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Sometimes I get really discouraged about all the stuff that’s wrong with the human race… the arguing, the senseless violence, the control-freak posturing and the corruption in every direction. Why don’t people see how stupid all of that is? Why don’t they listen more, put themselves in the shoes of their fellow human beings, try to do better?

Well, the thing is, they do. For every act of senseless violence, there is an act of selfless love. You know, the mom who gets up to take care of her crying baby — not because she has to, but because she wants to. The man who stops to change a stranger’s tire. The couple who offers hospitality to a foreigner. Naturally, the larger and more public any of these acts get, the more likely it is that corruption will find them, too; that they will be done for show rather than for mercy. And perhaps it’s impossible to really and truly do anything selfless. As they say, virtue is its own reward, and that great feeling you get when you’ve done something good is a measurable emotional return on investment.

But I’ll take it. And this fills me with hope. I’ve been tracking an organization called Translators without Borders since before its inception — it was a French company before it became a US-based nonprofit. For a long time, it ran in the background, without any contributions other than the time of translators and project managers. Over the years, it donated about $1,000,000 worth of translations to nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders, and then the Haiti crises happened. Because I’m the managing editor for the industry magazine, I got carbon copied on a whole lot of e-mails that suddenly surged between CEOs of translation service providers, translation tool vendors, web-based translation platforms. And it was like, overnight, almost, the thing blew up. The industry coordinated itself with zero outside donations; it set up a web-based platform where translators around the globe could log on and use what they were good at to help out. This seemed incredible to me. And the momentum continued; using the same (improved) web platform, translators can still log on and find life-changing texts to translate. It’s almost like a dating site for NGOs and translators.

But here’s the thing: this only works with languages for which there are established translators, and for which there is a mode of dissemination in place. You can make health posters, for example, in English or French, but what about the first languages of the diverse people groups of rural Africa or Southeast Asia? As it happens, they often have health materials available, but they’re typically not in minority languages. Given just how understaffed most of these regions are in terms of health care professionals, this means that people may have no way of knowing what to do when they get sick. And this means that up to 90% of childhood deaths in these regions are totally preventable.

Yeah, that’s right. 90%. The most common killer of children in certain regions of Africa is diarrhea. A high percentage of mothers in these areas think you’re actually supposed to withhold liquid when your child has diarrhea. And their babies die with everything they need to survive — water, sugar, salt — in the same room.

Once Translators without Borders figured this out, they started a translator training program in Kenya. Some of the responses from translators can be found here. And, in conjunction, they collaborated on what they call the 80 x 80 project: simplify the 80 most accessed medical articles into easy-to-understand English, and translate them into 80 languages. I hosted a session last Thursday at Localization World where Val Swisher of Content Rules described how her content-creation company has been re-crafting the articles, which are vetted by physicians and then uploaded onto Simple English Wikipedia. Already, translators are transferring these to crucial minority languages. But, of course, this would be pointless unless minority language speakers have some way of accessing the articles. And here’s another interesting thing: most of the developing world has access to mobile phones, so the 80 x 80 project has convinced mobile phone companies to allow individuals in the developing world to log on to Wikipedia free of charge via mobile.

Right now, Translators without Borders has one paid employee, and is funding translator training. Everything else has been done by volunteers. I’m one of them — and I’m not a translator. I’m an editor. So I edit their newsletter, which is something of a work in progress. And if you want to volunteer as well, you probably can — from wherever you are in the world.

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