Although it may seem incredible in a world where information oozes from plasma screens on every corner, crucial health and sanitation information may not be available in a comprehensible format for the world’s poorest and most underserved populations. In such places, professional translation is often all but unheard of. So Translators without Borders (TWB), which for many years operated on the basis of donating translations to nonprofits through existing, volunteer freelance translators, has turned its focus to translator training for underserved regions and languages.
Its first and currently only training facility is in Nairobi, Kenya. The organization has trained over 100 translators who are now spread out across the country, several of whom translate professionally. Of these, 12 are employed full-time in TWB’s center in Nairobi. TWB Kenya rents offices on the campus of the Kenyan-based organization Bible Translation & Literacy, which works closely with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). SIL is a Christian nonprofit that does small-language research and documentation, and which also rents offices on the campus. “It is probably the biggest concentration of people — around 90 people — working on language and translation in all of Africa,” says Simon Andriesen, the TWB board member responsible for the center.
The translators at TWB Kenya are involved with various projects, and the translators in the center cover around a dozen language combinations, including minority tribal languages such as Dorobo, Njems and Gusii. In Kenya, TWB translator Matthias Kavuttih Kathuke says, “English is very formal, used by the elite, and the majority of the people are not in that class, in the upper class.” Many Kenyans, particularly in the lower class, use Swahili. To reach everyone in Kenya, 42 local languages are required. However, nearly all health information available in Kenya is in English, as well as many important legal documents. “Even the Kenyan constitution is not available in Swahili today,” notes Paul Warambo, TWB Kenya’s center manager.
The team in Kenya is involved with several large-scale Swahili translation projects, mostly covering health care. The Health Education and Training project covers half a million words of training materials for community health workers, which is edited for simplicity by vetted TWB volunteers around the globe, and then translated in the Nairobi center. The project is partially subsidized by a grant from the Open University in the United Kingdom. The 100 x 100 Wikipedia Project — originally the 80 x 80 project and now expanded — involves translating the 100 most widely read Wikipedia articles on health care into 100 languages, with more to come in all likelihood. Before translation, the articles are simplified so they are easily understandable by the population at large, and vetted by physicians for accuracy.
Access to health information is still an issue for many people, and something like the Wikipedia 100 x 100 project will only work if Wikipedia’s simplified health and sanitation articles are widely available. As it happens, the Wikipedia Zero project is committed to bringing Wikipedia to people in developing countries free of charge on their cell phones — with no data fees, and text-only to maximize the bandwidth in patchy areas.
Many individuals in developing countries have bypassed the computer era and gone straight to internet over mobile, even those with a severely limited income. According to a World Bank report, in Kenya, over 60% of the economic base of the population have mobile phones, but the cost of services can be over 25% of their monthly income. The Wikipedia Zero project helps to ensure that these people can access crucial health information without having to worry about the financial cost of that information. Companies such as Saudi Telecom and VimpelCom have already partnered with Wikipedia Zero to provide 470 million users worldwide with this service. Orange signed up to provide it in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Aircel in India signed with the program in July 2013, and more companies are likely to join soon.
The Kenyan team works on translating these Wikipedia health articles into Swahili, supported by The Indigo Trust, bringing personal expertise as well as passion. Before becoming a translator for TWB, Kathuke taught English and psychology; for Wikipedia’s 100 x 100 project, “I worked on UTI and gout,” he says, laughing a little “and schizophrenia. Psychology meets translation.”
Many of the translators from the center have stories that involve overcoming personal and social challenges. Kathuke, born in Machakos County about 100 kilometers from Nairobi, was the first student from his small village to make it to a university. He pursued a degree in linguistics, but despite this, Kathuke says “everything I learned about translation was from TWB.”
He and other team members also worked on translating crowdsourced information for the Kenyan elections. The team worked 24 hours a day for about ten days leading up to the elections and immediately afterwards, in eight-hour shifts, ensuring that the process was as transparent as possible for the Kenyan people.
In 2008, over 1,000 citizens were killed in Kenya during post-election violence. In order to make the 2013 elections smoother, Uchaguzi (election in Swahili) was born. The project involved a web-based platform whereby Kenyans could report what was happening on the ground using SMS, e-mail, Twitter and the internet. Ultimately, Uchaguzi helped create communication between citizens, humanitarian agencies and law enforcement agencies monitoring elections in near-real time. Kathuke says the crowdsourced platform and its translation was “very significant” in preventing violence.
The project was successful in that there was a sharp decline in election-related violence compared to 2008. “We achieved what our target was,” says Kenyan translator Rodha Moraa.
Before she came to TWB, Moraa was a single mother who struggled to feed her infant son. Now, she works at the center and adeptly discusses terminology, translation tools and her translation projects. Terminology is tricky in health translation, and there is little to no precedent for terminology databases — and although the team has one now, they’re essentially starting from scratch. Moraa notes that the word access, for example, has three or four translations in Swahili, so the translators have to sit down together and decide which term they’re going to use. Moraa is also one of TWB Kenya’s voice talents: her voice is used for the Swahili narrative of a series of health videos that were translated and subtitled by the translation teams.
Barasa Abraham Okumba is from a village in Western Kenya and spoke Luhya as his first language. He says about 20% of the people who live in that area speak English comfortably; the rest speak Swahili with relative ease. “Our country is divided into tribes,” he says. “There is a lot of ethnic pride among Kenyans — and even bias.” As you grow up in Kenya, however, Okumba says, you begin to realize that speaking your first language is somewhat discouraged and even forbidden in governmental institutions, where English and Swahili are the official languages. It’s supposed to be a “symbol of unity” between the Kenyan people. Nonetheless, the reality is that not all Kenyans speak Swahili, let alone English. Regarding language, says Okumba, “some of the things I was made to believe as a small boy are not true.”
Okumba says that the TWB Kenya team is vibrant, with much “cohesion and unity” among the translators. “We are very enthusiastic about what we are doing,” Okumba exclaims earnestly, adding that the switch along his path from teacher to translator has as much to do with his desire for humanitarian work than anything else. Okumba, who was himself a self-described “rejected child,” born out of wedlock and raised by his grandmother, is keen to explain that he translates because it helps to strengthen and heal his society. “I do it because it’s something that directly saves someone’s life,” he says. At the same time, it is very challenging: an incorrect word in a medical translation can be fatal, and when you know a mistranslation can have such a costly effect on a population, he says, you choose your words very carefully. For the Kenyan election project, “the fact that I am helping people avoid fights makes me feel good.”
The job is rewarding in many ways. “I enjoy the fact that I learn, and the material that I translate goes into my head first,” says Okumba.
On his part, Warambo holds a master’s degree in Kiswahili and translation, but due to the state of the translation market in Kenya, “I was literary jobless and struggling to live,” he says. This is not atypical; in a recent survey of 364 translators for African languages in 49 countries conducted by Common Sense Advisory, over half responded that there was not enough work available. This included a large contingent from South Africa, which is more economically able to support translators than much of the rest of the continent.
Warambo was the first “product” of TWB, beginning as a training assistant. “I graduated as we grew and today I am chief editor and reviewer and quality assurance staff.” He also works with Andriesen to manage the center.
Last year, the TWB Kenya team was asked by the government to provide training to the Maasai. They took a sample of health documents that were available in the health center in Olosh Oibor, where the Maasai live. None of the health information was available in Maa, the Maasai’s native language, or even Swahili. In these brochures were details about diseases that were affecting the population — trachoma being one everyone was talking about. Trachoma, however, an infectious disease caused by bacteria that roughens the inner surface of the eyelid and eventually can cause blindness, is highly preventable. Something as simple as keeping your face clean, for example, can help.
“We gathered a group of trainee translators, most of whom were elementary school teachers,” says Warambo. “As part of our training we took the brochure, simplified it to a list of a dozen items and then translated it as a group effort. In a matter of hours we translated the much needed information. Robert, one of the Maa speakers who participated in the training, afterwards made several phone calls to me testifying of how this little effort has been life-changing in Maa land.”
Many of the center’s trainees who have not become professional translators already held jobs, some of them in the health care industry — a health library, the Ministry of Health and so on. For them, the training was an addition to what they already knew. One trainee, Sister Perpetua Nyakundi, a nun working for the government and responsible for health information about infectious eye diseases, contacted Andriesen a few months after the training. She wrote: “Thanks for the skills I received during the training. I have so far designed, developed and produced user friendly information on trachoma in Maasai, Pokot and Turkana. I also produced the same on cataracts in Luo. They are already in circulation and in demand. Thank you for empowering me.”
As various language professionals have been previously, Nyakundi was invited to give a guest lecture to the translation team. She explained why she decided to redo many of the publications she was responsible for. She echoed Andriesen’s original words that in a country with many patients and few doctors, health information should be in the language of the reader and not of the author. She also talked about Warambo’s training, which stressed that information should be clear and simple enough for his grandmother to understand. With this in mind, she took another look at her materials. They were in English, and understandable for physicians, but probably not for Warambo’s grandmother.
TWB Kenya will train more people as the need arises, both to become professional translators and to deepen their understanding of the importance of linguistically appropriate information. TWB Kenya has another project that it’s trying to get funded, which would work on pre-translating crisis relief information. It would also create a team of translators from Africa and the diaspora, ready to translate in real time should a disaster occur. The project would focus on communications to affected populations, such as where the relief stations are located, to go out on their cellphones by SMS. Via the same platform used for Uchaguzi for the Kenyan elections, it would also receive and translate messages from citizens telling relief workers where the problems are.