Translators Without Borders Prepares to Bridge the Last Language Mile

Most people have heard about Doctors without Borders, an organization that enables doctors and nurses to provide urgent medical care in countries to victims of war and disaster. Far fewer individuals are aware of Translators without Borders, an organization that seeks to bring information to people in many of those same communities. I recently sat down for an interview with Lori Thicke, co-founder of the latter organization. Our conversation follows below.

Nataly Kelly (NK): Why did you start Translators without Borders?

Lori Thicke (LT): Up until 1993, I'd done an awful lot of almost giving. I almost worked on a crisis line, almost read books for the blind, almost became a Big Sister. But I was always too busy. Then one day Medecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders) asked my company, Lexcelera, to quote on a translation project. I asked if they needed translation often, and if giving them the words for free would be like a donation to their work. They said yes to both questions and Translators without Borders was born.

NK: What is the organization's mission?

LT: Translators without Borders is now a worldwide community of translators with the mission of translating for humanity. Over the years, we've donated almost 3 million dollars in translation services, which means 3 million more dollars that can be spent on medical supplies, vaccines, rehydration kits and more.

NK: How exactly does the program work, and how many organizations has it served so far?

LT: We were fairly limited in our reach from 1993 up until the earthquake devastated Haiti. But that crisis showed us that not only are there thousands of aid groups who need humanitarian translations but there is also a critical mass of translators willing to help. So what we decided to do was to create an online platform to bring those two communities together. We started working with, the world's largest translator organization. At the beginning of 2011 they created an automated Translation Center for us so that we could scale up our activities.

What happens now is that approved NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, post translation projects such as field reports, treatment protocols, websites, and so on. Once they do this, alerts go out to the translators in those language pairs. Those who are interested in the work of that particular NGO will take on a project, translate it, then return it to the platform for delivery. Most of the projects are picked up within 15 minutes.

The platform is helping us scale up by automating most of the project management tasks. Today we can easily handle projects for 100 non-profits at a time, but as our volunteer community grows, so does our capacity.

NK: How many translators are part of the network? Can anyone volunteer to translate, or do you need to be a professional translator?

LT: Right now there are around one thousand vetted translators in the Translators without Borders community, out of nearly three thousand who have taken our translation tests. It seems ungrateful to say to someone who has applied, "Thanks, but we need to test your abilities first." But at the same time, our first responsibility is to the NGOs. We work for a number of disaster relief groups so our translations may go straight into the field, with no time for editing. That's why we need to be able to stand behind the quality.

NK: Would you call what you do "crowdsourcing?"

LT: It's definitely controlled crowdsourcing. That is, we have a gateway, which is the test, but after that the crowd comes together to make all we do possible. We couldn't have any scalability without those two things: the technology and, especially, the power of the crowd.

NK: How many words have you translated in 2011?

LT: This year we'll triple the number of words we donated in 2010. We track our work in real time, so I can say that since January we have translated exactly 2,170,859 words. But it's hard for people outside the industry to relate to what exactly 2 million words represents. In monetary terms, it's equivalent to around $400,000 donated to NGOs. If I were to translate that into time spent, it means 6,946 hours donated to humanitarian work. And that's not counting all the time donated by dozens of other volunteers, such as our Board, our website team and our community managers as well as the individuals who manage our social media, recruiting, NGO relations, donor relations, technology and so on.

NK: How many languages do you cover?

LT: Our traditional base has been European languages. This year we have expanded to over 50 pairs, including Swahili and Yoruba.

What's interesting is that as soon as we moved out of that comfort zone, and started adding the languages of the developing world, that's when we made a big discovery. We found that most African languages have few, if any, translators. The result is that in poorer regions, the information that people need, crucially, like how to protect themselves against AIDS, malaria, cholera and so on, is locked up in languages they don't even speak. Ironically, the people who need that information the most - information about health, science, technology and so on - have zero access to it because of the language barrier.

The reality is that rich countries have an abundance of linguists while three billion people are starved for translators in their languages. This is a serious handicap now that the technology exists to get most people connected to global knowledge. More than three quarters of the world's 5.3 billion mobiles phone users are in the developing world. As those mobile devices get smarter and cheaper more people are going to be online. The question is, once they do, what content are they going to find there?

We figure we have one to three years before smartphones or other mobile devices start connecting up the rest of the world to the Internet. So that's why we're working to help build capacity now, to bridge what I call the "language last mile."

NK: What are some of the completed projects you're most proud of?

LT: All of our projects are important. It's impossible to pick a favorite between translating a microcredit request so a group of women can start a bakery in Port au Prince and subtitling a film to encourage breastfeeding in India.

All this work is needed. But what we are doing in terms of capacity building in local languages is something that brings a new dimension to our helping. For example, we've got a project going in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC) for mentoring Congolese translators. Our goal with this and our other capacity-building projects is to help foster a robust translation industry in Africa, capable of responding to the need to both share in global knowledge and share local knowledge globally.

NK: What are some of the future goals for the organization?

LT: We need to grow our internal organization. We are 100 percent volunteer-driven right now, but it's becoming clear that we need full-time staff members if we are to build an ecosystem to realize our vision of a world where every man, woman and child can access the information they need, in a language they understand.

In order to ensure that Africa's position in the "last language mile" is prioritized, Common Sense Advisory and Translators without Borders recently announced a new study on the African translation market. Through a donation in-kind from Common Sense Advisory, a report with the full results of the study will be provided free of charge to the public. Translators for African languages may participate by filling out a survey here. For more details of the importance of this study, click here.