Tag Archives: Translators Without Borders

Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.



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