Saving lives with language

Foreign aid is often associated with goods such as food parcels, medicine, and infrastructure. However, one of the most crucial services provided to areas suffering from natural disasters and pandemics is translation. Translation also plays a crucial role in conflicts, allowing differing narratives to spread and compete. Additionally, translation is often weaponised as a propaganda tool. Although English is often regarded as the global language, 6 billion of the Earth’s 7 billion people  ‘don’t communicate in English at all’.  As a result, appeals for aid from war zones or areas affected by natural disasters are frequently translated into English in order to resonate with anglophone audiences. Furthermore, with organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières providing relief workers from all over the globe, language barriers multiply, and translation becomes ever more necessary. 

Born out of the 2010 Haitian Earthquake and the inability of  French aid workers to understand Haitian Creole, Translators Without Borders was set up to combat the language barrier that has been described as a ‘perennial issue’ in crisis relief. Their stated mission is to bring about ‘a world where knowledge knows no language barriers.’ One of their main areas of work is ensuring that the top 100 medical articles on Wikipedia are available in 100 languages, as Wikipedia is the number one online source for medical information. In a TED talk outlining Translators Without Borders’ work, Rebecca Petras gave a sobering example of the consequences of not having medical information in people’s local language. She explained how, due to a language barrier, a family in Liberia lost their daughter to Diarrhoea:  although they understood the ingredients of the treatment (‘Water, Sugar, Salt’), they did not correctly translate the vital step of boiling the water. Similarly, before Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, the warning broadcast on the radio simply reported a ‘big wave’ coming rather than a Tsunami. Therefore, those living on the coast who were familiar with the term ‘tsunami’ did not evacuate as they did not believe the situation required it; largely as a result of this, 7,000 people died.

In Sierra Leone, although English is the official language, only 13% of women speak it, and most of them live in Freetown, the capital city. However,  the rural areas, especially at the crossroads with Liberia and Guinea,  are worst affected by the Ebola virus.  Unfortunately, much of the information provided to those living in affected areas is provided in English, and as a result most people do not understand the precautions they need to take to protect themselves and their families. Across the rest of Africa, there is a significant amount of fear regarding the Ebola virus; therefore, effective translation is necessary in order to enable  those in East Africa to understand that the virus is contained, which would reduce panic.

More recently, Translators Without Borders has been working in Bangladesh to assist Rohingya refugees. Low rates of literacy have necessitated picture messaging and pre-recorded audio files for loudspeakers and radio to spread information. A report published by Translators Without Borders on the Rohingya crisis found that ‘for the Rohingya community, the social acceptability of health services is limited by factors such as: inability to communicate effectively or at all with service providers, rude or disrespectful behaviour of health service providers, short consultation times with the doctor, cultural taboos about seeking medical help for sexual and reproductive or mental health issues.’ This demonstrates that language barriers not only prevent important information from reaching vulnerable populations, but that they can deter people from seeking help that would otherwise be available to them as well.

Translation is not only important in crisis relief, but also in conflict situations. In order to gain international support for a military cause, it is important for a group to be able to spread its  narrative of events around the world. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a United States-based organisation, provides a telling example. According to its  ‘about’ page, MEMRI  ‘[bridges] the language gap between the West and the Middle East and South Asia, providing timely translations[…] of media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends.’ MEMRI was set up by a former member of the Israeli Intelligence Service; Brian Whitaker, a journalist for The Guardian, found that ‘the stories it selects for translation “follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel” (Whitaker 2002)’ In addition, Israel’s psychological warfare unit managed to place articles focused on Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in terror activity into the Arab Press. These reports were then translated and reported in the Israeli press in order to shape public opinion. Roughly a year after Whitaker’s article was published, an organisation called Arabs Against Discrimination was set up to counter MEMRI’s narrative and provide its  own account of ‘what Arabs stand for as well as expose patterns of racism and discrimination in Israeli society.’

Even on a smaller scale, translation can be used to alter the message given by a report or source. For example, a documentary about Israeli attacks on the Jenin camp in the Occupied West Bank featured accounts from Palestinian men and women about the destruction of the camp. Many of the accounts refer to victims of the attacks as ‘martyrs’ or shaheed in Arabic; however, in the English subtitles, ‘martyr’ is replaced with ‘victims’ or ‘killed’  in order to avoid associations of Islamic Extremism, which are often used to justify anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments.

As the Internet becomes readily available in more parts of the globe, it will be easier for conflicting narratives to spring up and spread around the world, influencing public opinion and even international relations. Translators will play an important role in helping to shape and share these narratives, and they will continue to play a vital role in crisis relief in areas where the European languages commonly used to give medical and safety advice are not spoken.

Jack Barrett

Jack Barrett is the Researcher for the Defence and Diplomacy policy centre.

The featured image (top) from 2010 in which ‘USAID Administrator Shah visits Haitian Earthquake Survivor is by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter and is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Baker, Mona, Translation And Conflict A Narrative Account, ‘Understanding How Narratives Work’, (Routledge, 2006) – Pages: 73, 75-6

McDonald, Brendan Disaster Relief 2.0 The Future Of  Information Sharing In Humanitarian Emergencies,’03. Delays in Processing Information’ (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2011) – Page 24

 Petras, Rebecca, Ebola a crisis of Language: TEDXAAS, (TEDXtalks, Jan 12 2015)
– Time Stamps: 01:13 – 01:18, 12:45 – 12:50, 03:27 – 03:45, 04:38 – 05:25, 06:00 – 07:15, 14:45 – 15:02

Translators Without Borders, Misunderstanding + Misinformation = Mistrust, ‘Part II Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh’, (Translators WB, Sep 2019) 

Translators Without Borders, Translators without Borders responds to the Rohingya refugee crisis, (TranslatorsWB, Nov 3 2017)

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