Kristen Corridan, Val Swisher, and Sarah Llewellyn presenting at the September NCTA General Meeting.

Kristen Corridan, Val Swisher, and Sarah Llewellyn presenting at the September NCTA General Meeting.

A non-profit translation organization serves to remind us all that translators can play an important role in making the world a better place.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.—Margaret Mead

September’s General Meeting was held on an unusually hot Saturday in San Francisco. The speaker of the day was Val Swisher, Founder and CEO of Content Rules, Inc. Val is also a member of the Board of Directors of the non-profit association Translators Without Borders, which provides pro bono translation services for humanitarian non-profits.

Val began by sharing stories about people in Africa who, in spite of getting very valuable help, encounter language barriers that detract from the benefits of the aid. For example, often when people get access to medication, the instructions are in English, leaving it to the few healthcare providers who speak a little English to do the best they can. And water pumps donated by Matt Damon to make clean water accessible are not particularly helpful once they break and the information on how to fix them is only available in English.

Knowledge is power
Translators Without Borders operates on the premise that knowledge is power. Over 12 million translated words have been donated already, and they are currently working towards their 20 Million Word Challenge. They have completed extensive translations of medical information on Wikipedia into Swahili. They were hugely involved in the Kenyan elections through social media, and they are currently working with Syrian refugees. They have even embarked on training missions. For example, in Kenya their pilot training center educates local healthcare translators in Swahili and some of the other 42 languages spoken in the country.

Part of Val’s work with Translators Without Borders involves translating English documents into Simplified English. I have to admit that translating from English to English didn’t sound that challenging. But after a little research I found Simplified English to be a very interesting topic. Simplified English uses a limited vocabulary, there are rules about how each word may be used, and each word may be used as only one part of speech. For example, the word “close” may only be used as a verb, such that “close the door” is okay, but “close to you” is not. By transforming documents using these rules, the ambiguities of the text are removed, and a translator must learn a much smaller vocabulary than would otherwise be needed. This reduces the translation time, improves the accuracy of the translation, and reduces the training time for new translators.

A volunteer culture
Val’s presentation was an inspiring reminder of how important translation work can be. But an essential factor is the willingness of translators to volunteer their time and expertise. More than once Val mentioned that working with Translators Without Borders was the reason she got up in the morning, and the power of those words left with me that day.

According to the World Giving Index 2012, the U.S. ranks in 5th place among the most “giving” countries. The report looks at three different aspects of giving behavior: financial donations, time spent volunteering, and help provided to a stranger in need. Australia is the most generous country in the world, while my own beloved Mexico ranked 75th.

Scholars agree that volunteerism is a major cultural phenomenon in the U.S. About half of all Americans participate in volunteer activities each year, and about 75% of Americans donate money to charity each year. I am personally convinced that there is an actual culture of volunteerism in the U.S. fed by the gratitude, compassion, and kindness that I have often encountered in Americans in my own life.

When asked what languages are most needed, Val was not to be pinned down. She said all languages are needed, and Translators Without Borders also needs volunteers with other skills, such as web design and English editing. So even if you don’t speak Swahili, you may still have something to give. DD

If you are interested in learning more about volunteering opportunities at Translators Without Borders, please visit here.