Community Lives: Translators without Borders

In 1859, Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman traveling in Italy, witnessed the Battle of Solferino. Its aftermath left well over 20,000 dead and wounded. Shocked at the lack of facilities to safely treat the wounded, Dunant abandoned his trip and devoted himself to helping those in need. This heroic act of volunteerism was no one-off. Dunant went on to be instrumental in the founding of the Red Cross, one of the most celebrated humanitarian organizations in history.

Volunteerism did not begin with this selfless act. In fact, it had been in existence for some time, particularly with military service and in some religious orders. However, the growing awareness in the nineteenth century of the plight of many disadvantaged people led to many initiatives to put altruism to good and practical effect.

Not all volunteer initiatives are motivated by battlefield carnage. In the present day, other needs have given rise to measures offering the skills of experts. This is especially the case in a pluralistic, multilingual world of often stark social differences manifesting during a crisis. One such organization that is tackling this head on is Translators without Borders.

In 1993 Lori Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas received a call at their translation company in Paris, Lexcelera-Eurotexte, from a prospective client. Little did they know then that this call would propel them to start a major volunteering movement within the translation industry. The prospective client was Médecins Sans Frontières, the original French version of Doctors Without Borders. Thicke and Smith-Thomas seized the opportunity to offer the translation for free and requested that the saved money be considered a donation going straight back to the field. Thicke fondly remembers those early days: “I almost volunteered so many times, but I was always too busy, so when Doctors Without Borders asked for a translation, I realized that here was my chance to do something good.”

One project was followed by another and a small group of translator volunteers gathered together to respond to the rising needs. It was natural to call themselves Translators without Borders. For 17 years they helped nonprofits save around $2 million by offering free translation and project management. This small informal community of volunteers was working efficiently until the Haiti crisis in 2010, when the demand for translation from many rescue organizations such as Red Cross, US Navy and the UN was so overwhelming that the need for a formal organization was evident.

So Thicke approached prominent translation industry professionals, asking them to join her in the creation of a nonprofit as board members and help the organization meet its growing demands. Most of them accepted. One of these early board members was Salvatore “Salvo” Giammarresi, currently head of globalization at PayPal. He agreed to join the new nonprofit because he already knew about the group and believed in its mission to help reduce language barriers in crisis situations. Translators without Borders seemed a perfect fit, and he felt his long experience in management, operations and globalization would help the organization be more effective and fulfill its vision and mission. In those early days everyone was helping the best they could and roles were not very well defined. This gave them incredible freedom to experiment, but also called for an all-hands-on-deck approach, which was sometimes hard to manage and scale.

Giammarresi today is responsible for Translators without Borders’s governance and operational excellence. He ensures that the board is functioning properly and that there is a lightweight system of checks and balances. Today, the initial board of directors, which was the operational arm of the nonprofit, has been split into an executive board and a board of advisors.

With the recent hiring of its first full-time employee, a defined structure started emerging and culminated in the compilation of a board policy manual that details the governance framework. It clearly defines the strategic and oversight role of the board as opposed to the execution and operational role of the managing director and of the many volunteers. “It is amazing to see how TWB’s community of volunteers continues to respond and help people in need across the world,” said Giammarresi. “Haiti, the Ebola crisis and Nepal are just some examples of their amazing work. Our volunteers are the heart and soul of TWB.”

Simon Andriesen, managing director of MediLingua Medical Translations, was another early board member. Andriesen was originally approached by Thicke, who asked if MediLingua could review hundreds of medical test translations offered by prospective volunteer translators in the wake of the Haiti disaster. Several tests were so good that the translators and editors were asked to start volunteering that same day. After Andriesen joined the board he focused initially on operations. When donated the Translation Workspace in 2011, which now boasts an average of 700,000 words translated every month by volunteers, he redirected his focus to training.

The board quickly realized that crisis situations requiring language assistance are most likely to arise in underdeveloped regions where there are not many professional translators. Consequently, they decided to set up training centers to train local health care translators. Their pilot site is in Nairobi, Kenya, where they started the translators’ training program in March 2012. The program focuses on Swahili as well as a number of the other 40-plus languages spoken in Kenya. The course training material focuses on health care information, which is crucial for any country with too many patients and very few doctors. The translation and training center currently has ten translators and editors who are continually trained and nurtured by Andriesen.

As with most start-ups ready to graduate to full service organizations, Translators without Borders had to find an optimum way of funding in order to afford the expansion that the increased demand was dictating. With a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers and a strategic framework of connecting nonprofits to translators, building local capacity and raising awareness of language constraints, it is no wonder that most of the industry has been eager to support. Translators on a monthly basis donate thousands of words, large language service providers and internet companies donate both services and money and many other industry players find ways to give. When the organization started, it had a mere few thousand dollars, mostly from the newly formed board. Financial donations this year are estimated to reach a half a million dollars. In 2013 the audited total revenue, gains and support reached $2 million, with 85% of this as donated services.

With funds at hand, the organization managed to employ its first full-time member, Rebecca Petras, as program director. She was a board member for two years and prior to her appointment served on the executive committee as the head of marketing. Along with another seven volunteers, Petras is part of the team that manages the organization’s day-to-day operations. This eight-member executive board, along with a team of 18 advisors and a small two-member awareness team, ensure that both the mission and core values are translated in a sustainable and scalable future.

In addition to the Kenyan training center, the crowd-sourced community of volunteers through the Workspace managed by is currently handling a couple of important projects. The Health Education and Training (HEAT) project from The Open University was ambitiously set up to train 250,000 frontline health care workers across sub-Saharan Africa by 2016. Translators without Borders is helping The Open University achieve its goal by translating the health modules into languages used by the community health workers.

Another high-profile project is the 100 x 100 Wikipedia Project, which envisions the translation of the 100 most widely read Wikipedia articles on health issues into 100 languages. To make these easier for the average person to understand, the articles are edited into simplified English and vetted by physicians and health care experts before translation. The project is well underway — dozens of articles have been translated into a still growing number of languages. Funding from The Indigo Trust has allowed extending the project into east Africa, ensuring the translated content is available on mobile phones.

With 500 nonprofits to support, the translator volunteers are the true heroes of the organization managing to transcend cultural barriers. There are nearly 3,000 translators tested and signed up in Workspace who are ready to offer their services. Nearly two thirds of them have already offered 26.5 million words. As in most volunteer communities, translators have various motivations for giving. The largest demographic donates their time and effort during a slow professional period for a cause they support and believe in. New translators and graduates will offer their time to gain experience and exposure to real-life translation.

I spoke with one volunteer translator, Danièle Heinen, who has donated over 200,000 words in the last four years. She had heard about the organization from ATA colleagues and in 2011 she applied and passed the test. She had already been a volunteer translator for a couple of organizations in Canada, but had lost touch during an assignment overseas. It was the right time for her to resume volunteering, as she had transitioned from a permanent job to freelance translator again. Heinen said her biggest challenge when she volunteers is the lack of language consistency and continuity, which could be overcome by coordinating translation memories (TMs) with nonprofits. She has taken the initiative in the past to share TMs with colleagues who are donating to the same nonprofit. Her wish is for this informal sharing to become a standard practice with proper procedures in place so data can be tracked and be available to all volunteers. This will be particularly helpful when large documents are required urgently and are split, so many translators can work on them simultaneously. Heinen is willing to volunteer herself and start building TMs as she feels that “improving efficiency is what is required for the future.”

Within the larger language industry Translators without Borders is very well perceived, but its biggest challenge is exposure to the general public and specifically to the nonprofit environment and crisis agencies. Many nonprofits and crisis agencies are not aware of or equipped to deal with the language barriers that impact their visions and missions. To help with exposure in the nonprofit world, the Board will seek to add members from the larger nonprofit environment. Language awareness and the general constraints that lack of understanding bring in crisis situations will also raise awareness to the broad language for-profit industry and elevate its function to society.

Translators without Borders’ main mission to assist during crises is by design part of a first response along with all other crisis agencies. Even with data analytics and predictive technologies developing rapidly, it’s clear that crises will continue to endanger us with little or no notice. Even if we do have some foreboding of disaster, how will we know what translation requirements our response will need? This makes planning next to impossible for Translators without Borders. Yet they can still prepare. Training, experience, proficiency and commitment factor in when urgency demands a rapid response.

Translators without Borders is harnessing a massive potential with its model for volunteerism and has its sights set on fulfilling a growing need. As global awareness of multilingualism increases, we can expect Translators without Borders to pick up the pace too.