Despite the Internet and the global nature of aid organizations, hundreds of millions of people still live in the information dark ages. Children die of dehydration in areas where the simple oral rehydration ingredients—water, salt, and sugar—are available, but health posters on how to use them are in a different language. Anti-retrovirals can be issued to HIV positive patients, but if the instructions on how to take them are in the wrong language, confusion about the drug regimen will lead to side effects and patients desisting with treatment. The issue is not access to treatment, but access to knowledge, and language is the barrier. Access to knowledge is the linchpin in the fight against poverty, exploitation and medical disparities, and “the language last mile” is the final hurdle to bringing knowledge to every corner of the world.

Global Knowledge: How is Knowledge Transferred?

In the developing world, paper-based communication of information is still the norm. That this method of knowledge transfer is still being used extensively by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be seen in the health posters and manuals found in village dispensaries across the developing world. However, this method of transferring knowledge is not cheap. Due to the logistics of printing and distribution, information—whether instructions on how to take AIDS medication or a poster on oral rehydration therapies—tends to be provided only in dominant languages such as English, French, or Hindi. Little regard is paid to the language spoken and understood locally.

In this print-centric model, generalized access to knowledge is dependent on one’s proximity to a well-stocked library, and on that library having content in a particular language. However, reaching the millions of people who do not speak any of the main world languages with books and journals in their language is physically and economically impossible.

Hope could be on the horizon. With technology and communication advances, the flow of knowledge has increased significantly in the last ten years.

As the main conduit of information worldwide, the Internet is truly international. The statistics tell a global story. While most web pages are still in English, the Internet is becoming increasingly global. According to Internet World Stats, an internet data use aggregator, Chinese is rapidly catching up, followed by Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese.

However, paradoxically, the Internet is not linguistically global. Languages spoken by tens of millions of people, such as Swahili and Punjabi, are barely a blip on the Internet landscape. And penetration of the Internet into the least connected continent, Africa, stands at a mere 13.5 percent according to Internet World Stats, and much less than that for rural households.

Access to the Internet will become more extensive as countries continue to work on wireless and cabled infrastructure. In fact, other technological advancements, especially mobile networks, have improved communication to all corners of the world. By mid-2011, mobile phones constituted around 90 percent of all African phone subscriptions, according to BuddeComm, a telecommunications research group.

The International Telecommunication Union estimates that more than 75 percent of the world’s rural populations now have access to a mobile network. In Africa, over half the population in rural areas do. Technology users in Africa are more comfortable with an SMS than a website, and communicators are learning to use mobile networks as an important means of knowledge transfer. The Economist reports that by 2014, 69 percent of mobiles in Africa are predicted to have internet access. And this will be just in time.

Unless, of course, you belong to the majority of people in the developing world who do not speak English. Greater access to the Internet, whether via computer or cell phone, does not magically make information available if the information is locked in a language incomprehensible to the person who needs it.

Why Access Information in a First Language?

Knowledge is power. Access to knowledge lifts people out of poverty through better education and access to jobs and medical information.

Organizations and governments often do recognize that access to information is critical. The Asian Development Bank says, “Labor markets in remote rural areas are imperfect, and finding job opportunities is difficult particularly where there is lack of information.”

In another report on the use of technology for poverty reduction, the Asian Development Bank says, “improved access to information, facilitated by IT, could translate into higher earnings for the poor and contribute to the process of their empowerment.”

In fact, all eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are achievable with translation to help transfer knowledge for each of these goals. For example, take Goal 2 of achieving universal primary education. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) statement on “The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education” recognizes that “the best medium for teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil.”

Suzanne Romaine, Merton Professor of English Language in the University of Oxford and scholar in societal multilingualism and linguistics said, “Language is key to the empowerment of the poor.” At a keynote address for UNESCO (Bangkok, Nov 2010), she commented on the Millennium Development Goals, stating: “Keeping the promise of the MDGs requires reconciling development with linguistic diversity.” There is much talk about access to knowledge, but little discussion of how knowledge is locked up in languages that millions of the world’s poorest do not speak. Even the mobile technology that can potentially put an access point to the whole of human knowledge in the palm of even the poorest hand will mean nothing without translation to unlock it.

In one positive case, the Indian government does tie translation directly to an increase in access to knowledge. In a 2006 initiative the prime minister declared, “People’s access to knowledge can transform India’s potential.” A piece of the initiative focused on information in all Indian languages: “A major thrust is proposed in translation across all Indian languages to further knowledge creation and information dissemination.” Accordingly, eleven goals were set up to improve the translation industry and make sure content would be translated into all Indian languages.

But that is a remarkably rare case. NGOs and the “developed world” are accustomed to using the terms “English Africa”, “French Africa”, and “Portuguese Africa” to differentiate the countries of Africa. Kenya is considered an Anglophone country while Mali is regarded as Francophone. But these terms are in fact misnomers according to Sozinho Francisco Matsinhe, executive secretary of the African Academy of Languages, who once stated, “The former colonial languages are spoken by a very small minority elite, not the majority of the people in Africa.” The elite tend to be educated and located in the urban areas, not the villages where up to 80 percent of Africans reside.

Addressing the Challenge

The challenge that Translators without Borders undertakes is to build scalable solutions to bridging the language last mile, making global knowledge local, and local knowledge global.

Founded in 1993, Paris-based Traducteurs sans Frontières, which is the forerunner and sister to the American-based Translators without Borders, worked directly for NGOs for years, helping them get their information out into local languages. From the start, Translators without Borders was committed to qualifying all translators who worked for the organization to make sure the translations were of the same quality as any commercial translation. Founders Lori Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas also set a precedent to vet the organizations who receive the translations. In some cases, the organizations were fulfilling critical health, nutrition, and educational needs for under-developed communities, but they did not have the means nor the funds to translate the information they provided. In other cases, the organizations were receiving either very low-quality translations from non-professional volunteers or allocating funds that could be helping communities develop high-quality translations.

In most cases, the early work of Translators without Borders was for crisis work organizations including Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) and Action Against Hunger. Yet, after 15 years, Translators without Borders estimated it was reaching less than one percent of need. There was little involvement from the wider translation community, it took much effort and time to approve each translator, only a few specific language pairs were served, and not enough NGOs knew of the organization. The organization was increasing access to knowledge through humanitarian translations, but on a very small scale.

And then came the disaster in Haiti. The earthquake, the aftermath, and sudden awareness of the poverty in Haiti stirred the translation industry. Through social media feeds and viral communications, it became clear that a crucial issue was lack of information in French Creole.

The Haitian crisis motivated the translation industry to contribute to an overall attempt to transfer knowledge. It also clarified the need for translation beyond crisis work. The initial crisis required mostly interpretation skills to help first responders. The aftermath—the task of rebuilding, educating, providing medical aid, and all issues that extended far beyond the actual crisis—was severely compounded by the lack of translated knowledge. It became clear that translation was as basic as the need to communicate.

Haiti’s influence led Translators without Borders to seek ways to scale up operations, such as automated matching of translators and NGOs. Now Translators without Borders had the attention of the translation industry and its technology providers. Helping in Haiti had been successful. But to respond to that type of crisis again, while also translating every day humanitarian documents on a wider scale, the organization, which to date has run completely on volunteer power, without a single paid employee, would need to harness technology.

Firstly, it would be necessary to better connect vetted NGOs to professional translators. That flow issue was addressed by establishing a crowdsourced network that, in less than a year, has increased capacity in translated words five-fold.

Secondly, as the organization began to receive interest from more volunteer professional translators, it became increasingly apparent that while some languages could be served well, there were no translators available for many of the most critical languages where the lack of accessible knowledge was greatest, such as key African and Indian languages. It became necessary to find more potential translators for underserved languages, train them, and add them to the crowdsourced community.

The Crowdsourced Network

The first step was to create a simple, seamless, and almost self-managing community in which translators worked directly with NGOs.

The new crowdsourced community was modeled after a self-regulating worldwide translation community developed by Translators without Borders tapped the company to create an online project management system called the Translators without Borders Translation Center, allowing vetted NGOs to post their projects, and pre-approved translators to choose the projects that interest them. The first platform of its kind, the Translation Center is completely automated, meaning more translators can put their skills to work for more NGOs.

How this works is that NGOs upload documents for translation, triggering an e-mail notification sent to a small group of volunteers with the relevant language combination and expertise. Projects are claimed within hours, and the NGO receives the translation within days. This automation has facilitated the growth of the operation.

In January 2011, when projects were handled manually, Translators without Borders translated 29 projects, with 37,000 words of text, in seven language pairs, for nine different NGOs.

With the Center, in January 2012, Translators without Borders was able to translate roughly 6 times as much: 183 projects, with 280,000 words, in 25 language pairs, for 24 NGOs. Fully functional by May 2011, the Translation Center was marketed to vetted NGOs throughout the year, alerting them that they could now self-post to the network. They found it user-friendly and, more importantly, faster. Direct postings by NGOs grew steadily and by November, all Translators without Borders humanitarian translations used the Center.

Throughout 2011, Translators without Borders translated around 1900 projects, with a total of 2.5 million words, in 61 language pairs, for 60 NGOs. The number of annual words represented a 150 percent increase over previous years. Yet capacity in the crowdsourced network has barely been tapped.

The only limitation of the network is the number of vetted volunteers; the organization remains committed to testing every translator to ensure truly professional translation up to commercial standards. The number of volunteers grew steadily in 2011 as more translators heard of the potential to pick projects that they found interesting. By the end of the year there were 935 Translators without Borders vetted professional translators, an increase of 350 percent over the previous year. While all approval is done manually, the process was streamlined in November.

With the crowdsourced center, Translators without Borders has greatly increased its capacity, meaning more information reaching more people around the world. As Lydia Sonderegger of Médecins sans Frontières wrote to the lead manager of the Center, “All the volunteers who did pro bono translations for our Medical Department last year really made a huge difference to our action worldwide.”

Creating New Professionals

However, this platform does not solve the problem that for many languages, there are simply no translators, let alone professionals who can afford to work for free. These typically include languages spoken in countries with poor public health and few doctors, where the need for health information in the local language is vital and can save lives.

On a trip to Kenya in November, two board members learned first-hand the impact of the knowledge deficit, and the limitations of the Translation Center.

In villages, where 80 percent of the population lives, the only information available was in English whereas most villagers spoke only local languages. Misinformation was rampant, with talk of boiling milk to prevent malaria and cures for AIDS with no medical relevance. Children orphaned by AIDS who speak only Kikamba played in front of a poster about safe sex—written in English. Health workers with sketchy English had as their only reference an English health manual.