Issue 64 - Article 13

Ebola: a crisis of language

June 16, 2015
Nadia Berger and Grace Tang
A member of a WHO contact tracing team talks to the head of a family in Conakry, Guinea

In the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak, the humanitarian community is taking a hard look at international response mechanisms, evaluating what went well and what can be improved. One of the main areas of criticism has been the initial slow response when the disease took hold in spring 2014. These concerns have prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO), among others, to pursue major reforms directed at strengthening disease-fighting capabilities. These changes should look carefully at communications with affected populations: the crisis was one of information – and especially information in the right language – as much as anything else. Information provided in languages people can understand can help save lives in a crisis. Unfortunately, language is usually not seen as a priority in emergency responses. As a result, misinformation, mistrust, fear and panic can spread quickly.

Languages matter

Language was one of the main difficulties faced by humanitarian workers responding to the Ebola crisis. Information and messages about Ebola are primarily available in English or French, but only a minority of people (approximately 20%) in the three most affected countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, speak either language. In Sierra Leone only 13% of women understand English. Most Sierra Leoneans, particularly in rural areas, speak Krio, Mende and Themne. Providing Ebola-related material in English or French leads to important knowledge gaps: in a survey published in late August, UNICEF found that, in Sierra Leone, 30% believed Ebola was transmitted via mosquitoes and another 30% thought it was an airborne disease. Four out of ten respondents believed that hot salt-water baths are an effective cure.

Words of Relief

Translation is not always integrated into communications by aid agencies. To help address this issue, Translators without Borders (TWB) took a project it was testing in Kenya – Words of Relief – to West Africa. Words of Relief is the first translation crisis relief network in the world. It is intended to improve communications with communities when aid organisations and affected people do not speak the same language. The 17-month project, which started in January 2014, is funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) and Microsoft, and is currently being piloted in TWB’s translator training centre in Nairobi. The project focuses on the translation and distribution of key crisis content in Swahili and Somali. One of its most successful pieces of work has been the translation of the CDAC Network Message Library, an online database of messages – including first aid tips and public service announcements – into multiple languages. In November 2014 the Humanitarian Innovation Fund extended the project to cover Ebola-affected countries, complemented with a grant from the Indigo Trust.

Translating to save lives

Translators without Borders relies on an innovative approach to addressing language barriers: the creation of ‘spider networks’ of crisis translators. These are virtual teams of translators trained to respond rapidly to language needs. In Kenya a spider network of translators for 11 different Kenyan languages is able to respond to crises such as floods, droughts, cholera and conflict. The same approach was used in the response to the Ebola crisis, as a way to develop the translation capacity of an organisation and rapidly build a network of translators.

TWB used its network of supporters and advisors as well as social media to recruit about a dozen translators covering the Ebola-affected countries. They were based around the world, in the United States, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mali, France, Switzerland, Germany and Kenya. They were recruited because they are native speakers and have strong links to the affected countries. Their languages skills were vetted and they underwent online training focusing on rapid translation. The training sessions addressed topics such as ‘What is translation’ and ‘How to translate’. They also included tips for translators and best practice for terminology problems and quality assurance.

TWB worked with about a dozen partners to collect and translate Ebola-related materials into West African languages for the most affected populations in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Partners included the Centers for Disease Control, International SOS, WHO/UNICEF, IntraHealth, Chocolate Moose Media, the Global Protection Cluster, the International Organisation for Migration, Scientific Animation without Borders and the CDAC Network. Between November 2014 and the end of the Ebola project in February 2015, more than 100 items – including posters, social mobilisation and SMS messages, videos, cartoons and maps – were translated into 30 languages. About 80,000 words were translated. One of the most effective outputs has been a series of simple informative posters from International SOS suggesting ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, describing symptoms of infection and emphasising the urgent need to seek medical attention.

translation table

Other documents include social mobilisation messages from WHO and UNICEF and a series of messages for children and caregivers provided by the Global Protection Cluster. These typical messages focused, for example, on the best behaviour to adopt when someone is sick, information for those who have had contact with a person with Ebola and advice on burials and where to get medical help.

TWB also contributed to the translation of the video Ebola: A Poem for The Living, produced by Chocolate Moose Media. The video is currently in 17 languages and has a potential audience of 400 million. As of December 2014, the video had had over 45,000 views, had been uploaded over 500,000 times and had more than 600,000 embeds. It was broadcast on TV in Liberia and was also passed via Bluetooth among mobile phone users in Guinea.

Another objective of the project was to make local language materials widely available to aid agencies. Partners consented to their content being shared with the wider humanitarian community. Once translated and reformatted, Translators without Borders disseminated the documents through humanitarian networks including the Ebola Communications Network, Humanitarian Response Info, ReliefWeb, the BOND Ebola working group and the CDAC Message Library.

Main challenges

Although many agree that communication with com-munities in the right language is critical, translation is not always considered a priority by governments and aid agencies. This challenge was reflected in the difficulty in getting content from aid organisations. While there was demonstrated interest, follow through, whereby organisations actually provide the content to be translated, has been weak. TWB believes that the lack of follow through is partly due to aid organisations being stretched too thin during the crisis, as well as a lack of incentive because projects are not measured on whether they use local languages. One way to address this issue would be to encourage aid agencies to adopt new methods of working. This can be as simple as being able to quickly reformat documents after they have been translated. TWB is also working on producing an advocacy video for NGOs and governments on the importance of local languages and translation in communications with communities.

A major concern during the project was illiteracy. According to UNESCO, adult literacy rates in the three most affected countries are below 48%. The majority of the material translated was in written form (i.e. posters). Although in the right language and using graphics elements, posters and other written materials are not effective if people can’t read them. Priority should be given to audio and video in local languages for the next Words of Relief deployment. Finding experienced translators for African languages has also been challenging. Professional translators in most West African languages do not exist, and the project had to focus on the more widely spoken languages. This meant that requests for languages like Susu, Kpelle, Bassa, Mano and Mandingo could not be met.

Non-professional translators recruited from the diaspora via the spider networks often lack experience in translating. TWB developed new tools to help address this issue and ensure that this lack of experience did not affect the quality of the translations. First, inexperienced translators needed to be trained in basic translation. TWB adapted the three-day on-site training from the Words of Relief pilot project in Kenya into basic online training that can be used for any languages and any crisis. Training was conducted on Skype with expert language trainers. Another online orientation training has also been developed to provide contextual information and key aspects of rapid response translation. These tools are available in multiple languages. To ensure quality, two people reviewed each translation. This also helped address another issue associated with the multiple dialects of a language. For example, Fula (also known as Fulani) and Pulaar from Guinea are very different from Pulaar from Senegal, which means that editors were also needed to ensure the correct dialect of a language was used.


It is clear that a greater focus on translation is needed to help control crises such as the Ebola outbreak. However, the difficulties in getting humanitarian organisations and governments to collaborate and provide content for translation confirm that more work remains to be done. Concrete changes are needed in the way we communicate with communities during crisis. While TWB continues to improve its tools for crisis translation, there is an opportunity for aid organisations to review their response mechanisms and consider ways in which translation can be integrated as a full component of their humanitarian response. As Claudia Evers, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s Ebola emergency coordinator in Guinea, said: ‘In the first nine months, if people had been given proper messages, all this could have been prevented’.

Nadia Berger is Communication Officer for the Words of Relief Ebola extension project at Translators without Borders. Grace Tang is Global Coordinator for the Words of Relief project at Translators without Borders (


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