How translation makes a difference in managing the Ebola outbreak


The following post was kindly prepared by Indigo grantee, Translators without Borders.

The current Ebola outbreak has highlighted the importance of communicating with communities in languages that they understand. For Translators without Borders there is no doubt that this crisis is one of language. The populations of the three most affected countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, speak over 90 languages. Only a minority (approximately 20%) of those populations speaks English or French. For example, in Sierra Leone, although the official language is English, a greater proportion of the population speaks Krio, Mende and Themne, particularly in rural areas.

Needless to say that the Ebola-related material provided by aid agencies, which is most of the time in English or French, is not particularly helpful for the most affected populations. Information in the wrong language is not information at all as it cannot be understood by a majority of the population and it leads to an important knowledge gap about the deadly disease. In a survey published in September, UNICEF found that in Sierra Leone, 30% believed Ebola was transmitted via mosquitos and another 30% believed it was an airborne disease. 

The spreading of simple messages, in languages that local populations understand, can make an enormous difference. This is where Translators without Borders plays a crucial role.


CDC Ebola poster in Malinke

In November, TWB received a grant from the Indigo Trust to help reduce the information gap and improve communication between aid workers and local populations in West Africa. The funding allows Translators without Borders to provide translation of Ebola-related messages to ensure that affected populations receive critical information in their own languages. Importantly, the grant focuses on making sure that translated messages are distributed to those who can use them.

Over the past two months, Translators without Borders has reached out to various organisations to collect and translate their Ebola-related materials into West African languages for the most affected populations in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Various social mobilisation messages, healthcare information, SMS messages, posters and public service announcements have been translated in over six West African languages including Krio, Themne, Mende, Fula, Malinke and Bambara.

Overall our volunteers have translated more than 33,000 words since November. That is approximately 85 pages of text!

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International SOS poster in Krio


The Ebola content has been sourced by various organisations such as International SOS, WHO/UNICEF, IntraHealth, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), MSF and the Global Protection Cluster among others. Here are some examples of the material translated so far:

The objective of the project is to make the local language materials widely available to allow aid agencies on the ground — like Doctors without Borders (MSF) in Sierra Leone — to use the translated material for their social mobilisation activities. To that end, the translated materials are disseminated through various humanitarian networks (Ebola Communications Network, Humanitarian Response Info, ReliefWebBOND, and the CDAC Message Library).

Translators without Borders also contributed to the translation of the video “Ebola: A Poem for The Living”, which currently exists in over 15 languages. Up to now, the video has had over 45,000 views, was uploaded over 500,000 times and had more than 600,000 embeds. It has been used by many NGOs and churches. It was broadcast on TV in Liberia and it is being passed via Bluetooth from mobile phone to mobile phone in Guinea.

The translations are completed through the Words of Relief (WoR) project, a translation crisis relief network intended to improve communications with communities when aid organisations and affected population do not speak the same language. Words of Relief, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) and Microsoft, is currently being piloted in Kenya with Swahili and Somali. The grant from the Indigo Trust, combined with an extension grant from HIF, allowed Translators without Borders to extend the Words of Relief project to West African languages. Check out our most recent blog (here) for all the updates about the WoR project.