Translators without Borders During the Coronavirus Pandemic


SEATTLE, Washington — How can populations follow social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines if they are not communicated in a language that those populations understand? During a time when many new developments are lost in translation, Translators without Borders (TWB) is working to provide access to accurate health information.

TWB is a non-profit organization that provides language and translation support to humanitarian and development organizations on a global scale. Headquartered in the United States, the organization seeks to narrow language gaps that estrange critical humanitarian efforts from those who need them. TWB recognizes that the efficacy of aid is directly linked to the language in which that aid is delivered and strives to ensure that information is conveyed in the native language of affected populations.

Translation and COVID-19

The World Health Organization has considered COVID-19 to be a global pandemic since March 11, 2020. This declaration calls for governments and individuals to drastically alter their lives to contain the virus’s spread. Yet many governments cannot effectively communicate this message or how to achieve its recommendations to their multilingual populations.

Linguistically diverse countries are suffering due to this communication gap. For example, in the Central African Republic, there are 83 different languages are spoken, and the virus’s growth rate is finally down to 2%. The Borgen Project recently had the opportunity to contact Translators without Borders to spread awareness about the impact of linguistic marginalization during COVID-19 and what TWB is doing to combat it.

Translators without Borders Interview

  1. How does Translators without Borders identify what information and which languages are a top priority for translation support? We collaborate with global nonprofit partners to determine what information is needed and in which language and format. We recently created a map that tracks which languages are spoken in countries where COVID-19 is spreading most rapidly. By understanding where information is needed most, and which languages are spoken in those regions, responders are better prepared to create effective and culturally-appropriate health materials and guidance.
  2. How is TWB using translation to tackle rumors about COVID-19 that may be prevalent in communities without access to accurate information? Whenever there is a gap in useful, credible and accessible information in a language and format people understand, people will fill that gap with their own information. To help address this, we are conducting social media monitoring in six languages to identify prevalent rumors. By proactively translating information, and working with partners to distribute it, we are helping public health responders get ahead of potentially dangerous rumors and misinformation.
  3. What are the most important factors in the development of a global information network that is accessible in more languages? The key to developing an accessible global information network is to first start with clear information, from a reliable source. Responders then need to understand which languages are spoken where, and to consider what languages and communication methods people need and prefer to use. Finally, it’s important to consider the factor of vulnerability when communicating information globally. For example, women and people with disabilities often have far less access to information and are less likely to speak global languages.
  4. How is TWB servicing those populations who do not speak their country’s dominant language and do not have reliable internet access? We have a long history of working with humanitarian responders to identify the language needs and preferences of people who speak marginalized languages. For example, 2018 research in Bangladesh revealed that Rohingya is the only spoken language that refugees understand and prefer. We also work with global responders and nonprofits to help them develop voice and pictorial content, making sure everyone can understand critical COVID-19 content.
  5. How is TWB helping to provide information access in countries with high illiteracy rates? In low-literacy contexts, we advocate for translations to be made available in both written and audio formats. To facilitate this process, we developed Kató Speak, an easy-to-use voice recording tool that is integrated within our translation environment. We have also developed standard workflows, so we can deliver simple recordings of our translations in local languages.
  6. How is Translators without Borders employing two-way communication to address the concerns of marginalized language communities? Two-way communication is a critical aspect of responding to COVID-19. It’s important that health responders and humanitarian organizations understand what information people actually need and want. To this end, we’re currently developing chatbots in French and Congolese Swahili, to help speakers of those languages in the DRC access the information they need, when they want it. Furthermore, our COVID-19 Glossary is an ever-evolving resource for responders to use to ensure the information they share is clear, consistent and culturally-appropriate.
  7. How has your translator volunteer base changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? We have seen an incredible groundswell of support from our existing community of translators, as well as a surge in new translator applications. In April alone we had more than 8,000 new signups to our community. We are incredibly grateful and inspired by the response from our translator community–it’s thanks to their support that we’re able to help people worldwide access critical COVID-19 information.

Translators without Borders has answered the global call for help combatting COVID-19 in dozens of languages. The organization is using its expertise in multilingual communication to provide translations, map language data and monitor social media to help public health experts disseminate vetted information and control rumors. TWB recognizes and demands reliable access to coronavirus pandemic information for all people, no matter what language they speak.

Annie Iezzi
Photo: Flickr


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