Translation and the Ebola Crisis: How We Can Help

Translation and the Ebola Crisis: How We Can Help
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June 7, 2017
Renato and Michael with Lori Thicke, Ellie Kemp
The recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo once again confirms the critical role language and translation play in a crisis. Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response for Translators without Borders, joins us to discuss how volunteer translators are helping in the humanitarian effort to fight Ebola--and what each of us can do as well.
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Michael I’m Michael Stevens, and today on Globally Speaking, we started the episode with a song, Effrakata by Koffi Olomidé, one of the most prominent musicians to sing in Lingala. This is a major language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC.

In a previous episode, we interviewed Lori Thicke, the founder of Translators without Borders, and there she told us how this organization got started.
Lori What happened was, one day, I was running my translation company and one day Doctors without Borders asked us for a translation, asked us for a quote, asked us how much we would charge them; and I’d been meaning to volunteer my whole entire life, probably like a lot of people. And, you know, I just had never gotten around to it.

So, it occurred to me that maybe if we did their project for free it would be like volunteering. So, that was how Translators without Borders was born; we asked them, “if we do this project for you for free, can you use the money elsewhere?” So, Translators without Borders started with Doctors without Borders and they’re our namesake as well.
Michael That’s pretty cool. So, sometimes people not volunteering can lead to very good things it sounds like! Lori, you have on your LinkedIn page this awesome quote about “if your vision doesn’t scare you it’s not big enough”. What about the vision of Translators without Borders when you started was scary?
Lori It didn’t actually get scary until I started to realize what we were into. At first we were just helping Doctors without Borders and then we added some other non-profits in Paris because that’s where I was based. And then, as time went on I realized there was so much need, it was like a drop in the bucket. Then, when Haiti happened, then I realized “Wow! It’s a micro-drop in the bucket of how much translation is needed to help non-profits do their work. Translation, sometimes, they have no budget for, they have no knowledge of how to manage. They have so many needs in language and in Haiti when the earthquake happened they were asking us for translations to turn them around in minutes because it was literally a matter of life and death.
Michael This organization couldn’t be more relevant. The need for the organization couldn’t be more relevant. Just this month, in May 2017, a new Ebola outbreak has just killed three people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This marks the eighth outbreak of the deadly virus since it was first discovered in 1976.

Starting in 2014 a massive Ebola outbreak spread through multiple countries, this included Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; nearly 29,000 people were suspected to have been infected and over 11,000 died from the virus.

Today’s interview is a treat, Renato talks to someone who is deeply involved in the crisis. We get to hear the lessons that have been learned from the past experiences, and we get insight into what we can do as a community of language professionals in businesses to help.
Ellie Hi, my name’s Ellie Kemp. I’m head of crisis response at Translators without Borders.
Renato So, crisis response, that’s a loaded word. What does crisis mean in the context of Translators without Borders?
Ellie Translators without Borders supports humanitarian agencies who are responding to… it could be a natural disaster, it could be a conflict, it could be an epidemic in a context where multiple languages are spoken and essentially the people who need help and the people who are trying to give help don’t speak the same language.
Renato So, what prompted us to record this show today is the fact that there is an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC as we call it for short. So, this is not the first Ebola outbreak that Translators without Borders is involved with. I mean, we didn’t cause it; we tried to help solve the problem. When was the last crisis, and how did Translators without Borders get involved then and help in that case?
Ellie So, the big Ebola crisis that everyone’s heard about was in West Africa, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 20142015. And what was happening at the beginning was that messages that were meant to help people to keep themselves and their families safe, so messages about how to prevent the spread of the disease were not getting across because they were predominantly written materials, and they were predominantly in English and French, French for Guinea and English for the other two countries.

Now these are countries who between them share over 90 languages, and you have, for instance, in Sierra Leone about 13% of women actually speak English. So, the messages simply weren’t getting across, and Translators without Borders was able to help by translating something over 80,000 words of content, about 100 different items of communication. Everything from animations, to maps, to videos, to SMS messages that helped to get information right out to the local level in local languages.
Renato How many of these languages, you said 90 languages, but the materials weren’t translated into all of them?
Ellie They weren’t. I think in total we worked into seven languages which had… across West Africa which had a reach of some 20 million people. So, if you know which languages you can really reach a very long way.
Renato So, one of the challenges, naturally, and in that Ebola crisis 11,000 people died and, I don’t know, I think over 20,000 were infected. It was a massive outbreak that scared the whole world, but is there any way… were you able in any way to measure the impact of providing content in the local language?
Ellie Measured at a very scientific level in order to track the materials that TWB translated and that reached people and that changed behavior, no, but very clearly we could see a change in behaviors. So, in 2014 UNICEF surveyed understanding of the disease in populations in Sierra Leone, and they found that there was a massive amount of misunderstanding and misconception about how to contract the disease and how to treat it. So, people… 42% believed that you could take a hot water bath to cure Ebola for instance.

Getting the information into the right language so that it could actually reach people who can’t read and write and who do not speak the former colonial languages helped to stop the disease in its tracks. There was some thinking by aid organizations, by health agencies afterwards, I think very honest thought. The coordinator for Doctors without Borders in Guinea, for instance, said that if we had been focusing from the outset on sensitization, and getting the messages out to the right places, then we could have prevented a large number of deaths.
Renato So, what do you mean by sensitization?
Ellie I mean communicating information about what the disease looks like when it presents; how to recognize it; what to do if you’re suffering those symptoms, and how the disease is contracted, so what you can do to avoid contracting it. For instance, in the infected countries of West Africa, there are traditions around the bathing and care of the bodies of loved ones who’ve died, and unfortunately contact with any of the bodily fluids from people who have died could transmit the disease. So, ensuring people understood that they needed to go about that in another way was critical to stemming the disease.
Renato Well, apparently, some people thought that Ebola was transmitted by a mosquito.
Ellie Indeed, about half of the population of Sierra Leone that were surveyed believed that it was mosquito-borne, another 30% believed it was airborne disease, and that’s the kind of rumor that can get about in an absence of information. And if the information that you’re seeing is simply paper with words on it that you don’t understand, then that’s not going to change the way you think or the way you behave.
Renato So, the crisis now is in Congo.
Ellie It is.
Renato We had, I don’t know these numbers are changing by the day, but three deaths and a few hundred people infected. How can we make a difference now?
Ellie At the moment I think the figures are that there have been three deaths, 18 suspected cases and another 400 people who have come into contact with the disease who are being monitored. We can make a difference… as Translators without Borders, we can make a difference by helping to ensure that communication, as in the case of West Africa, communication about the how the disease is spread, and how it can be prevented, and what you need to do if you think you may be infected or a loved one is infected. That that information gets across in languages that people understand.
Renato And right now we are at that stage, like I think it was Stalin that said that if one person dies it’s a tragedy, if a million people die it’s a statistic. So, we are at this tragedy level where we can make a difference and make things happen. So, what is the language demand now for the region that is affected?
Ellie Well, the languages that communication is happening in so far are Lingala and French. French is the former colonial language. Lingala is the biggest lingua franca of northern DRC, in Kinshasa. But if you look at the local level, you’ll see that the two biggest languages in the health zones, in the very local area that’s at the epicenter of this outbreak, are Bwa, with a total population of about 200,000 people, and Ligenza, with 43,000 people.

If as we hope it won’t, the outbreak spreads beyond that, we are then looking at the most relevant communication means being the language Zande, which has about three quarters of a million speakers, and Northern Ngbandi, which has about 250,000. If it moves over the border into the Central African Republic, we’re then looking at Yakoma and a number of others.

It’s a very language-rich part of the world, and you have to assume that ultimately you have to get it into local languages. If the information is in the wrong language, it simply isn’t information anymore.
Renato So, it’s an area with a lot of culture, a lot of diversity, many, many languages which are all challenges, but also a lot of illiteracy and a very tragic past of colonization and enslavement. The Congo was personal property of the King of Belgium; it wasn’t even a colony; it was just the biggest farm in the world, and it was ran like a death camp essentially for many, many years. How can this translated content make its way to the people that need that information if they can’t read?
Ellie Literacy is always going to be bound up with vulnerability. So, illiteracy and low education levels are simply so linked to disease and to poverty, it’s pretty much a proxy indicator for vulnerability. And in a health crisis like this, the caregivers are very often women, and that means very often among the least educated sections of society. And this part of the country is very rural, very under-developed, education levels are generally very low, so we are looking at a terrible starting point in terms of literacy.

That means we need to focus on verbal communication. That could be in person; it could be through the radio; the radio can be a very powerful tool in a case like this. It also means looking at graphics heavy materials such as posters or simple fliers with little text and a lot of visual content. If you can gather people around a generator, for instance in a community hall or in a church, then you can look at animations and other audio visual materials.

And because this is the eighth outbreak in DRC since 1976 when there was the first, there are materials that are available, that have been developed for this particular audience. So far, they’ve been developed in French and Lingala, and the other three national languages of Congo, but there are over 200 recorded living languages in Congo, and we’re going to need to look beyond that.
Renato So, one of the… what I understand that you’re telling me as part of this crisis effort is to educate the networkers, the health agents, the people that are going to go out and tell other people ‘this is how you get infected, this is how you prevent infection, this is how you treat in case you find you have the symptoms and so on.
Ellie Very much so. It’s about having people on the ground; they can be government health staff, they can be aid agency staff, volunteers, staff of church groups, local organizations who can help to relay those really important messages. And government leadership on the response can make all the difference there because they’re the ones who can mobilize that network of government workers.

If we do see the current outbreak escalate, then we’re going to be looking, for instance, at the kind of method that was used in West Africa, of relaying public health messages by SMS. It can be very effective over large areas, and that’s going to be important if the risk of infection spreads. But at the epicenter right now that’s not going to work. Even if a mobile phone provider could be prevailed upon to put a hotspot in the area, it’s only going to reach the very tiny portion of the population in and around the zone that already had mobile phones.

So, radio really is one of the most important ways forward for reaching larger swathes of the population, and then these simple tools like posters and ensuring that the health workers, or the teachers, or local trusted people within the community have the key facts about disease transmission and feel empowered to pass them on.
Renato It sounds so simple, right? You provide information in a language that people understand, and you minimize the problem, but a lot of these aid organizations that are funded by governments and multilateral organizations and so on, they are still managed and ran in Geneva, Rome, Paris, London, New York, etc. So, the tendency of the bureaucracy is to communicate in the dominant languages and the common languages, but one of the factors of globalization is that the more global we become the more important local communication becomes.

This is a very interesting challenge that we have to face, which is how to get to that last mile, to the person that really needs the information; and I’m amazed at the work that is being done by Translators without Borders. We have a global audience; we have people who are essentially in the language business. How can the community of translation, localization, interpretation help Translators without Borders today?
Ellie Translators without Borders relies on that community, absolutely essentially. We have the support of thousands of professionals who have translated millions of words of vital information for people in situations such as these. So, volunteering as translators or in other roles is absolutely fundamental. Donating, fundraising, a whole range of things at the individual level, and for LSPs or other companies, we have a sponsorship program that we’d be delighted to welcome others into.

I think on a very personal level this idea that language matters and that it matters not only in our own lives, but on the global stage, and in relation to humanitarian crises, such as this Ebola outbreak in DRC, is one that we would love to see more people relaying and engaging with. So, please come and find us on Facebook, come and find us on our Twitter account and help us to amplify that message that language matters.
Renato The challenge that I understand Translators without Borders has is that there is more demand than we can supply, and there is an oversupply. Of course if there was a crisis in German, or French, or English, or Italian we would have an oversupply of volunteers, or Portuguese, or Spanish or any of the major languages. But the challenge is usually with these small languages that require recruiting, training sometimes, and Translators without Borders gets funds from large organizations, but they tend to be tied to specific programs.

So, what our listeners can do to help Translators without Borders is actually sponsor, donate and be involved in providing what we call unrestricted funds to let the organization hire people like you Ellie, like Amy Rose, Paul Warambo, people who are fulltime, dedicated to helping the humanitarian organizations in times of crisis. And not only in the times of crisis, but also in the times where nonprofits need help in doing good things also, there are other projects, but we’re specifically talking about the crisis here.

One of the points that I’d like for you to touch on is that, what is the number of people that we need? This, it’s a humanitarian crisis, humanitarian brings to mind a huge number, but the reality is that we’re not talking about large volumes of content or of people. Can you give us a sense of the magnitude of this challenge?
Ellie It’s quite remarkable how much a small group of concerned citizens can do. In the Ebola response, TWB’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, a handful of people, half a dozen people translated content which reached potentially millions. So, over a hundred different items were translated by six people.

At the moment for Lingala, for this crisis in the DRC, we now have moved in the last week from having one Lingala translator on our books to eight volunteer translators, which is fantastic! The next step for us is the local level, and that is very much harder because of the poverty and the low education levels and the fact that higher education simply isn’t available in Bwa or Ligenza or Zande. The likelihood is that there are very, very few, if any trained translators in the world who have those languages as their mother tongue.

So, drawing on our experience of the outbreak in West Africa and working other crises around the world we are going to be looking, if this escalates, to identify bilinguals with those languages who we can train up in the basics of translation. We’ll also be looking into supporting local health workers who have the right language set to develop messaging in local languages like Bwa or Ligenza on the basis of the existing messaging in Lingala or in French.
Renato But that makes me think of the fact that we will be probably helping develop a translation profession into certain languages that don’t have that role officially. Many of these languages… I mean when you talk about translation, you’re talking about missionaries and religious organizations that put a lot of effort and investment in developing communication into the local language, but mostly in a
Ellie Yes, there is a very specific purpose for it in a number of those cases. Totally, I mean what Translators without Borders is aiming to do is build up language support capacity, whether it’s translation or interpreting capacity, in underserved languages that are relevant to crises. DRC has not had a crisis in any year in living memory, I should think. These languages are going to remain relevant for humanitarian response in the years to come, and so those people, those translators that can help us to train up translators in, say Bwa and Zande and Ligenza, are going to be contributing to a capacity for better communication with communities in future humanitarian responses in that area. It’s pretty valuable and it’s something that we aim to do around the crisis-affected parts of the world.
Renato But Ellie, this is fascinating, and it’s amazing how much knowledge you have about these issues. How did you get into this, how did you come into this function, and how did you learn all this stuff?
Ellie I started as a translator. I trained as an interpreter and translator about 105 years ago and worked as, one, worked as translator from French and Russian and German into English for six years. Then I had a switch of career, and I got very lucky, and I got into the aid world back in the time of the Kosovo crisis in 1999. So, for the last 18 years I’ve considered myself a development and humanitarian professional. I’ve worked in the Balkans and Central Asia, and West and Central Africa, including DRC for a number of different NGOs.

And then through working with Amy, the executive director of TWB, in the past when we were both at Oxfam, I got to hear about the work of TWB. I’d known nothing about it before, and learned of this opportunity to work on the crisis response program that’s scaling up now and leapt at it.
Renato So, this is not romantic adventure or… it’s something that you’ve really lived. You’ve seen this need on the ground, with your own eyes and this is why you know how to address these issues.
Ellie That’s a big question. Yes, I have a track record in humanitarian response. I don’t think I look at it romantically anymore, for sure; and I know DRC, and I care about DRC, and I’m lucky enough to know something about language and translation. But then making the moving parts work, that’s about teamwork, and it’s about this remarkable base of almost 4,000 volunteer translators that TWB calls on year on year. We’ve got nearly 200 language pairs at this stage and hoping to build more, so that we can reach more of these under-served languages where communication otherwise simply isn’t getting across.
Michael We hope that you’ve enjoyed this conversation and that it’s been impactful. There are moments when you begin a work, like we have with Globally Speaking, and you are in the midst of it, and you are enjoying it, and then you recognize the reason that you have been called to do that work. And so, we really care about Translators without Borders here at Globally Speaking, and as an example, we want to make a donation on behalf of you our listener.

So, we hope that you guys will step up and do the same. Please take the opportunity today now that the podcast over, log onto their website, shoot them a text, find a way to connect with Translators without Borders.

It’s a great organization, and they could greatly use your financial support. If you want to help in this way, visit; be part of the movement, and while you do that listen… we’re going to take you out with Yondo Sister and her song African Dance.

End of conversation

Lori Thicke

Lori Thicke is the founder and CEO of Lexcelera, a language service provider based in Paris with offices in London, Vancouver, Singapore and Buenos Aires. She is also the founder of Translators without Borders (TWB), the world’s largest community of humanitarian translators. Lori has a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia. A frequent speaker and blogger, she is passionate about language and technology for global access to knowledge.

Ellie Kemp

Ellie Kemp is leading TWB's scale-up to bring language support to humanitarian action, facilitating communication between the people caught up in crisis and the aid organisations seeking to help them.


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