Jessica Roland

Gengo Pulse on Globalization: Talking with Translators Without Borders

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We often talk about helping businesses go global, but today we’d like to highlight the important role translation plays in helping improve (and often save) lives around the world.

Translators Without Borders (TWB) connects translators, corporations and non-profits to increase multilingual access to important medical, educational and crisis relief information. We sat down recently with Lori Thicke, TWB’s Co-Founder and President, to chat about the organization’s accomplishments, challenges and vision going forward.

On a personal note, what’s your secret for balancing all the TWB work with heading your own company, Lexcelera? Do you ever sleep?

It is challenging, but really, I am one among thousands of TWB volunteers. We all find a way to balance our professional and volunteer work. I do rely on an app that reminds me to get up and stretch, though!


What are the main changes TWB has seen over the past year?

We’ve translated over 14 million words now, and are really scaling up. We started a center in Nairobi for local translator training. We’re translating Wikipedia into Swahili and doing health apps on mobile phones for health care workers, empowering better local health. During the most recent Kenya elections, to keep down violence (in the previous elections, 1,000 died), Ushahidi (a Kenyan non-profit tech company) and TWB partnered to translate real-time SMS messages from eleven Kenyan languages to English, working around the clock in shifts. I spoke with the Ushahidi folks just the other day, and they said because of our work translating citizen messages, lives were surely saved, and as we know, the elections were peaceful. Another exciting collaboration was with Worldreader, on an African storybook project to help increase child literacy there.

TWB helps with disaster relief in other areas of the world as well. In Haiti, we translated messages from English to Creole, but we’ve scaled up our organization since then, and in the recent Philippines crisis, we were activated by the United Nations as part of the official coalition team for the typhoon disaster relief effort. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to send disaster relief messages to people in their own language.

According to a physician from Doctors without Borders, before we were called on, English language messages warned the local people of a “storm surge.” Many did not understand what a storm surge was and were swept away to their deaths. We still have a translator active in the Philippines for ongoing support.

What metrics does TWB use to track its growth and performance over time?

Key metrics for TWB overall are number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) served, number of words delivered, number of translators and number of languages covered. Our upcoming newsletter will have some of these metrics in it. For individual translators, the badging system on shows the number of words TWB translators have donated as part of their profile. Some of our translators have donated over 150,000 words!

This isn’t a metric per se, but the grants we receive are critical for our growth. We are thrilled with our recent grants progress! In 2013, we received a Wikipedia grant from the Indigo Foundation. This year, we were awarded a Humanitarian Innovation Fund grant administered by Save the Children and we have an upcoming tech grant that we will be announcing soon.

We are deeply grateful for these grants, as well as for the number of generous individual donations we receive.


How can Gengo’s translators get involved with TWB?

Easily! Just go to our website’s volunteers page. Gengo Pro translators are likely to meet the qualifications already. Like Gengo, we have a rigorous testing process to make sure our translators are well-qualified for our public service-oriented projects.

How do enterprises benefit from getting involved with TWB?

You know, that’s something we’ve learned a lot about over the years.
We used to talk to companies mostly about how it helps their Corporate
Social Responsibility (CSR) ratings and customer perceptions. But we found that most companies are not donating to improve CSR ratings; they’re doing it
out of generosity.

Translation companies have been extremely generous sponsors, providing not only translators but also staff help. In the high tech world, Adobe has helped for years with software donations and people time. They’re even looking at ways Adobe staff could help round the clock on disaster relief. And of course the new tech grant is going to be of incredible help. We’d love to have more corporate involvement like this!

How does technology help in your mission?

We couldn’t do our work without the crowd. People all over the world work on our translation projects, whether on whole documents or parts of them. You can’t do this without automation. very generously gave us a big head start by allowing us early on to use their platform and modify it for our needs. They provide automated testing for translator entry, and they manage our gamification—badges, points, leaderboards. They do so much! But we currently don’t have the funds to automate all of our work. Projects are still manually split up by volunteers. Monitoring quality is a challenge. We have very qualified translators, but sometimes they take on more than they can do, and then quality suffers. We currently don’t have tools in the platform for monitoring project quality. We have forums for translator discussion, but we could do more to help TWB translators connect. We’d like to be able to do more to help beginner translators enter and grow within the system, too. These are some of the areas we hope to make progress on in the future.


If you could wave a magic wand for TWB, what would you make happen?

I would definitely like to see solutions for those technology areas that we just talked about. And, if I’m being very “pie in the sky,” my wish list includes being able to translate all web content that people in the developing world need to have translated, in the areas of health, engineering how-to, storybooks, etc. We’re only just scratching the surface now!

We’d love to have a piece of Internet-based technology that allows locals to translate any web page for their community, on mobile devices. 65% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have mobile phones and could theoretically access knowledge if it’s available via their device, in their language. We need a way to empower communities to pick out what web content is most helpful for them. We also need to have a scalable way of giving training on how to become a translator—there’s a lot of such content available but it needs to be simplified and streamlined for developing countries.

Gengo recently joined TWB’s Technical Committee to see how we can help out. If you’d like to lend your talents, sign up to volunteer below.


Translators without Borders, a US-based 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, envisions a world where knowledge knows no barriers. The mission of Translators without Borders (initially founded in France in 1993 as Traducteurs sans Frontières) is to provide people access to vital knowledge in their language by connecting nonprofit organizations with our community of translators, building local language capacity and raising awareness about language barriers. Translators without Borders volunteers translate millions of words each year, focusing on three types of humanitarian translations: crisis translations needed urgently to inform people in crisis, translations that support an NGO’s operations, and translations that directly support people in need. The organization is building language capacity in East Africa through its first translator training center in Nairobi, Kenya, where trainees focus on healthcare content in Kiswahili and acquire the skills for a career in translation, and is piloting its Words of Relief crisis relief network.

Jessica Roland
Jessica Roland
Jessica is Senior Director of Sales Development at Gengo. She comes from the client side of localization, with 15+ years of taking software products and websites global, for companies like EMC/Documentum, Yahoo! and Glassdoor. She loves working with industry colleagues to help influence the direction of globalization technology and practices, building toward a future where translation is everywhere!
  • David

    I have always been following your blogs as these blogs are very useful in terms of translators.