The TWB Journey

Ten years and counting

Donna Parrish

Donna Parrish is principal and co-founder of LocWorld. She is also secretary of Translators without Borders. In a past life, she was publisher of MultiLingual.


It was January of 2010. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake had devastated Haiti. Since only 5% of the Haitian population was fluent in French, aid communication needed to be in Haitian Creole. This was a huge task. After this experience, Lori Thicke, who had founded the French organization Traducteurs sans Frontières, realized the world needed a larger, US-based organization to head up linguistic crisis response efforts. An organizational meeting of Translators without Borders (TWB) was held at a LocWorld in Seattle the following autumn.

We hit the ground running. Within months, Henry Dotterer and ProZ.com had set up a platform for our translators and aid organizations to use. As with most new nonprofits, the board was the organization — doing much of the operational work. Unfortunately, the world has never had a shortage of emergencies, be it typhoons, earthquakes, epidemics, refugee crises — the list is, unfortunately, very long. And the work was too much for a volunteer board. So Rebecca Petras, our first hire, moved from board member to program manager.


It’s interesting: you think you can fulfill the translation requests of aid organizations and your job is done. But the more work we did, the more work we saw that should be done. Often the language needs are hard to meet because the languages are lesser-served, and there are few available translators. We set up a translation training center in Kenya to address that need locally, and eventually trained almost 250 people.

In crisis response, critical information needs to be translated immediately. So, we began the “Words of Relief” project, creating an international network of translators that can provide immediate assistance. In the 2015 Nepal earthquake, we had translators online within hours, translating the Twitter pleas for help along with critical geographic information, no doubt saving lives.

We realized that known language data was often lacking or inaccurate for critical regions. TWB’s Language Data Initiative maps languages in various countries such as Nigeria, along with communication preferences of the populace (Figure 1).

Health language data is obviously an area of our concern. There is no word for “rape” in Swahili. You can imagine how challenging it is to help victims around the world with no access to accurate, culturally sensitive translations of health and medical terminology. Enter our Simple Words for Health program, a database of 12,000
essential medical terms that have been simplified and translated into more than 40 world languages by qualified doctors and trained medical translators. And then there’s the Project Wiki, where TWB partners to ensure that critical healthcare information reaches an estimated to 3.3 million people every month. Since the partnership began in 2012, 1,900 medical articles have been made accessible on local-language Wikipedias, with TWB providing the translations into 83 languages.

As TWB matured as an organization, we realized to truly enable communication on the world stage, we needed an executive team with experience and long-time connections in the international aid community. At the end of 2015, we hired Aimee Ansari as our executive director, and, thanks to her guidance, we have never looked back.


Figure 1: Northeast Nigeria Language Map.

In 2017, The Rosetta Foundation merged with TWB, bringing in many more translators. Our translation platform evolved into Kató, which now includes machine translation, translation memory, and enhanced quality assurance tools.

TWB had set up an impressive set of glossaries prior to 2020 for regions such as northeast Nigeria, Myanmar, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Bangladesh.

When the pandemic hit, we also developed a COVID-19 glossary in over 50 languages and scripts. We developed a chatbot for people in the DRC, and, as of this writing, we have translated almost six million words in 105 languages.

As our work and message spread, it was gratifying to see aid organizations coming to us first to determine the language needs for new projects. This interest and demand is envied in the commercial world!

We have been honored to be featured in multiple aid-related publications as well as such well-known outlets as BBC, CNN, Forbes, The Economist, The Lancet, The Telegraph,
Wired and, of course, MultiLingual.

Now and beyond

What’s new with TWB? I don’t have enough room here to list everything! Gamayun, the language equality initiative, comes to mind immediately. Supported by Cisco, Microsoft, Twilio, ImpactCity, and Kinsasha Digital, Gamayun uses advanced language technology to increase language equality and improve two-way communication in marginalized languages. The initiative focuses on gathering text and speech data that can make it easier to automate marginalized languages. Using this data, we can build advanced technology-driven solutions for both text- and voice-based communication.

The ultimate goal is to shift control of communication, allowing people to access information in the language and format they understand and to share their voices. Do
you see that change? We are moving from only translating information for people to also listening to what they have to say. This is critical in addressing their needs and concerns.

A new product I am excited about is our chatbot technology, which is not menu-based, but rather uses natural language processing. This is already deployed for people
in the DRC. With conversations in French, Congolese Swahili, and Lingala, the chatbot helps with COVID-19 and Ebola questions, and in so doing makes us aware of educational needs, prevalent concerns, and false rumors. This chatbot lives on WhatsApp, but future ones will be hosted on whatever platforms are most commonly used in the target area. Plans are already in the works for other locales and applications.

It has been an intense and exciting ride, this TWB adventure. I am honored to be part of it. As an unprecedented and groundbreaking organization, TWB faces unique challenges fitting into established categories to get funding for ourwork. So, I invite you to join in the solution. When we look at the “takeaway” for our lives, TWB makes a difference.



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