June 2010
Interview by Rebecca Petras

Lori Thicke is founder of Translators Without Borders and manager of the language service company Lexcelera.



Translating for humanity: Interview with Translators Without Borders Founder Lori Thicke

Translators Without Borders (TWB, Traducteurs Sans Frontičres) was founded in 1993 by Lexcelera, a language service provider based in Paris, France, and its General Manager, Lori Thicke. Over the years, TWB has provided quality humanitarian translations through a network of trained translators to vetted NGOs who focus on health, nutrition and education. On average, TWB volunteers translate 1 million words per year, focusing on three types of humanitarian translations: crisis translations needed urgently to inform people in crisis, support translations that support an NGO’s operations, and educational translations that directly support people in need.

In January, when deep crisis and tragedy struck Haiti, TWB was ready to help. Working with a surge of volunteers, the organization was able to provide support for humanitarians responding to the crisis. Importantly, the clear need presented by the tragedy inspired TWB to strengthen its resolve to help people around the world. As such, TWB hopes to build a management structure and technological infrastructure to provide many more translated words per year. We talked to Lori Thicke about the organization and its goals for the future.

How did the Haiti tragedy motivate the translation community to participate more in pro bono translation work?

In the weeks after the earthquake we received about 1000 applications from volunteers per week, more than we would normally receive in a year. And volunteers are still coming forward. I think translators were touched by the Haiti crisis in a very visceral way. I’m sure they were touched in the same way by many other global tragedies, but their language pairs wouldn’t have been as relevant for helping with the relief efforts in China, for example.

What has been the ‘silver lining’ in the cloud over Haiti?

I can’t even think of a silver lining when it’s such a horrible tragedy that is still continuing. However, virtually all of the translators who volunteered have said they would also be willing to translate documents to help out in other parts of the world where our NGOs are also active, such as in Africa and Southeast Asia.

How is TWB using new technologies to increase the number of words its translators are able to translate each year?

We’re launching an initiative to create a worldwide portal on the internet for automatically linking volunteer translators with the NGOs who need their help. The translation community is strongly supportive of this initiative and PRoZ has been donating the initial programing. The bottleneck for us is in project management. My company, Lexcelera, has been underwriting the project management since 1993, but we don’t have unlimited resources to hire all the project managers that we need. This led us to ask ourselves do we really need to manage the community? We believe the community of translators and NGOs can work together very effectively if we can just provide them with a platform in order to do so.

TWB is committed to using professional translators for all its projects. Is that different from other non-profit translation organizations? Why is that important?

Non-profits tend to use non-professional translators because they don’t have any choice, but for us that is a very risky scenario. We provide translations to NGOs such as Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontičres) who do critically important work and do not have the bandwidth to check the quality of every document. And this is even more so in emergency situations where the information has to go out immediately. It’s very important that the NGOs receive translations that they can trust.

What are the next steps for TWB?

Our vision is to quicken the transfer of knowledge worldwide through humanitarian translations. We will do this by linking the world’s translators to vetted NGOs through an open digital platform.

We have just put together a very exciting board of directors that includes not only translators but also representatives from companies such as Cisco as well as translation industry players such as Acrolinx, dotSUB, Lionbridge, Medilingual, Milengo, ProZ, RIGI and Rubric. With this board, we will be able to scale up our activities tenfold, even a hundredfold. I feel confident that we can do this because the need for humanitarian translations is immense, and Translators without Borders has the full support of the translation community.


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#1 Zara Tucker wrote at Thu, Oct 11 answer homepage

Hey Lori Thicke, really interesting blog you have shared and I have read. I would like to share it in my social network. Thanks!