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Translators Without Borders opens Health Translators’ Training Center in Kenya

By: Simon Andriesen (MediLingua) - MediLingua


06 June 2012

Translators Without Borders, a humanitarian organization providing free translations, opens a training school in Nairobi, Kenya. Simon Andriesen, TWB Board Member, talks about the opening and the organization's mission.

The 2nd of April was a special day for Translators without Borders.  On that day, after much preparation, Translators without Borders (TWB) opened its pilot Health Translators’ Training Center in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. During three to four-day sessions over four weeks, six groups of participants were introduced to translation, and more specifically to translation of health information. In all, 100 participants took part in the April sessions. Based on the experiences, the program is being revised and modified before returning to Kenya in August.

The participants had widely varying backgrounds, from health librarians to government employees working in the field on Health Promotion, from youth workers to dispensary staff and community health workers, and from peer educators to hospital interpreters. What they had in common was an affinity with public health promotion and a strong interest in language.


Trainees at the Healthcare Translators’ Training Center

Translators without Borders is known for facilitating the work that professional translators volunteer to do for humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors without Borders, using a web-based platform generously developed, donated, and managed by ProZ. In 2011, TWB helped translate over three million words, with a ‘street value’ of around $600,000. This in itself is already a sizable donation but, more importantly, translation can be of life-saving importance to millions of people with poor health, no doctors around, and health information all in the wrong language. These populations typically live in poor areas, and studying a language is not something many people can afford to do. Even so, many people in Africa speak three to five different languages. In Kenya, for example, people with at least some education often speak English and Swahili, languages taught at school, as well as one, or a few, of the 42 local languages spoken at home. Swahili is spoken by around 75 million people, across 9 countries in East Africa, mostly as a lingua franca. This language area covers a territory with at least 200 different local languages.

Most of the health information available in Kenya is available in English only even though half of the population does not speak English. Translation in Swahili would already be a big step forward, but it would be much better to translate vital health information into the local languages. 

There are many tragic examples of what may happen if people do not have access to health information in a language they understand. But one story I always keep in the back of my mind is about a one-year-old girl who died after a few days of diarrhea. The mother commented she had stopped feeding the girl water ‘because it immediately came out at the other end and that way it never stops.’ As many people know, in the treatment of diarrhea it is crucial to feed the patient lots of water, to prevent dehydration, which if untreated will lead to shock and, ultimately, death. The person telling us this dreadful story mentioned that the parents had in fact clean water, sugar and salt in their house, and these are the only things you need to treat diarrhea. The parents simply did not know. Yet it takes only one quarter of an A4 sheet of paper to print the instructions around diarrhea, and maybe 20 minutes of work for a translator.

At TWB we decided that we no longer accept that people would suffer, or die, because of a language obstacle.  We understood that the platform would not be enough to reach some populations because there were simply not enough translators working into certain languages.  We prepared plans to train health information translators. As a member of TWB’s Board of Directors, I volunteered to make the training package available that my company had developed to train medical translators. This package is written for experienced, professional translators, who need to be introduced to medical translation. When looking at the materials, I quickly realized that the assumed level of background and education was simply not realistic, and I then decided to start from scratch and regenerate all materials. A new feature was a half day introductory module on what translation is, and more specifically what medical translation, or rather: healthcare translation is all about. This module includes translation methods, tips and tricks, an introduction to TM tools, and on how to build and maintain a glossary – all very basic information. I also integrated information on the difference between translation and interpretation, and produced an introduction to subtitling, and instructions about word count and spell checking, as well as on how to Skype and how to use search engines.

The medical component of the training package consists of around 20 introductions to Africa-relevant health problems. These are mostly disorders, such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and cholera, but also social health issues, such as malnutrition, unsafe abortion, and female genital mutilation (FGM). Each of these medical modules takes 30-45 minutes to teach and most of these are followed by an exercise: participants each translate a few sentences from a related health information sheet and the results are projected on the screen and then discussed by the whole group. This is a very powerful education method and participants really seem to learn a lot from these discussions. During the training, it was remarkable to watch people who had never translated before behave like typical translators in having heated debates about the meaning of a specific word, or the proper location of a comma.

For one group of trainees we travelled half a day to the part of Kenya where the Masaai live. For a group of 12 school teachers, a social worker, dispensary staff and a community health worker, we focused on the translation of materials about specific disorders, for example trachoma, an infectious eye disease that will lead to blindness if not treated. We used an empty school class room. The dedication and motivation of the Masaai participants was overwhelming. One of the projects we worked on was the translation of subtitles into Maa of a health video on cholera prevention. This is probably the first ever video with Maa subtitles!

We also attracted quite a bit of press interest: The Voice of America followed us one day and did a radio and television piece on the training; the Guardian carried an interesting article about us; and, we took the BBC World Service along to the Masaai training.


Lori Thicke (Founder of TWB) and Andrew Bredenkamp (TWB Board Member) in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Translators without Borders Healthcare Translation Training Center is partly funded by TWB, partly by earmarked donations, and partly by involved TWB Board Members. Whenever I claim ‘that we no longer accept that people would suffer, or die, because of a language obstacle,’ I would like to think that I speak on behalf of the whole localization sector. Companies that want to support our work can do so. They can become TWB sponsors or they can adopt part of our efforts in Kenya. To train a translator for three weeks costs around $400; a PC and a decent set of dictionaries costs around $300. Throw in an extra $300 and the translator has one year of unlimited internet access.

Small amounts. Huge effects. Think about the baby that died not of diarrhea but of lack of information. Keep her in mind. And then just visit www.translatorswithoutborders.com and hit the Donate button.

Simon Andriesen
[email protected]

Simon is CEO of MediLingua, and member of the Board of Directors of TWB. In March/April he was in Kenya for five weeks to pilot test the training program.

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