Breaking Down Linguistic Barriers with Words of Relief


translators-without-bordersDisseminating information is critical in the aftermath of a humanitarian emergency. But for aid workers operating in a foreign country, even basic verbal communication is sometimes impossible. Linguistics barriers can pose a major constraint on the ability of aid workers to effectively identify need, share information and deliver services to crisis-affected populations. With Words of Relief, a translation crisis relief network developed by US-based NGO Translators without Borders, effective cross-cultural communication in emergency environments will soon be feasible.

Words of Relief is a three-pronged program that provides real-time, emergency relief communication support in 12 to 15 international languages. First, it aims to create a digital inventory of translated key crisis-related messages so that relief workers have it on hand if disaster strikes. Second, it creates a spider network of Rapid Response Translators, who are trained to provide emergency translation services. Lastly, the Words of Relief Digital Exchange (WoRDE), a crowd sourced, online/mobile application, is being developed to virtually connect aid workers and translators.

Words of Relief launch in NairobiThe Words of Relief program is funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, which awards financial support to organizations leading innovations in humanitarian assistance. It is being piloted in Nairobi, Kenya, with Swahili and Somali as of March 2014. The Swahili team is currently in the process of translating key phrases from the Sphere Handbook, Info4Disaster and the IFRC’s SMS-based communications, and the Somali team will begin next month. Translators without Borders is also working with Microsoft’s Technology for Good CSR program to design the WoRDE application.

During the recent crises in Haiti and Japan, language barriers were cited as a major obstacle for effective communication and service delivery. When the Words of Relief human capital and technology becomes available (likely in early 2016), it should help ensure that victims, relief workers and aid agencies are kept informed, and improve the quality of emergency relief services.

To follow the project, visit the Words of Relief program blog or their website.


Courtney Mollenhauer

Courtney Mollenhauer

Courtney is a writer and development professional based in Toronto, Canada.

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