The Humanitarian Face of Translation

Srebrenica, 1995. When the city falls to the Serbs, some 7,000 people are massacred within five days. Medecins sans frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders in English, is the only non-government organization (NGO) present in the enclave. Its members call for international hearings. Over 8,500 words of testimony from MSF personnel must be translated into English overnight.

Mention the translation industry, and chances are that harrowing witness reports from the Balkans or medical documentation in support of access to essential medicines aren’t the first images that spring to mind. Yet besides the annual reports, Web sites and corporate collateral that are so readily identified with the industry, this is one of the major uses that translation, along with its spoken form, interpretation, is put to. The term humanitarian translation covers a broad spectrum of activities. It can describe the aid, and the reasons for it, in a language the international community – the media or donor organizations – can understand, Or it can be part of the aid itself, as in a medical worker’s need to communicate with the patient he or she is treating.

By far, the lion’s share of translation work in the humanitarian field is carried out on a fee basis, like any other translation. International aid organizations such as UNESCO, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Health Organization 34 Translators Without Borders project managers are Marie-Christine Padrutt, Ana Gomes, Hannah Unwin, Guillaume Nail, Lori Thicke, Meredith Hubble, Justin Hillier and Josh Ord-Hume (WHO) tend to work with a mix of in-house translators, freelancers and interns.

For these large centralized organizations, budgets rival or surpass those in the corporate world. As an example, the WHO, with about 20 in-house translators and a network of 40 freelancers, spends approximately $5 million per year on translations. The translation technology employed leans to the standard mix: electronic dictionaries and various online resources. Translations may be handled by the aid organizations’ headquarters or by the field offices themselves. World Vision is an example of the latter. According to Jenny Randen Communications Officer of World Vision Uk “We use translators to make sure the communities in which we work understand what we all about as an organization and so we can capture their views as correctly and intelligently as can and reflect that in our work. The corporate world has become synchronized TRADUCTEURS – a few languages have taken hold and become standard the world over – but the field of action of humanitarian groups has gone in the opposite direction, dealing with disparate communities at the level of their own local languages.

To help bridge the comprehension gap in an increasingly fragmented world, the US military has been experimeting with various technologies, including a voice-to-voice phrase translation system (PTS) based on speech recognition software and portable computers that could be used by military forces as well as by those conducting humanitarian interventions. These systems and others in various stages of development would allow care providers to communicate with non-English speakers by uttering a simple phrase and having it immediately translated into less widely spoken languages such as Farsi or Swahili.

Eurotexte, the translation company I co-founded in Paris in 1986, first became involved in humanitarian translations in the early 1990s when we were approached by the French headquarters of Doctors Without Borders to take on a paid translation assignment. We asked whether the money would be put to good use if we waived our usual fee. The answer was a resounding yes, and Translators Without Borders was born. In early 2002, according to coordinator Josefina Nögärd, “most of our translations are being handled by a core group of fewer than 50 professional translators.”

The organization took its name and inspiration from Doctors Without Borders, the largest independent medical relief agency in the world, which provides aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics and natural and man-made disasters as well as to others who lack health care due to geography or ethnicity. The agency, which received the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, has offices in 18 countries and sends volunteers to more than 80 countries. Some of the Translators Without Borders participants now work directly for Doctors Without Borders in the United States, as well as for other organizations.

Thanks to the excellent relief work of Medecins sans frontières, “Without Border has come to be synonymous with good works for a good cause. There are reporters – as well as pharmacists, lawyers and ophthalmologists – without border, to mention just a few. The name has become so ubiquitous that in a recent New Yorker cartoon a waiter serves a homeless man a glass of wine under the caption, “Wine Stewards Without Borders.”

Eurotexte created Translators Without Borders to provide free translations to those organizations that would put the money they saved to use helping people. The translations are managed the same way as any of our corporate work and, in fact, by the same team of project coordinators. The work is done by professional translators who are chosen on the basis of their specializations and who work only into their native languages. In most cases the translators themselves work on a pro bono basis.

A recent – and sadly typical – report translated by Translators Without Borders begins: “After two years of war, Chechen civilians have realized that in the fight against terrorism following the events of 11 September 2001, no international power is prepared to stop the Kremlin and protect Chechens’ lives or even their most fundamental human rights.” Torture in Chechnya, sleeping sickness in Burundi, food security and armed conflict in Sudan, Armenian street children and displaced people in Eritrea are all daily fare for the intrepid translators who donate their time and talent. And somehow, in spite of this subject matter, the translators find the work gratifying. “Very rewarding” is how translator Karen Tucker of Ohio describes volunteering for Translators Without Borders.

“We work for countries that have seen the worst human and environmental disasters,” Nögärd says. “Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Palestine, Serbia, Nigeria, Chechnya, Uganda, Zaire, Angola, Burundi, North Korea, Thailand, Sudan, Georgia, Peru, Malawi, South Africa, Madagascar, Guatemala, Congo, Kosovo, Armenia, Liberia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iran, Rwanda and so on. Some of the work we do involves texts on how to prepare volunteers, training documents and internal documents, and also reports on how well different interventions have worked or are working. Then there are the witness reports, relatives who have been killed, women who have been raped, really awful stuff.”

“I have a great deal of admiration for organizations like MSF, and I enjoy doing the work and learning from it,” says Dagmara Meijers- Troller, a professional translator who divides her time between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Paris, France.

But what’s a nice translation agency doing working with subject matter such as this? And for no remuneration?

Giving away translations for a worthy cause is a win-win scenario. Eurotexte feels good about it. The translators feel good about it, and they see Eurotexte as an agency that really cares – which we do. And last but not least, our customers consider this to be a point of distinction. But what really counts is that by offering pro bono translations the organization is freeing up aid money to help men, women and children in need – and may even be saving lives.

“Translators Without Borders is a huge help, says Caroline Serraf, who handles Doctors Without Borders’ translation needs in France. “Our budgets are tight, and we are very strict about holding running costs to 5% of our 500-million-franc annual budget. Every penny saved is used for projects in the field.”

But one such organization can’t possibly meet all of the world’s needs. The demand for this service, particularly for smaller NGOs, is enormous. With our volunteer translators stretched to their limits, many of Doctors Without Borders’ medical translations still need to be carried out in the field at the end of a long day by weary danger and nurses.

“What is desperately needed is for translation companies to take on regular pro bono) work, as is common practice in the legal profession. Like lawyers, translators provide an elite service that is beyond the reach of maint non-profits and NGOs. Since September the reasons are even more compelling for NGOs and our industry to cooperate.

To commemorate its 50th anniversary the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AlIC) is looking into a structure to provide volunteer interpreting, according to Helen Schneider, elected council member for France. “We have spoken to a lot of organizations who are delighted,” says Schneider. “Money being fungible, the funds will be able to be spent on something else.

Early this year, Prem Dan, a Madrid-baser translation agency, contacted Eurotexte about starting up Traductores sin Frontera in Spain. managing director Jorge Cabezas Lopez explains, “We feel that it’s going to add extra value to Pre Dan.” About 500 translators have already offered to collaborate with the Spanish organization. N on the program is letting clients know about p new foundation with the launch of a hot-air| loon featuring the logo created by Eurotexte Translators Without Borders, adapted for their Spanish organization.

Another company that intends to set up a branch of Translators Without Borders is Ireland’s leading independent localization company, Eurotext Translations (no connection with Eurotexte in Paris).

“Every business and its staff and associates are open to helping those in need in society by sharing a little of their skills and expertise. For a translation company, Translators Without Borders is a brilliant idea, and my colleagues here in Eurotext Translations are very enthusiastic about it,” says managing director John Shine.

Good works, as it turns out, is good business. Says Lopez, “We believe we will get an advantage from informing our clients that we are supporting Traductores sin Fronteras.” That’s the sort of win-win situation all translation companies should be thinking about.