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Translators without Borders: When language saves lives

Can you still remember December 2004, when an earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean shortly after Christmas and triggered multiple tsunamis? This devastating natural disaster claimed numerous victims in the coastal regions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other countries in Asia and Africa. Approximately 230,000 people had lost their lives, over 110,000 were injured and more than 1.7 million inhabitants living along the coast of the Indian Ocean suddenly found themselves homeless. How would you react in such a situation?

Fleeing to immediate safety would be an instinctive first response. Ensuring that you had clean water, medical help, food and a roof over your head would be the next step. Now imagine that no one can understand you. You can’t ask for help and there is no emergency information available in your own language.

This is what thousands of people worldwide face each and every day.

Access to information in one’s own language

In order to successfully implement all the necessary measures during a crisis situation of that magnitude, it is vital that international rescue teams can communicate with the local government and victims on the ground. However, there are usually people involved from different countries who do not speak the same language or cannot obtain the information they require.

Many people feel helpless when they do not have access to information in their own language. Translators without Borders was formed to meet this specific need. With its help, people can communicate and draw attention to their problems so that no voice is left unheard.

Translators without Borders, or TWB for short, is an NGO that offers language and translation assistance in the areas of crisis relief, health and education to other humanitarian aid and development organisations without political or religious affiliations all around the world. It was founded in France in 1993 and joins translators from around the globe with organisations to enable communication that saves lives and helps people in crisis situations.

Creating a world in which knowledge knows no language barriers

TWB works with thousands of volunteer translators worldwide. As soon as an organisation requests translations from TWB, volunteers are contacted and start working right away. This could include translating posters with information about vaccinations against Ebola into Swahili, creating audio files for broadcasts and radio in Rohingya, a language without its own writing system, or making breastfeeding instructions available in Kikamba for the Kamba ethnic group in Kenya.

TWB ensures that language barriers can be overcome. In addition, TWB trains new translators and interpreters in languages that lack the necessary resources and develops communication programmes to help with illiteracy and spoken language skills in particular. This closes the gap between those seeking help and those providing help and guarantees that no one is left behind.

The people behind Translators without Borders

Ali Mohamed Magdy, a native of Egypt, has been working with TWB since 2016 and translates from English into Arabic. He has already donated more than 45,000 translated words and works with organisations such as the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, the American Red Cross (ARC), the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

He started out as a volunteer in the Rapid Response Team, a special pool of translators responsible for extremely urgent translation assignments, for example in the event of an environmental disaster such as a tsunami. Failure to respond quickly enough can have devastating consequences: disease outbreaks, food shortages or inadequate drinking water supplies, to name just a few.

“At first I just enjoyed the work, as it looked good on my CV and I was able to acquire more professional experience as a translator,” says Ali. However, he soon realised what a tremendous job the organisation was doing. “I wanted to do my part to alleviate the suffering of the people affected.”

Ali helps those who are caught in a crisis and find themselves confronted with language barriers. The Egyptian feels a special sympathy for his fellow brothers and sisters from Syria. He has already translated a great deal of documents and information for them into Arabic to support them in various everyday situations and with emigration to other countries.

The right information at the right time in the right place

When refugees arrive, translations and interpreting skills are required to give people a sense of familiarity. Even far away from their home, the refugees can read or even listen to texts in their own language and receive responses to their most urgent questions thanks to the organisations that collaborate with TWB.

The displaced individuals need many different types of information regarding accommodations, medical care, schooling for their children and what is going on in their homeland. Practical advice about travel and asylum procedures is also very important. Information must be translated not only correctly but often as quickly as possible. The Rapid Response Team is employed in such situations.

Uniform translations thanks to collaboration

TWB also works on the development of multilingual glossary apps that can be downloaded for free to enable consistent translations of key terms. Through close cooperation with other organisations, essential data and the required language skills are gathered.

Thanks to TWB’s work, people in crisis situations can be supported regardless of their status. UNICEFDoctors without BordersOxfamHandicap International and many other organisations around the world rely on TWB’s help to deal with crises and speed up processes.

How does one become a translator or interpreter for TWB?

Potential candidates who want to use their skills for a good cause must be proficient in at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue. Professional translators who are certified are particularly welcome. Since 2017, the organisation has worked with around 26,000 volunteer language specialists who donate their time and expertise to make the world a better place one word at a time.

Oral languages with no universally recognised written system, such as Rohingya, pose a particular challenge when training new translators. This Indo-European language is spoken by the ethnic group of the same name from Myanmar. Today, at least one million Rohingya are living as refugees in Bangladesh and other countries in Asia because they are not recognised in Myanmar and experience persecution as a result. Although Burmese is used for written information, Rohingya is the only language understood by all of the refugees.

There are not many translators available for languages such as Rohingya, which is why new ones must be found and trained on an ongoing basis. To finance this, TWB depends on corporate partnerships, individual donations, and government or privately funded projects.

SwissGlobal supports Translators without Borders – and you can help, too!

At SwissGlobal, we share the same passion for language and how it connects people.

What moves us greatly is the fact that many of the translators are volunteers and their tireless dedication contributes to saving lives. This is why we became a partner of TWB and support the organisation so that it can continue to provide its services competently and reliably in crisis situations. You can support Translators without Borders as well. Find all the details here: https://translatorswithoutborders.org/support-us/donate/.

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