The translation center behind Translators without Borders

A new, fully-automated translation center means that Translators without Borders can donate ten times as many translations to support humanitarian work around the globe. Translators without Borders is an independent nonprofit association dedicated to helping non-governmental organizations (NGOs) extend their humanitarian work by providing free, professional translations. The funds saved through the use of volunteer translations can then be used by the NGOs in the field, enabling them to extend the scope and reach of their humanitarian work.

While the objectives are different, the operational procedures of Translators without Borders are not dissimilar from those of a translation agency. The company must select the right clients, in this case the humanitarian NGOs, in order to ensure that their translation needs are in line with the organization’s scope, and it must select the right translators as well. Due to the nature of humanitarian work, Translators without Borders can only accept experienced professional translators since in most cases there is no time for reviewing the translations. Also like a translation agency, Translators without Borders matches the translation needs of the clients with the abilities, availability and willingness of the translators in the pool of service providers and provides a workflow based on solid processes to maximize the deliverance of translations with a minimum of overhead.

When the Haiti earthquake brought an unprecedented number of volunteers from the translation community, Translators without Borders’ screening mechanisms were overwhelmed. To help it respond rapidly to the crisis, created a platform for screening translators and for posting jobs among the translators in the pool. This screening center proved useful, and the recruiting operation was substantially streamlined. However, the coordination of projects was still a demanding task, and this limited the scalability. Scalability is crucial because the contributions provided by Translators without Borders and the dedicated teams of volunteers, even if much appreciated and welcomed by the humanitarian NGOs, are but a drop of help in an ocean of need.

With this in mind, a new and improved platform was made available to Translators without Borders by in mid-2011. The new translation center (http://twb.translationcenter
.org/workspace) incorporated the clients as active participants in their translation projects and thus brought the whole translation workflow into a shared environment. This NGO involvement allows a “self service” operation where clients can post their own translation jobs, interact with the translators and retrieve the translated files. Project management is needed only when one or more files require formatting or when exceptional circumstances arise.

“Technology was the piece we were missing as we tried to meet the need for translations in support of humanitarian work,” says Lori Thicke, cofounder of both Translators without Borders and its sister organization Traducteurs sans Frontières, established in Paris in 1993. “On the one hand we had an enormous pool of motivated volunteers, and on the other, we had more NGOs asking for help than we could handle. Our obstacle was the project management. Now that most project management tasks have been automated, our role is simply to facilitate the relationship between the translators and the NGOs that need their help. This is what will allow us to truly ramp up our capacity.”


Technology and community

To give an idea of the scale that the new translation center is making possible, Translators without Borders donated around one million words to charities in 2010. After less than a year using the translation center, it is currently translating the equivalent of four million words per year for humanitarian NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), UNICEF, Partners In Health and Oxfam. Within a few months Translators without Borders expects to add enough volunteers and NGOs to increase this figure to ten million words per year — significant, considering that every dollar saved is another dollar available for caring for people at risk. Operations have expanded not only in volume but also in linguistic diversity, evolving from a few Eurocentric language pairs into more than 50 language pairs, including translations into Swahili, Yoruba, Tigrinya, Bengali and Haitian Creole.

One remarkable project was the localization by volunteers of GoodPlanet’s web page (www.desforetsetdeshommes
.org), which involved over a quarter of a million words into 27 target languages (TLs), including Persian, Slovenian, Indonesian, Japanese, Finnish and Yoruba.

These results, of course, can’t be explained by technology alone. The real power behind the translation center lies in a vibrant community of volunteers who have responded to every request for help from the humanitarian NGOs. The ProZ
.com community has been populating the Translators without Borders pool of professionals at a rate of more than 50 new translators every month. In particular,’s Certified PRO Network environment of screened professionals has been a major source of volunteers, particularly helpful when new language pairs are urgently needed to respond to a crisis. Since the screening process used in this program is similar to the one adopted by Translators without Borders, volunteering certified PROs are immediately accepted into the pool.

The end results are much appreciated. Nand Wadhwani of The Mother and Child Health and Education Trust, India, says, “Thank you for the English to Hindi translation. I was very happy with the speed and efficiency in which the whole process took place. Our HealthPhone project aims to provide vital health messages and information for mothers, other caregivers and communities to save and protect the lives of children and help them develop to their full potential. Translation is at the heart of our communications strategy. We need to be able to communicate these health messages all over the world. Thank you, again.”


A key concern in the design was that, even though the translation center was powered by, Translators without Borders is the real force behind the whole operation, and the organization’s identity had to be carefully preserved. To this end, a “white label” philosophy was followed in the design of the platform in such a way that all players or visitors to the translation center see the logo and colors of Translators without Borders, and the whole experience looks and feels like a part of the organization’s web page.

This is also a design consideration for future applications since the translation center has the capabilities to serve as a tool for organizations or agencies to manage translation projects with minimum overhead. As in the current application, jobs are posted by end clients and delivered by translators with minimal project management involvement. White labeling means that the whole operation will be perceived by all participants as an integral part of the managing organization.

Since the NGOs served by Translators without Borders are end clients with little or no translation experience, the translation center has been designed to be extremely simple to use. To post a project, someone from the NGO simply logs in to the translation center and then navigates to the page for the creation of a new work order (Figure 1). The first element to be entered is a project that will provide the framework to one or more translation orders. Displayed in the work order and partially included in the notifications sent to translators, this informaiton helps the client identify projects he or she can relate with and improves the matching between project and provider.

Next, the client uploads the files to be translated and indicates language pair, deadline, field of expertise and notes or special instructions for the requested translation. Additional files to support the work, such as glossaries, translation memories (TMs), dictionaries and templates, can also be uploaded. At this point, the work order has been created Figures 2 and 3), and the client will be notified when translators involved in the project post questions or comments in the corresponding workflow page (Figure 4). The client will be able to reply in the same page.

From the client point of view, the process involves filling out a form and uploading some files, answering any questions from the translators and waiting for the final notification that will let them know that the translated files are ready to be downloaded. The NGOs have found the interface easy to master. “I love the website. Easy to use, fast turnaround, user friendly,” says Griselda Garibay, Vincentian Family Administrator at Zafèn.

Multiple contacts within client organizations are supported. Experience with new clients shows a surprisingly fast learning curve, with work orders posted on the same day they were given access to the translation center and with little or no requests for help to the support system. “We have been extremely pleased with the translations that we’ve received from Translators without Borders volunteers, and we consider that the process of submitting and managing work orders is very well designed and user friendly,” says Stephen Volante, Communications Coordinator at Partners In Health.

Simple work orders involving one or more documents of less than 2,000 words each  (a size appropriate to the work of volunteers) are automatically processed by the translation center without any intervention from a project manager, except for routine supervision. These direct cases represent a significant proportion of all posted jobs. In more complex work orders, the project manager will prepare the source files before they are offered to the translator. The main task is to split large files into volunteer-ready sections, but a general review is also usually performed before launching the notifications to the queue of valid translators.

Beyond this point the project manager should basically have a look at the evolution of the work order and take action only in the presence of exceptional events, such as a translator falling behind schedule. At the end of the project, the project manager could be asked by the client to reassemble a split file and deliver the final file in the TLs, but in general the client NGOs manage this last stage by themselves.

To quantify the project management savings of the translation center, in a single month Translators without Borders managed a third of a million words translated in 20 language pairs for 21 clients by 131 translators. The whole operation was coordinated by a single project manager who spent only a few hours per working day on these activities. Even this minimal intervention time shrank even further when almost 100% of the projects became posted directly by the clients themselves.

The first stage in the workflow is sourcing. After the work order is posted, the platform identifies the subset of the pool of translators who are enabled for the assignment, depending on their language pairs and domain specialization. Once the valid translators have been identified, they are ranked in accordance with a predefined criterion and notified in small batches separated by fixed delays. Default values are batches of five translators separated by 15-minute delays, but both parameters are configurable.

These notifications include a link to a project page, with optional descriptions of the client, the particular project, plus the file to be translated as well as any special instructions. The translator can review the offered file and all the information before deciding whether to accept it or not (Figure 3). When one of the notified translators accepts a task, it immediately becomes unavailable to all other translators. Once all tasks in a work order have been accepted, no further notifications are sent out. This approach minimizes the “spamming” effect on translators by sending as few notifications as possible to have the tasks assigned.

The second stage is translation: The individual files have been assigned to providers for their translation. The most important feature at this stage is the comments section where translators and the client can exchange questions, answers and project information (Figure 4). A panel on the top-right side of the workflow page present from top to bottom the status of the work order, time information, the people associated with the job (project manager, client contact and translators) and some action links for the work order (Figure 5).

When translators end their assignments, they can upload their translated files and report the task as completed. The upload mechanism can be used also to exchange glossaries and TMs among the translators in the project. The last stage involves delivery. Once all the sections have been uploaded and declared as complete by the individual translators, a notification is sent out to the client reporting that the job is complete and ready for download. Feedback and other end-of-project messages are also exchanged at this point.

The path ahead

Some additional translation center features are already on the drawing board, besides the continuous improvements based on feedback from the field and on usage patterns. Features in the pipeline for future commercial operations include all issues related to quoting and billing in normal, paid translations; additional and more complex mechanisms for filtering the pool for a project and for sorting the translators within this pool; and the ability to integrate project information with the administrative systems in the managing organization.

One important modification is already well advanced. An optional layer of proofreading services in the workflow will improve the consistency of files split and translated separately and also implement the full workflow of organizations that include proofreading in their quality policies. This will also enable the implementation of mentor and apprentice relationships needed by Translators without Borders to build local translation capacity in less-resourced areas of Africa and Southeast Asia, an urgent preoccupation of the organization, given the dire need for people in the world’s poorest regions to be able to access information in their own languages.

The translation center designed for Translators without Borders is by no means the only solution available for automating project management tasks in a web services model, though it is the only one integrated with the 80,000 active ProZ
.com members. There are, in fact, a number of sophisticated platforms on the market today, some offering TM and machine translation capabilities that the translation center doesn’t yet offer. Platforms may be for internal use within a language service company or, at the other end of the spectrum, may constitute a translation marketplace where buyers and sellers of language services interact online.

“Our experience with the translation center is showing us that automated systems for community sourcing is the future of the industry, whether for commercial or humanitarian work,” says Thicke. “Going direct to the translator opens up huge opportunities for us to be able to help more NGOs in more languages. It is giving us the capacity to find a scalable solution for the problem of people who can’t access global knowledge because they don’t speak the right language.”