunteers are intimately linked to the affected communities. In many cases, they have friends and family in the middle of the crisis. Language is the ultimate connector – and once our team members know their loved ones are safe, they use language to make a difference, helping responders save lives. In fact their knowledge of the community and the geographic region allows our team to be supportive in other ways as well, including giving CwC responders contacts in the local media and assessing the on-the-ground communications situation. I am so proud of our team of translators – they are making a difference every hour.
We are also documenting what we have learnt from this latest crisis to improve our own response to the next that will undoubtedly come, and to provide important input to our Words of Relief pilot project, due to  kick off in Kenya next month. With that project, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, we will be testing the concept of a spider network of responders in regional and local languages as well as an interactive, collaborative and mobile translation system to engage people now living away from their homelands quickly and in a meaningful way. Stay tuned for much more on Words of Relief.

Finally, we could not do this without the support of our donors and sponsors. We have a vision to use language to increase access to knowledge and to save lives. Communications IS aid (#commisaid). And in communications, language is key. We will keep telling this story, and we ask you to keep supporting us in our efforts.


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

Translators without Borders Receives Funding for Crisis Relief Network

Translators without Borders (TWB) is pleased to announce funding for a pilot of its Words of Relief system to improve communications between aid workers and local populations during humanitarian emergencies. The funding by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) recognizes the critical role language and translation play in improving crisis response and saving lives.

Translators without Borders will test the concept in Kenya with Swahili and Somali, and will work collaboratively with a number of partners including UN-OCHA, the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC-N), Acrolinx, Content Rules and Microsoft. TWB was one of six projects to receive funding in HIF’s fifth round of funding; total funding for the projects exceeded one million dollars.

Kim Scriven, manager of the HIF said: “This round of funding has identified an exciting and diverse range of innovative ideas at the forefront of the humanitarian system.” The HIF, supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), funds projects across the world which use innovation and technology to improve the global response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Words of Relief was developed to address a critical problem: two-way communications during and immediately after a crisis. During a prolonged crisis or following a sudden-onset crisis, one of the most immediate priorities for both relief workers and victims is disseminating and receiving information. Yet language barriers frequently complicate this effort. This was particularly apparent after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami in Japan, when NGOs and frontline aid workers realized they were unprepared and unable to communicate in the primary languages of the affected populations. According to a 2012 report by the International Organization for Migration, “Affected households prefer receiving information in their regional language…. [but] the role of regional and local languages is often neglected while devising communication strategies.”

Words of Relief aims to eliminate linguistic barriers that can impede vital response and relief efforts during and after a crisis by 1) building a corps of vetted translators and interpreters, as well as machine translation capacity, in under-resourced world languages; 2) preparing a digital “inventory” of essential crisis response information in multiple local languages that can be accessed on demand by aid organizations, frontline relief workers, and affected communities; and 3) maintaining a network of human and technological linguistic resources that can be mobilized immediately in response to a crisis. The pilot of the program will test processes and technologies to be used in development of a worldwide network.

The pilot is a 17-month project, commencing in November.

For more information about HIF funding click here. To view the HIF’s portfolio of projects click here.

For further information contact: Rebecca Petras [email protected]


Kalinka Hristova – Our Volunteer Hero

The volunteer staff at Translators without Borders (TWB) is adept at donning many different job hats and Kalinka Hristova, the interviewee in this issue, is no exception. Our newly appointed NGO Approval Manager, Kalinka likes to keep us on our toes with salient quotes at the end of her emails, such as: “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.” Her own thirst for knowledge and quest for quality ensure that there is no fear that this quote could ever be applied to Kalinka.

Q: If you were to write a brief Wikipedia article about yourself, what facts and personal characteristics would you include?

A: I’m Bulgarian and I live in Bulgaria, surprisingly! I think I must be one of the very few who hasn’t left. I love my country’s nature, its traditions, and its caves. I am very fond of speleology, which I practice as a hobby. During my university years, I started practicing extreme caving. I hold a degree in tourism, and as a tour guide I have specialized in caving tourism. There are only nine tourist caves in Bulgaria; they are so different, so quiet… I just love them!

As regards translation, it happened gradually in my life and became an integral part of it. I have always been fond of languages. As a child, I wanted to know four or five languages, and now I can speak seven foreign languages!  So, I’ve actually exceeded my childhood dream.

My working languages are Spanish, English and Bulgarian; tourism and translation are a good match.

Q: What is your role at TWB?

A: I am a volunteer translator and reviewer, I assist with the volunteer translation and training center and I am also responsible for approving new clients. When an NGO asks for a translation service, I assess whether their aims align with Translators without Borders’ goals.

Just recently, I helped to build the English to Swahili database, working from home.

Q: What has motivated you to help TWB?

A: I cannot remember exactly how I came to know about TWB; I guess it was something published on, in one of the forums or news on the site. I would love to do more charity work, but I do not have the financial means. However, TWB has given me the chance to do volunteer work, and I am very grateful for this opportunity. I am really happy; I feel passionate about my tasks at TWB.

Q: What is a day in your life like?

A: I work from home, online.  I get up; I have one (or two!) cups of coffee. Every single day is different since I learn different things. If I do not learn something new one day, it is a day lost for me. Luckily enough, I do not know everything; I feel I have so many worlds to discover.

Q: How do you squeeze in time for your volunteer tasks?

A: It is quite easy, really. I do not need to squeeze in time for it; I just do it. Naturally, when I have a tight deadline, it becomes the priority. But I am always available for TWB.

Q: What do you consider are the challenges ahead for your role and for TWB?

A: Well, being part of TWB is great fun and very rewarding. The greatest responsibility is to constantly improve my services as a translator and assistant. Working on a volunteer basis, there is no editor or reviewer, so it is as is. In this respect, it is a really big challenge. I feel I have to deliver top quality always regardless of being tired or having other projects. It is equally important as my regular paid work. The same goes with administrative work.  We definitely need to provide high service quality, to process every application on a timely basis for organizations that require a translation job.

Q: What would you say to someone who is thinking about joining a cause like TWB?

A: Just do it. It’s fun; it is recognition and prestige. It is rewarding. So many people in the world need our volunteer services because they cannot afford a paid translation.

Q: What do you feel is your greatest achievement within TWB and beyond TWB so far?  What is your biggest dream in life?

A: Translators without Borders has meant career growth for me. I feel that every step – as a volunteer translator, as a reviewer, my involvement in the Wikipedia project, and so on – has translated into recognition of my professionalism.

I have so many dreams… in terms of my profession, I aim to get better and better. I do not want to become the best translator, just a better one.

Target shooting…

In paper: any book by the Bulgarian writer Yordan Yovkov, who portrays the Bulgarian way of living very accurately.

On the web: ProZ

Outdoor activity: mountaineering and speleology

With friends: travelling, tourism, photography

Family gathering: any gathering, no particular reason involved, just for the sake of talking, sharing and travelling.

Blog AuthorBy Lorena Baudo, Translators without Borders volunteer

Our translation center in Nairobi: An update

Swahili Translations

July saw the completion by our Health Translation Center in Nairobi, Kenya, of the translation of some 250,000 words of high-level health information. The content was written by the Open University (UK) to train community health workers in the Swahili-speaking regions of East Africa. The completed modules are Prenatal Care, Labour & Delivery Care, and Postnatal Care. Other modules are in the pipeline, and these are about topics such as Infant Care Nutrition and Family Planning.

The team also recently completed the Swahili translation of ten videos on New Born Care. These instructional videos have been conceptualized and produced by Deb Van Dyke’s Global Health Media.  In total the team has translated more than 20 videos. The work involved the translation of the English captions (subtitles) and putting the Swahili subtitles in the video, as well as recording the narrative, with Rodha Moraa, one of the translation team members, serving as the ‘voice actor’.

The translation team, recruited and trained in the summer of 2012, has now developed into a super group of experienced health translators. The team is also rather unique, as in East Africa there is no other group of experienced linguists and health workers whose skills and educational backgrounds are combined to work on the translation of such material. We are speaking with international as well as local NGOs about involving our translation team in their projects.


During the coming months we will be investigating the possibility of a program called ‘Training-In-A-Box’.  All training material, lecture notes and exercises will be evaluated, and if relevant, updated. The material will then be organized into one package – one ‘Box’ as it were –  which TWB can use to support the translator training of linguists and health workers all over the world.

The medical modules concern 15-20 ‘Africa-relevant’ topics, including pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, bilharzia, as well as topics from the social medicine field, such as malnutrition, unsafe abortion, female genital mutilation, and more. Each module has between 15 and 50 slides, and we are in the process of typing in the narrative. The material also includes a large section about the profession of translation.

The Training-In-A-Box program is an attempt to bring together our know-how and best practices from years of training a host of translators in many different countries,” says TWB President Lori Thicke. “I’m sure it’s going to make the starting up of new teams in the future a whole lot easier.”

Thank you Fund-A-Translator Charity Ride Sponsors!

The second Fund-a-Translator Charity Ride, developed and organized by TextPartner in Poland, took place earlier this summer.  Our dedicated cyclists organized a ride through five countries in eastern Europe for a total of 589 kilometers!  Each kilometer was available to sponsors for $5. The purpose of the annual ride is to raise funds and awareness for our trainees in Kenya.  Each $1,000 raised helps us train a translator for a year.

This year the event was so successful that the team raised the $2,945 for the ride and then kept going beyond $3,000, ending up with a total of 652 sponsored kilometers ($3,260).   As promised, they rode the additional kilometers in an extra ride to make sure every sponsored kilometer was cycled.

The TextPartner team conceived of the charity ride in 2012 and did their first ride that year to the ELIA conference in Budapest. Plans are underway for the 2014 ride and the route will be announced soon!

Blog AuthorBy Simon Andriesen, Board President of TWB Kenya and CEO of MediLingua

NGO Spotlight: Norlha

Norlha was founded in 2005, in Switzerland, and today has delegations in several European countries. This secular NGO, whose membership consists mainly of private individuals from all walks of life, provides development assistance through various projects in Tibetan areas of China, in Bhutan and in Nepal, in cooperation with local partners, with an aim to help communities achieve self-sufficiency. Norlha works with Translators without Borders for the translation of documents mainly to and from French and English, as well as French into German and Spanish.

NorlhaNorlha’s Partnerships Manager and Gender Equality Coordinator, Cosima Thommen, spoke with us about her work and the NGO’s partnership with Translators without Borders. “I seek out project financing and establish partnerships with organizations that share our vision and goals, in order to create a bridge of solidarity between the Swiss Alps and the Himalayas. My team and I also develop a regional program for Himalayan women which promotes gender equality, strengthening the role of women in the region’s development. Before my current position, I spent a year and a half in the Tibetan regions of China as Norlha’s Program Director for China. My degrees are in project management and Chinese, so being able to contribute to the improvement of living conditions in the Himalayas with Norlha is a great pleasure!

Thanks to Translators without Borders’ work for Norlha, the NGO has been able to reduce their operating expenses, freeing up funds that may then go directly to Norlha projects. As Thommen explains, “Translators without Borders has helped us improve the quality of our communications and our financing efforts, thanks to well-written texts with correct terminology. Recently, Translators without Borders helped us translate a presentation of one of our projects in Nepal, and with that, we were able to gain initial financing for it! TWB also helped us translate our 2012 annual report from French into English, an excellent communication tool that we will be able to use to introduce Norlha to even more people.”

Norlha benefits from local personnel in the Himalayas for translation into regional dialects. “We mainly [request Translators without Borders to] translate from French into English, German, and Spanish, and from English into French. In the regions where we work, there are dozens of local dialects. With our personnel on the ground, we are able to translate documents for improving knowledge on hygiene, environmental protection, and so forth.” These communication tools are essential towards meeting Norlha’s goals of improved healthcare, nutrition, education, and the environmental conditions for indigenous populations.

By Anna Stevenson, Owner/Editor at Editions Amnis

Because translated words make a difference: The 20 Million Word Challenge

We are asking new and renewing sponsors to join us now to help us reach 20 million words by next year.

Ten million words translated. Words for Syrian refugees, doctors in Haiti, mothers in India and care workers in Indonesia.

We are translating for humanity. In May we will celebrate 10 million words translated by our volunteers. What do these words represent? More knowledge accessible to more people around the world.

But there is so much more to do. The next 10 million words await translation. Those words include:

• Wikipedia medical articles available in 100 languages

• User manuals for water pumps in Uganda

• The voices of Syrian civilians

…and so much more.

Translators without Borders needs your help to do this vital work. Join us.

The time, know-how and funding from the localization and translation industry has provided the basis for all we have achieved. But we can do more.

How can you help? Join The 20 Million Word Challenge.

Whether you are a new sponsor or a renewing sponsor, we need your help to reach 20 million words for humanity!

Please contact [email protected] to learn more about TWB’s sponsorship program.