E.g., 07/19/2019
E.g., 07/19/2019

The Language Last Mile: Are We There Yet?

By: Lori Thicke (Translators without Borders)


17 November 2011

In many places, people die for lack of knowledge and information. Most of these deaths are preventable, and often the only barrier is language. We have the power in our industry to change that through our own expertise and reach. Lori Thicke writes about the language last mile, and how close we are to the end of the road.

Today I am inviting all GALA member companies to sponsor Translators without Borders because I believe that for the first time in human history we are capable of sharing knowledge with everyone on this planet, regardless of where they live and what language they speak.

I believe that everything we need to bridge the knowledge divide that separates rich and poor exists today, and that language is the last and final barrier. I believe that we in the translation industry can do something about this, and I believe we must.

People do not die only of diseases. People also die for lack of knowledge. And nowhere is this lack of knowledge so widely felt as in the developing world where 22,000 children die needlessly each and every day.

These deaths are preventable. The former executive director of UNICEF said that 80 percent of the children who died during his tenure died because the knowledge to save them wasn’t where it was needed, when it was needed.  That knowledge exists, it just needs to be transferred and accessed by people in need.

I believe that now is the time to start dismantling language barriers to build a world where everyone can access the knowledge they need to live healthy and productive lives.  Knowledge is inaccessible to the three billion people who live on less than $2 a day for two reasons: physical inaccessibility, and language inaccessibility.

Physical inaccessibility is when there are no books or newspapers available, no magazines or encyclopedias. There are real reasons (costs, logistics) why printed materials just aren’t going to be the answer to access to knowledge for the bottom billions.  But those issues are being eliminated by digital access. The barrier of illiteracy is being solved by voice technologies.

Yet the language barrier persists. I believe that in just a few years from now technology will bridge the digital divide that limits physical accessibility. That’s why I believe that now is the time for us in the language industry to address the need for translation so that the information so richly available on the internet makes it all the way into the language of the people who need it the most. We need to be working right now to solve what I call the language last mile.

Lest you think I’m starry-eyed and unrealistic, let me share with you how today’s technology is already capable of solving the problem of physical access. Today over 90 percent of the world’s population has access to a mobile network: Over 90 percent. More than three-quarters of the world’s 5.3 billion mobile phones are in the developing world. In 2014, India is projected to have 97 percent cell phone penetration.

Think of technology like smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices that are capable of connecting to the Internet. These devices can and will bring life-saving knowledge into the hands of every man, woman and child. Price barriers are falling every day, internet connectivity is expanding and off-grid solutions are becoming commonplace. Most importantly, as anyone who has been to the developing world will attest, people there have the will to learn, an absolute drive to learn that is palpable, and powerful. They will seize on every opportunity to acquire knowledge. And they will use it!

The will is there, and barriers are coming down. I believe we can dismantle the last and final barrier: language.

One challenge that remains is the dearth of translators in most local languages. Given that this is a real show stopper for the majority of African languages, Translators without Borders has decided to dedicate some real efforts to build capacity. Besides our core work of supporting international aid groups with pro bono translations, we are now piloting various approaches to training translators. Our projects – in Kenya and in the Democratic Republic of Congo – are aimed at determining what is the most scalable way of building translation capacity so that there will be a critical mass of translators to ensure that people can access information in their own language.

At the same time as we are helping to mentor linguists from African countries with rich traditions of multilingualism, we are also matching up those translators with humanitarian texts that need their skills. It’s a win-win solution.

And we are doing much more around the world. In fact, 2011 has been our best year to date. We reached two million words translated at the beginning of November, which translates to a market value of $380,000.  So far this year, we also have had more than 450 translators involved in helping translate text, and we have served almost 50 different humanitarian organizations.  The number of language combinations we support has grown drastically and now includes Russian, Turkish, Swahili, Maasai and many more.

Yet we are just at the beginning of this work. I believe that if the entire translation industry unites to take down the barrier of the language last mile, we will get there. And I believe the time to do this is now.

To succeed we need volunteers. We need funds. We need you.

To learn more about Translators without Borders and to get involved, please visit the TWB website.