Languages: Translating Health Content Without Borders

“Imagine if all our health information was available only in Dutch!” said Lori Thicke, the co-founder of Translators Without Borders. Far from being a science fiction scenario, this is the kind of situation millions of people around the world are faced with everyday. It is a reality that especially affects people that may only speak minority or indigenous languages.

From India to Kenya, rural communities are ravaged by preventable diseases, such as AIDS, malaria, or cholera, while having very limited or no access to information in a language they understand can only compound the situation. A recent study conducted by Common Sense Advisory with translators in Africa revealed (pdf) that 63 percent of respondents believed greater access to translated information could have saved the life of a friend or family member.

Thicke is a tireless advocate for language rights, in particular with regards to health information. She speaks to Rising Voices about her commitment to bridging information gaps through translation, and how the organization is amplifying digital content in order to reach those who need that information. Many of their initiatives also focus on health-related citizen media created and contributed by both experts and ordinary citizens.

Fighting Language Discrimination

In 1993, Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) contracted Thicke's company, Lexcelera, for a translation project. It occurred to her that donating the translations would mean that more funds would be available for the actual relief work, and as a result, Traducteurs sans Frontières (TSF) was born.

The US-based non-profit organisation Translators Without Borders grew out of its French forerunner to meet the growing need for humanitarian translation in the wake of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Today, it is working towards fighting language discrimination in order to make information more widely available to citizens that may not necessarily be fluent in the country's “official” language.

Video Subtitling to Save Lives

One of the projects carried out by Translators Without Borders is taking place in India, and involves subtitling health-related videos into key Indian languages, so as to broaden their reach. Thicke describes this project in an email interview:

Our most prominent project with health videos is with the Mother and Child Health and Education Trust in India. Their organization, HealthPhone, which was founded and created by Nand Wadhwani, who creates health videos that are preloaded to phones throughout India. The videos cover a variety of important and life-saving health issues, such as breastfeeding, malnutrition, post-natal and newborn care, and more.

So far, the videos have been subtitled into approximately a dozen Indic languages, but they are still looking for translators to help bring content into the following languages: Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. The subtitled videos are made available through the dotSUB, a video subtitling platform that allows for subtitling in any language.

Health Information in your Language on your Mobile Phone

The widespread availability and importance of mobile phone technology has not escaped the TWB team. They are taking advantage of the fact that more and more Kenyans have access to mobile phones, who are using them to consume and create important information related to their health needs. Thicke continues:

We are also translating health information that is available via mobile phones. One project we are working on for a Kenya-based non-profit will give rural people the chance to access Swahili health information on their cell phones.

In another project, we are translating a mobile health app to train healthcare workers across East Africa which will also involve a mobile community where they can chat and exchange experiences.

Much of this work takes place in TWB's first Healthcare Translation Center based in Nairobi, which is powered by This center allows for non-governmental organizations to connect directly with the professional volunteer translators. Thicke adds:

Through this platform we connect nonprofits directly with our professional volunteer translators. The first platform of its kind, the Translation Workspace is completely automated, meaning more translators can put their skills to work for more non-profits. In its first year, the Translation Workspace increased the amount of translated words six-fold (from January 2011 to January 2012). We are poised to reach more than five million words in 2012, and we can handle even more with our platform!

Wikiproject Medicine: 80 articles in 80 world languages

Wikimedia Canada and Translators without Borders have collaborated to launch the Wikiproject Medicine project. The aim of the initiative is to increase access to medical knowledge through increased translations. This will in turn have a significant impact on the availability of reliable health care information worldwide, thus potentially saving many lives.

The project consists in translating the 80 highest ranked medical articles – those averaging millions of page views per month in English – into at least 80 developing world languages. Each page is thoroughly reviewed by Dr. James Heilman, the head of Wikimedia Canada, in order to ensure medical accuracy, before being simplified by a team of editors at Content Rules. The articles are then simultaneously posted on Simple English Wikipedia and distributed for translation via the Translators without Borders Translation Workspace. So far, the project is currently working with 25 different languages.

A world where knowledge knows no language barriers

Finally, here is the message that Thicke would you like to give to the global blogging community:

Access to the Internet is not much good if it's not in your language! We can change that. We need the global blogging community to make sure language access to information is on the global agenda. Bloggers and activists can make people aware that not everyone speaks a major European language.

Translators without Borders envisions a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. That is the most important message we can tell people. Knowledge is power. It saves lives, lifts people out of poverty, ensures better health and nutrition, creates and maintains economies. Access to information is critical, and language barriers cost lives.

You can connect with Translators Without Borders on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

Despite all its achievements, Translators without Borders cannot meet its goals without the help of more professional translators. To volunteer as a translator, please fill out the online registration form.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.