E.g., 09/20/2020
E.g., 09/20/2020

The Importance of Language in Humanitarian Response

By: Krissy Welle (Senior Communications Officer)

16 August 2018

In 2018, the United Nations estimates that 134 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. When faced with these numbers, it’s easy to feel helpless. But if you’re working in the localization and translation industry, you can help. You can be a humanitarian. Mark 19 August on your calendar.

Every year on that day, World Humanitarian Day recognizes humanitarians who risk or lose their lives in support of humanitarian causes. It also draws attention to the current humanitarian crises around the world, and this year, the #Notatarget theme puts extra emphasis on the millions of people affected by armed conflict.

The language and translation industry has the power to support humanitarians and affected people in conflict without ever setting foot in the field. More and more, humanitarian organizations recognize communications in the right language as an important tool in the humanitarian toolbox. It can truly help vulnerable people, and should be considered alongside other types of material and logistical humanitarian support. You can help by advocating for under-served languages, dedicating time to creating human-provided translations and data, and supporting the advancement of language and translation technology.

The need for language solutions in humanitarian work

There is a critical need for language support in humanitarian response. Translators without Borders (TWB) estimates that 3,042 languages are spoken by the millions of people affected by a humanitarian crisis. Many do not speak the languages of humanitarian aid workers. They often are among the most vulnerable people on the planet, with lower levels of education and access to technology. Language provides access to information, and myriad humanitarian crises have demonstrated the need for increased language solutions.

Take the Ebola outbreak in West Africa three years ago.

Hundreds of humanitarian aid organizations rushed to help, armed with Ebola-related materials written in English and French. Although these are the official national languages of the most affected countries — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — people speak over 90 languages throughout the area. Non-literate people and speakers of minority languages were left without access to life-saving information. It was reported that 30 percent of people surveyed believed Ebola was transmitted via mosquitos, and another 30 percent believed it was an airborne disease. 42 percent believed hot salt-water baths were an effective cure. Ultimately, over 11,000 people died.

Then there was European refugee crisis in 2015-16. A study conducted by Translators without Borders (TWB) revealed that the majority of respondents (89 percent) would prefer to receive information in their mother tongue, yet many reported being unable to find information regarding their rights in their own language.

This year, the crises created by conflict continue. In Bangladesh, approximately 905,000 refugees are living in camps, pushed from their homes in Myanmar due to violence. In Nigeria, more than 1.9 million people are internally displaced from their homes by violence. In both cases, language is critical in response.

Even simple words are problematic. For example, “violence against women” was initially translated by untrained Rohingya interpreters as “violent women.” Words, and language, matter.

There are solutions

These language barriers are challenging and the stakes are high. And while many humanitarian aid organizations are working to better integrate language support and solutions in their programs, they need help from those who know language best — the localization and translation industry.

Using technology, innovative approaches, and internal resources, there are examples of those in the industry who are already helping to develop language solutions that can address the world’s biggest issues. LexiQA, a linguistic QA company, recently became the first QA organization to develop locale-specific checks for the less commercially-viable Bengali, Swahili, and Tagalog. To address the language needs in the Rohingya refugee response, TWB developed a language glossary for five languages — Rohingya, English, Bengali, Chittagonian, and Burmese — allowing aid workers, interpreters, and refugees to communicate more effectively.

There is an opportunity to do more

These developments are encouraging, but there are many more ways to help with humanitarian challenges, particularly in the realm of technology. Despite the rapid development of machine translation, voice recognition, and artificial intelligence, minority languages are often not included in these developments, which are typically focused on commercially-viable languages. More can be done to ensure minority languages are not left behind as technology advances and more people gain reliable access to the internet.

One opportunity to support future machine translation and promote more equality between languages involves the creation of enormous voice and text datasets for under-served languages. This is a massive data challenge requiring human input and large amounts of original, translated, and spoken information that can support language automation for minority languages. Language service providers and tech-focused organizations have the opportunity to support TWB’s initiative, called Gamayun, by sharing parallel data, volunteering, or becoming partners for the project.

Beyond technology and data, those working in the industry can help on a personal level. Volunteer translators are always needed, even for more common language pairs, like English to French. Those passionate about the cause can host a fundraiser. Employees can urge their companies to support and sponsor initiatives that are making a difference in the world, and advocate for the incorporation of minority languages into new solutions whenever possible.

Be a humanitarian

World Humanitarian Day is an opportunity to reflect on how to help those living through unimaginable situations. Those working in the language and translation industry have a unique opportunity to use their skills to help with the greatest crises faced by our world today.

Be part of the solution. Be a humanitarian.

Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders. Students practicing to write Rohingya Zuban (Hanifi script) in Bangladesh.