"Leave no one behind" and "localization" are big picture ideas that are being widely-discussed at the World Humanitarian Summit next week in Istanbul. But, what does it really mean to leave no one - not one single person - behind? As the head of an organization that began and remains firmly based in the localization industry, I'd like to add my voice to the conversation -it's a conversation vital to everything we do as humanitarians.
I've been thinking about what humanitarians can learn from the corporate sector in terms of localization. When I say "humanitarians", I mean local, national, international NGOs, UN agencies, etc.
Why do companies localize? What do they know that we (humanitarians) don't?
The localization industry is expected to be worth $37 billion by 2018. Obviously, localization matters to corporations. Here is what they know:
• Translate. People remember and respond better to what they learn in their native language.
According to Robert Lane Greene of The Economist, research demonstrates that when people read something in a language they understand, they can comprehend it. If they read something in their mother tongue, they are more apt to believe it to be true.
• Simplify, simplify, simplify. Simple messages in native languages work. Content can't be translated well if it doesn't make sense in the original language.
• Go to the customer. Go to the places where people get information. Localize what you find and create what is missing.
• Provide people with knowledge and information, not instructions. Let people decide how to use the knowledge.
• Ensure efficient processes. Use technology to speed up (but not substitute for) localization.
We humanitarians know this. But why do companies localize, but we in the humanitarian world don't?
Same, same, but different
In the corporate translation/content world, localization is about how to make information accessible to customers.
For humanitarians, localization is about putting affected people at the center of the humanitarian response.
Maybe it's the same thing? Doesn't "leaving no one behind" mean making our "products" accessible to people affected by crises, our customers? Doesn't putting people at the center of the response mean that they decide which products best suit their needs?
Why are we behind in our participation?
We've all heard the excuses:
• Translation is too expensive; we don't have the budgets companies have.
• Translation takes too long and people will die.
• We don't have translators on staff, and those we do have focus on the languages that our donors speak, not those languages that affected people speak.
• Just give them cash and let them work out what they need. People can make their own decisions.
Let's address these.
Translation is too expensive.
It IS expensive to translate a lot of content. Fortunately, we already have the lessons that the private sector has learned and the tools they've developed. We need to:
• decide what is crucial information (not huge tomes)
• ensure that the content is good (for example, not UN or NGO-speak)
• find qualified professional translators (bad translations can kill)
• use translation tools wisely
• make the process efficient
These things cut costs and force us to prioritize.
Translation takes too long and people will die.
Or they will die because they don't get the right information at the right time in the right way? In my four months at TWB, I've discovered that this is really not as hard as we think. TWB currently releases information in Arabic, Farsi, and Greek in less than five hours. And with the social media penetration rates of many of the places we work, we provide the best information to people using high quality translations, subtitles, or voice overs before most humanitarians can score their visas, flights, hotels and advances.
Localization works even better if there are trained community translators already in the country of need. In-country resources are low-cost and easily developed for all humanitarian and development workers.
As an aid community, we need to think differently. Think about how much you can do virtually, without getting on a plane. For example, TWB has no corporate HQ - our only office is a translation center in Nairobi. All of our staff and our 3,400 translators work remotely.
Just give them the cash.
I agree. Give them the cash. And ensure that those in need have access to high quality information that they understand so they know what's available to best protect themselves and their families.
Localization is as much about improving the quality of assistance as it is about ensuring people can protect themselves and live with dignity. As an aid community, we can only meet our own rigorous standards if people get the information they need in a language they speak and in a format they can access.
With all the other commitments, let's make sure we really do leave no one behind.
Still not convinced?
Translators without Borders has done a series of very simple comprehension studies. This will make you think:
• 197 people were asked questions about how Ebola is spread.
• 8% of the questions were answered correctly
• About 100 of these people attended an English information session; the other 100 got the same information in a professionally-translated Swahili session
• Both groups were given the same test at the end of the sessions
• The group that received information in English got 16% of the questions correct
• The ground that received info in Swahili got...
....Wait for it...
• 92% of the questions correct
If we're really serious about 'leaving no one behind', then every humanitarian organization should invest in ensuring that key information is already translated into languages where we know disasters will occur (or are occurring) by:
• Train community translators and interpreters to listen and respond, alongside community groups.
• Ask for translation support. There are tools to rapidly develop local translator networks or global virtual translation/interpreting teams.
• Pre-translate questionnaires and make them available in various media. You can sub-title or dub videos or radio programs fairly easily into numerous languages and have them ready for deployment.
• Make sure source content is simplified in advance. I shudder to think that we might have to ask translators to translate the CHS graphic. Simple language can be easily translated into languages that are not vocabulary-rich, without compromising the meaning.
It's not difficult.
It's not expensive.
It will improve our accountability.
It will save lives.
Come visit TWB in the Innovation Marketplace at WHS. We're booth 2.
Val Swisher, founder & CEO of Content Rules and Donna Parrish, Owner/President of MultiLingual Computing, Inc., publisher of the language industry magazine "MultiLingual" and Co-owner and President of Localization World, Ltd., inputted significantly to this piece. They are Board Members of Translators without Borders.