In other words: Using terminology to facilitate humanitarian communication in Nigeria

When I worked as a professional translator, back in the mists of time, I spent much of my time with my nose in dictionaries. Bilingual dictionaries would propose a translation for a given word or phrase; technical and generalist monolingual dictionaries would provide more detail on the precise meaning and help me work out which of two variants was more accurate or appropriate. I have fond memories of a particularly venerable Webster’s that weighed about half as much as I did and smelled like an old leather chair. Nowadays professional translators and interpreters have a wealth of online resources to draw on as well.

For many of the more than 3,000 languages spoken by people caught up in humanitarian emergencies around the world, there is no Webster’s and no Wikipedia. For some, like Rohingya, there is no established written language at all. Even for a big regional lingua franca such as Hausa, spoken by some 47 million people in the conflict-torn Lake Chad region, there are precious few resources available to those translating humanitarian content. Kanuri, the dominant language of Nigeria’s Borno State, at the epicenter of the region’s conflict, has even fewer — literacy levels are low and published content limited.

Frankly, the humanitarian world doesn’t do translators and interpreters any favors either! I say this as someone who has been in the humanitarian and development sector for almost 20 years: We have a morbid addiction to acronyms and technical jargon that can make humanitarian content impenetrable to the nonspecialist. And that’s even between native speakers of English, the language that dominates humanitarian communication.

Now imagine you’re trying to translate or interpret that content into Kanuri, whose three million speakers have largely not needed to parse the meaning of resilience, protection or gender-based violence and may lack a ready translation. Even if the words are in your English-Kanuri dictionary, how do you convey, for instance, that the humanitarian concept of protection covers “saving lives, alleviating suffering, restoring dignity and livelihoods and upholding the rights of affected populations?” Is that even possible in a short phrase? And if it is, will the phrase mean something to the people who need that protection?

That is the end game. Ensuring those people directly affected by an emergency understand vital information and can communicate their own needs and concerns is the aim of translation and interpreting in humanitarian action. In multilingual contexts such as northeast Nigeria, humanitarians worry that a lot of information is simply lost in translation. A new Translators without Borders glossary app offers support for more accurate and consistent communication on land and property rights and protection.

With hundreds of terms in English, Hausa and Kanuri translated in collaboration with protection specialists in Maiduguri, the app provides translators, interpreters and program staff with instant terminology support on their mobile phone or laptop. The app is available offline – an important feature given poor connectivity in the affected area. It also provides a voice recording of each term together with the text to aid comprehension among less literate and second-language speakers of the language. A humanitarian field worker trying to discuss gender-based violence with, say, an internally displaced woman who speaks some Kanuri but doesn’t read it, can now click on the term “fitәna jinsube” and play her a recording that she may find easier to understand.

The app went online at the end of March 2018, and was accessed by over 1,000 unique users in the first week. We are beginning to hear from field staff that it is facilitating conversations on important topics between people caught up in the fallout from the conflict and those endeavoring to support them: we will be following up with partners to find out more. Plans are in hand to expand the content to include other sectors of humanitarian action and other local languages over the coming year. A more portable version of my beloved old Webster’s dictionary for the 21st century, making a difference where it’s needed. — Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response, Translators without Borders

About Translators without Borders

Translators without Borders (TWB) envisions a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. The US-based nonprofit provides people access to vital knowledge in their language by connecting nonprofit organizations with a community of language professionals, building local language translation capacity, and raising awareness of language barriers. Originally founded in 1993 in France (as Traducteurs sans
Frontières), TWB translates millions of words every year.