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Translators without Borders Receives Grant from Microsoft
Posted by Vijayalaxmi Hegde on March 10, 2014  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization
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You can’t perhaps be fully prepared for a crisis, but why should that stop you from trying? Translation forms a critical part of that crisis preparedness, for the precise reason that it would be the last thing on anyone’s mind when actually hit by a cyclone or a tsunami.

The Technology for Good grant from Microsoft that Translators without Borders (TwB) received will fund a crowdsourcing app to help communities communicate with aid workers when natural or man-made disasters strike and the aid workers do not speak the same language as the affected populations. The grant includes a package of cash, software, and Azure cloud-based services worth about US$250,000.

The app, to be developed using Agile methodology, will initially be available only to East African communities. The first languages to be offered will be Swahili and Somali.

In an interview last week, Lori Thicke, TwB founder, and Rebecca Petras, its Program Director, shared news of the grant with Common Sense Advisory. “It is critical for victims, field workers, and relief agencies to be able to communicate with each other during and after crises,” Thicke said. She added that the funding from Microsoft would fit well with the needs of their Words of Relief Crisis Response Network, a global translation and localization initiative.

In its early days, Petras said, TwB had to fight the notion that translation was not that important when faced with death, destruction, and disease, but mobile phones, combined with TwB’s work have changed that perception. Increasingly, people even in far-flung areas are coming within the reach of a cell phone tower and this means that they can receive and send text messages even when they cannot place a call. Hence, the urgent need for relief messages to be in the local language.

In a 2012 report on translation needs in Africa that Common Sense Advisory produced as an in-kind donation to TwB, it was clear that translators in Africa perfectly understood the criticality of their work for their society. Some datapoints from the survey in which 364 African translators participated:
  • 94.87% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help Africans in times of emergency or natural disasters.
  • 88.78% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help prevent international, civil, ethnic, or communal conflict in Africa.
And, most importantly:
  • 63.07% of translators for African languages said that greater access to translated information could have prevented the death of someone in their family or circle of friends.
As welcome as the grant is from Microsoft, Thicke says that the language services industry must rally more forcefully behind TwB, as the organization serves not only a humanitarian cause but also raises the visibility of the industry. Founded in 1993, the organization has translated 15 million words since 2011, but the need is far greater. In keeping with today’s demand for more open content, TwB is also translating health and education information from sources such as Wikipedia and delivering it via mobile phone.

The developing world’s need for translation is obvious. Work such as TwB’s and grants like Microsoft’s are essential components in raising information parity across countries and making the “information age” resonate with true meaning.


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