Making Translation a Priority for Humanitarian Response

The following post was kindly prepared by Grace Tang, global coordinator at Translators without Borders. It reflects upon TwB’s recent experiences providing local language Ebola content in West Africa. Indigo has supported this work with a grant and we were particularly keen to learn about TwB’s experiences working across multiple countries and languages and with a myriad of humanitarian response agencies…

The recent Ebola outbreak that killed more than 10,000 people has highlighted the importance of communicating with communities in the right language. Many agree that more sensitisation activities would have made a difference. As Ebola Emergency Coordinator for Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders in Guinea argued, “in the first nine months, if people had been given proper messages, all this could have been prevented.”

Translators without Borders (TWB) Words of Relief project extension for the Ebola outbreak helped reduce the information gaps and improve communication between aid workers and local populations in West Africa.

One of key learnings from our response to Ebola is that a greater focus on translation is needed to help control crises such as this. Indeed, the difficulties faced during the implementation of the project indicate that communication in the right language is not always seen as a priority for governments and NGOs.

Between November 2014 and February 2015, thanks to a grant from the Indigo Trust (coupled with a grant from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund), TWB was able to produce and distribute more than a hundred Ebola-related communication materials in local languages. With a network of half dozen translators a total of 106 items – such as posters, social mobilisation and SMS messages, Ebola videos, Ebola cartoons, maps, etc. – were translated in 30 languages. It represents about 81,000 words translated.

The objective was to focus on the translation of well-established messaging and, importantly, make sure they were well distributed. One of the most effective outputs was a series of simple informative posters from International SOS suggesting ways to prevent the spread of Ebola and describing symptoms of infection. Other key documents translated included posters from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), key social mobilisation messages from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, and a series of messages for children and caregivers provided by the Global Protection Cluster. These were typical messages focusing, for example, on behaviour to adopt when someone is sick, information for those who have had contact with a person with Ebola, advices on burials, where to get help, etc.

These products were widely distributed for use by aid agencies. For organizations that have been using TWB materials there is no doubt that having reliable information accessible in local languages is fundamental. “It allows us to reach a greater number of people. It is fundamental to use messages that are translated in a wide variety of local languages”, says Agnès Matha from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Aid organisations must consider translation as part of their response

Reaching out to aid organisations and governments and getting them to collaborate and provide content for translation were among the main challenges faced by TWB during the implementation of this project. This clearly confirms that more work remains to be done to advocate and raise awareness for the use of local language in humanitarian responses.

It is imperative for aid organisations to reflect on the role of translation and communication in managing humanitarian crisis. To that effect, concrete changes need to happen in the way aid organisations communicate with communities during crisis. Translation needs to become part of the strategy.

One of the ways to address this issue is to encourage aid agencies to take the extra step to improve communications with communities. There is a need to adopt new methods of working and establish structures to integrate communicating with communities in local language. This can be as simple as being able to quickly reformat documents after they have been translated. For example, one partner who could not reformat the translated posters. TWB had to find a “work around” using FrontLab proofing software to input the translated text into the design files. The seemingly simple process of loading new text into the original design can be difficult because translations are often lengthier. It is important to have quick solutions to these problems.

While Translators without Borders continues to improve its various tools for crisis translation – such as those developed during the Ebola response and the new Words of Relief Digital Exchange (WoRDE) app currently being developed – there is an opportunity for aid organisations to review their response mechanisms and consider ways in which translation can be integrated as a full component of their humanitarian response.