When Translation Saves Lives: The Vision of Translators without Borders

When Translation Saves Lives: The Vision of Translators without Borders
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August 31, 2016
Renato and Michael with Lori Thicke
The Ebola outbreak in Africa. The earthquake in Haiti. The countless children who die every day for lack of good nutrition. Join us as Lori Thicke tells the story of how she founded Translators without Borders. And how this amazing organization continues to educate, enrich and save lives. One language at a time.
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Speaker Transcript
Michael Welcome to Globally Speaking Radio.
Renato This is Renato Beninatto.
Michael And this is Michael Stevens, and today we’ve got a special guest on our show.
Renato Lori Thick is the founder of Translators without Borders, one of the most fantastic non-profit organisations in our industry.
Michael Yes it’s one that the entire industry seem to… well most of the entire industry seem to get behind, excited and really become quite a phenomenon with a lot of supporting coming.
Renato And we will have the chance to hear from Lori about how it started and where it’s going.
Michael Yes, enjoy.
Lori Hi, I’m Lori Thicke, I’m the founder of Translators without Borders, which we’ll be talking about today. I’m also the founder of two translation companies, Lexcelera and LexWorks.
Renato So, Translators without Borders, what a great name; it gives me this idea of people travelling around the world, helping people in remote areas who don’t understand what they’re talking about to people who don’t know what they need. It’s some mysterious, far away, kind of adventurous name. There is something much more pragmatic behind it; what is it?
Lori I wish I could say I planned all that but, you know, I didn’t. 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 So, take us back, that was 2010 with the Haiti earthquake, is that right?
Lori Yes, that’s right.
Michael Six years ago and how did people know about you already or how did they know to contact you at that time?
Lori We already had a couple of our non-profits that were working in the field when the earthquake happened. Doctors without Borders, Médecins Sans Frontières, of course, they were there; Action Against Hunger was there as well and those organizations needed support because they had to coordinate with international teams and let them know, let the Italians and the Swiss, let everybody know where the people who needed rescuing were; where the streets weren’t passable; where the water wasn’t drinkable; where they needed medical supplies, and they needed to do that almost in real time.
Lori Something else that came clear in Haiti was something, to be honest, when I founded Translators without Borders I had never thought about and that was local languages. Before that we had been supporting …
Renato You mean local languages, indigenous languages, not the traditional English, French, German, Italian and so on.
Lori Exactly.
Renato The traditional idea is that you’re going to Haiti and you can use French and, in reality, the majority of the population speaks Haitian Creole which is similar to French but it’s not French.
Lori Exactly, and that was the problem; we were able to help the non-profit groups speak to each other but we still weren’t reaching the people because they spoke a different language. And the most vulnerable of them really didn’t have enough French. So, you heard horror stories of people eating the silica gel when food was parachuted in because they couldn’t read on the packaging where it said “do not eat”.
Renato How has Translators without Borders developed this support network to address these huge catastrophes where you need a lot of humanitarian aid?
Lori That’s really, really become an important focus of the work. For example, what we found was that people are using their cell phones more and more. They might use their cell phones to ask for help but if that request for help was in the wrong language, we saw in Pakistan during the earthquake when requests came in, in English, they were acted on; when requests came in, in Urdu, the search and rescue teams couldn’t understand them and, literally, deleted them, literally deleted them.

So, I can’t even over-emphasize how important it is that we be able to communicate with people in a catastrophe, whether, as you said, it’s the super typhoon in the Philippines, whether it’s the earthquake in Nepal, whether it’s a refugee crisis now, Translators Without Borders is in all of those places.
Michael Give us a picture of the current footprint of what Translators without Borders is involved with at this moment?
Lori My goodness! We are all over the world. So, first of all, there is the basic work of supporting non-profits. There are literally hundreds of non-profits being supported by over 3,500 volunteers. That covers non-profits that deal with microcredit and women’s issues, that deals with illnesses such as AIDS, it deals with poverty reduction, just with education.

So, one part of Translators without Borders, literally, is moving all over the world, helping non-profits who are in the field. Another part, and a very big part right now, is working in the field with the refugees that are coming into Europe. They really don’t have access to the information they need in their own language and it’s so scary to them. So, we actually have people, now, working in the refugee camps with both written and spoken translations.
Renato How is technology helping you with that?
Lori It’s massively important. We won a grant a few years ago, now, with Microsoft, for example, that helped us develop our technology and ProZ.com has donated a platform. We use this platform to assign work to wherever the volunteers are and then to return it to the non-profits. That’s really, really important. That was one of the things we discovered in Haiti, is that we needed to scale up and we needed that technology.

I think moving forward, we are working more and more with organizations that are delivering messages by a cell phone and receiving requests for help back. So, that is, I believe, something that’s going to be very, very important in the future.
Michael As a founder, Lori, the organization has grown tremendously. If you had to point to one thing that you would say is your greatest accomplishment, what would that be?
Lori Well, I can’t take credit for how the organization has grown. We’ve had an incredible team that has just taken it and taken it out into the world. I think one of the things that is most important to me is getting the message out that translation, language, really matters. And if you’re communicating with people in a language that isn’t theirs, you’re not communicating with them at all. And in a crisis that is super important. So, I’m really, really proud to have been part of raising the awareness, with the non-profits, with the people who are going into the field, with the head offices of the non-profits to say “listen, when your job is communication, you need it to be in the right language.”
Renato One of the stories that I’ve heard about Translators without Borders had to do with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa where a lot of information was available about Ebola but it was all in English and French, there was nothing available in the local languages; and the moment volunteer translators started translating that material into the local languages, even if there is a large part of the population that is illiterate, those who are literate can convey and read in the local language to their families and friends and circulate it around and it started to make a huge difference once they received that information in their own language.
Lori Ebola was a great example, and I think it was about mid-way in the epidemic that people really started realizing that when people were saying, people weren’t understanding what they needed to do. So, you would hear in the press “why don’t they understand; why don’t they get it?” I really think they would not understand it or even accept it because it wasn’t in the right language. So, I think about half way through that pandemic we started getting the message through and I really, really hope that made a difference; it seemed to me that that was around the time when things started turning though we’ll never really know what the impact was.

It’s hard to measure the impact. We’re also working, for example, with Wikipedia, with a project that takes the 100 most important medical articles, the ones that are the most looked at and also the ones that are most relevant to the developing world and we’ve been translating those into hundreds of languages. We just got some statistics where, in the month of June, the articles we translated reached three million people in languages like Hausa and Yoruba, and I’m so excited about that because one of the big dis-equalities in our world is that we don’t’ all have access to the same information and it’s phenomenal, really, how much information we have access to compared to people who don’t speak a world language.

And now that we have cell phones and programs like Wikipedia Zero that are giving people access to the internet on their cell phones I think that is the big challenge facing us in the language industry, is to get information into their language.
Renato What other projects come to mind?
Lori Another project that’s really dear to my heart is the African story book project which is an open source project that translates stories for children into their own languages. One of the things that educators know, and we don’t talk a lot about in our industry because we tend to work with businesses but the educators who are studying this have found that kids don’t learn to love to read when they are learning to read in another language. They don’t learn numbers very well when they’re learning basic math concepts in another language.

So, one of the beautiful projects that I’m excited about is translating these stories, which aren’t very long, which don’t take very long, which are open source, and teachers can download the stories and tell them to the children; if they have a printer, they can print them out with color pictures for the children.
Michael Wow, the breadth of service that Translators without Borders offers and supports is remarkable. You mentioned a couple of the obstacles. You mentioned that there are the mobile obstacle and figuring that out and being able to provide content to people. And you mentioned just the great need and having enough people. Translators without Borders has not been without nay-sayers. There are some people out there who have questioned is it taking advantage of translators and other comments out there. Lori, how do you respond to people who may be a little suspicious of the work that Translators without Borders is doing?
Lori Well, first of all, I have to admit it really hurts me. But that’s a naïve answer and I need to get with the way the world really works. It’s certainly been a good thing because it’s made us be really transparent. So, now, we are super-transparent about every detail of how the organization works. We’ve got a new annual report coming out soon, so that people can see exactly what we’re doing, exactly who’s doing it, what our financial situation is, who the grants are coming in from, what we’re doing down to the nickel with the money.

And, actually, as more organizations within the humanitarian community start to recognize Translators without Borders and give them grants, we now actually have that same need for reporting down to the nickel for all the humanitarian work that we do, which is under project grants.

Speaking of which, this weekend, Translators without Borders is at a kind of a workshop with eight other non-profits that have been chosen. So, nine non-profits have been chosen by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund as the most innovative humanitarian organizations in the world.
Michael Congratulations, that’s wonderful.
Lori So, the nine organizations are in a competition this weekend, in a workshop, working on the details to present the projects and one winner will be chosen. We were already selected as one of 100 non-profits that are the most innovative in the world, by the United Nations, that was a couple of months ago at the summit. Now we’re considered one of the top nine.
Michael Congratulations.
Renato Congratulations, that itself is a win.
Lori This is a really big win and this just tells you how important language is; people are just opening up their eyes. Non-profit work, quite often, it is only about communication. If they want to reduce the incidence of AIDS it’s only about communicating about how not to get AIDS. So, if their job is communication and they’re not doing it in the right language, they’re not communicating and it’s all been wasted. So, I am so proud of that; I am so proud that they are seeing us as innovative simply because we’re saying you have to speak to a person in their language not yours.
Renato So, Lori, you put a lot of passion and a lot of love into this organization, in building it and inviting all your connections and all the people that you know in the industry to let it get started. Now, it is in a new phase, it is taking a life of its own, has professional management, a more formal infrastructure of management and organization, how has your role changed?
Lori People say that my role is visionary in the organization – and I love when they say that – but, really, I feel like my role is beating the drum, raising awareness, speaking wherever I can and however I can about language and why it is important and how we need to take down the barriers between knowledge and the people who need that knowledge. It’s phenomenal.

For example, we had a project in Kibwezi, which is in a Kamba-speaking area in Kenya. We were translating health posters for mothers on how to breastfeed their babies. They didn’t know that breast is best, they didn’t know! Untold children die every single day in the world because mothers don’t know that simple fact; they think, they’ve been told, formula is good—formula could be made with dirty water, it could be counterfeit, it may not have enough nutrition.

So, in interviewing these mothers, they were so happy that they had finally information in their own language that told them how to take care of their babies. They also said they come to the clinic more because it makes them happy to read information in their own language, they said their babies are healthier. One mother was feeding her baby water and mushed up fruits, young baby, when she should have been having breast milk.

So, it’s that kind of work that, to me, is my reason for living. It could take me to the end of my life just raising awareness about that.
Renato Is there any area where you still lack resources that you need more volunteers?
Lori Well, it depends on the language. Funnily enough, French and English, both directions, is a real need. And then local languages, indigenous languages, that is really important.
Michael How does the average person get in touch with Translators without Borders if they want to support you?
Lori Our website; it’s the best way to get in touch with us. There’s a form for volunteers. And, you know, we need all kinds of volunteers, not just translators, project managers and people who can help with TMs and technology.
Michael And can you donate money on the website as well?
Lori Absolutely. There’s a link you can click on and that’s how we survive, that’s how we do what we do; we have a team actually working with the refugees and that’s how they’re paid, by donations.
Renato That’s fantastic, Lori. I’m always excited to hear, I’m a big fan and I always carry my Translators without Borders badge, my little lapel pin; I’m very proud of being associated with this organization and I’m very happy to hear that things are going well and getting better as we go forward. I wish you more success and more great stories; you’re always welcome to come back and tell us more stories about Translators without Borders and its growth and its needs.
Michael Yes, absolutely.
Lori Thank you Renato and thank you Michael, it’s really been a pleasure and, as you can tell, I just love to talk about this; I think it’s really, really important so thank you!

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.


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