October 2013
By Rebecca Petras

Image: © djembe/ 123rf.com

Rebecca Petras is Program Director for Translators without Borders. Previously she was a board member for two years and served on the executive committee as the head of marketing and communications.




Nairobi and beyond – Translating for humanity

Accurate, up-to-date information in the right language can save lives. The not-for-profit organization Translators without Borders aims to transfer critical knowledge by translating information for humanitarian projects.

The call came in January: “Can you help us translate thousands of messages during the Kenyan elections to make sure civilians across the country are heard?” asked Heather Leson of Ushahidi, the successful non-profit organization focused on information collection during humanitarian events. “Sure!” was my immediate response. I knew our translators were still learning, and I knew they had just been taught MemoQ by our dedicated volunteer, Marek Pawelec. And I knew we had an excellent project head in Nairobi who had been carefully trained and mentored by our board member in charge of Kenya, Simon Andriesen.

No doubt – this was an important project. Organized by a number of humanitarian groups and managed by Ushahidi, the election project – named Uchaguzi – was designed to increase transparency during the Kenyan elections. Five years earlier, in 2007 and 2008, major unrest after the elections had resulted in more than 1,000 people losing their lives, and a general mistrust in the election process and its results. This time the goal was to make sure all voices were heard during the elections and to minimize the impact of intimidation that often occurred through social media networks. To do it right, language had to be considered: When engaging in community issues, Kenyans generally use either the lingua franca Swahili or their mother tongues, which add up to more than a dozen throughout the country.

Translators without Borders’ mission is, to use language to transfer critical knowledge. We knew this was a very important humanitarian situation – we would figure out how to help.

And we did. Our team of professional translators, who were without a professional path just six months before, played an important role in the success of Uchaguzi. They worked nonstop for eight days, translating information from ten languages – and they felt great about being part of this charitable effort.

This is a good example of what we do – in Kenya and around the world. Translators without Borders translates for humanity. We take critical content that is often available only in major ‘world’ languages, and we make it available in regional and local languages, giving people access to this knowledge in their own language. In most cases, we work with professional translators who volunteer their time. In fact, in May, our professional volunteers reached a major milestone, having translated ten million words for humanity in just the past two years. These are words that help Syrian refugees, doctors in Haiti, mothers in India and care workers in Indonesia.

This is vital work, and translation makes the difference. As Andrew Alspach of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said:

“Your professionalism and prompt turnaround for this piece of work is impressive and the impact it will have on our Arabic speaking audience, which includes those Syrians directly affected by this crisis, will be profound.”

Back in Kenya, we are working to increase language capacity, as it is known in the translation jargon. The fact is, there are very few translators working into Swahili, and those who do are quickly snatched up by commercial enterprises that can pay top rates. We recognized this issue when we were asked to do some health translations into Swahili, and we could not find translators who would do the humanitarian work. We then began to hear many stories about the lack of knowledge in Swahili and the general lack of translators or a translation industry. This led us to establish our first translation training center in Nairobi where we have trained ten translators by now and plan to train more this year.

Our team’s work on Uchaguzi was actually a bit of a change from the translators' daily work, which is primarily healthcare based. Our team is especially trained on healthcare issues and specializes in healthcare translations. We work on a number of small projects, including subtitling maternal and neonatal videos for mothers in Kenya. But two projects dominate our work: one for the Open University and the other for Wikipedia (financed by Indigo Trust).

The HEAT project

Our team is currently working on a project called Health Education And Training (HEAT), a volume of half a million words of training materials for community health workers. This material was originally written by the Open University (in the UK) for the government of Ethiopia, where it is already being used. The content is first reviewed and edited by our team of English editors, managed by Content Rules of California (a major supporter of our work). The editors take out any references that are specific to Ethiopia and make it more general. They also simplify the text. The end result is then translated by our team in Nairobi. All work is carefully checked and edited, both linguistically and medically. This project is partly subsidized by a grant from the Open University.

100 x 100 Wikipedia project

The other major project is our 100 x 100 Wikipedia project, which involves the translation of the 100+ most widely read Wikipedia articles on health issues into 100+ languages. The project is well under way – dozens of articles have been translated into a still growing number of languages. All Swahili work is done by our translators. This part of the 100 x 100 Wikipedia Project is funded by The Indigo Trust.

Meanwhile, we do work for a number of other non-profit organizations and social enterprises who recognize the importance of having their information in Swahili. For example, in addition to the Uchaguzi project, we translated the Ushahidi platform into Swahili, completing the work in record time.

We are proud of this work – yet there is so much more to do. Swahili is an important language, spoken by 60-100 million people in East Africa, but no less than 2,000 other languages are also spoken in Africa. It is Translators without Borders’ mission to create translation capacity by providing training to translators who live in areas with the triple disadvantages of poor public health, health information in the wrong language and an underdeveloped translation infrastructure. In Uganda, for example, four major languages are used, and with the help of trained translators, we could greatly assist the Village Health Teams who handle most of the health needs. We will strive to satisfy these needs as we continue to spread more knowledge to more people around the world.