Language Barrier Complicates Aid to Horn of Africa Drought Victims

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Translators desperately needed to interpret medical instructions where language barrier is hampering aid efforts

Amid international aid efforts to get humanitarian supplies to drought-stricken Horn of Africa, Translators without Borders, a U.S.-based charitable organization that works in the world’s crisis zones, is warning of critical shortfalls in local knowledge that is significantly hampering the administration of medical aid.

"With this crisis, we're concentrating on translating health material," says Lori Thicke, who founded Translators without Borders 18 years ago. "If we can help keep families healthy, and prevent mothers from dying needlessly in childbirth, there will be a new stronger generation that can look to avoid a similar crisis in the future.”

To meet the need the charity is appealing for more translators to help medical staff in the region translate and communicate the medical advice that is predominantly in English into local languages.

With an estimated 10 million people needing food and medical supplies, Translators without Borders is working with local African NGOs and ministries of health in the Horn of Africa to translate critical medical information into Swahili, the Lingua Franca of Africa that is spoken by around 100 million people in the region.

“Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden, but only has 3% of the world’s medical resources, creating great difficulty,” Thicke says. “Put into the mix that much medicine instruction is only available in the major Western languages, and not local dialects, then we have another significant barrier to recovery. Situations such as the drought affecting Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya bring these issues into acute focus.”

Translators without Borders helps aid groups that respond to humanitarian crises in two ways. By providing free translations, the group saves NGOs, such as Oxfam, valuable funds that can be used to further their missions, as it can often cost $3 a word to translate text into a local language. The group also helps NGOs speak to potential donors across borders, to help raise more money for their work.

"For the first time in history more Africans have access to a cellphone than have access to shoes or clean water,” says Simon Andriesen, CEO of localization company Medilingua and a board member of Translators without Borders. “So we have a means of delivering information into the hands of those who need it most. Translation is the final keystone to the bridge we need to build to unlock that knowledge so it can do some good."

Translators without Borders is appealing to the international community for help, either through providing translation skills, or by donating money to support the work. Please visit for further information. In addition, we welcome enquiries from those who need translation support, and are available to discuss potential projects.

Notes to editors

Traducteurs sans Frontières (TSF) was founded in 1993 by Lori Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas to link the world’s translators to vetted NGOs that focus on health, nutrition and education.

Today TSF's American sister non-profit organization, Translators without Borders, assists in translating more than two million words per year for NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Médecins du Monde, Action Against Hunger, Oxfam US and Handicap International.

But this is not even meeting 1% of the need. There are literally thousands more organizations that need help for critical communications.

By developing an open digital platform and establishing organizational structure, Translators without Borders hopes to increase that number to 10 million words or more every year.

Our mission is to increase access to knowledge through humanitarian translations.


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Rebecca Petras