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 Proz.com) 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.
By Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation