Translation Is Essential to Save the Children’s International Aid Work

The global effort to save children’s lives in war-torn countries and disaster-stricken regions where they are threatened by disease, poverty, and other crises is no mean feat.

For Save the Children, the international charity organization founded in London that will celebrate its centenary in 2019, the task of coordinating a global response from governments, the donor community, volunteers, and other non-profits is a massive effort. At the center of it all is the need for multilingual communications.

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“We deal with a huge range of content, from online learning modules to websites and global reports (i.e., online and print publications) to transcripts and subtitles for films. Our audiences are external and internal, specialists and non-specialists, from children to staff, the general public, partners, and governments,” said Verity Leonard Hill, Translation Manager at Save the Children.

Hardly surprising as the organization reportedly helped 22.1 million children in 2016 alone through various programs in 120 countries, including education, child protection, health access, feeding and nutrition, and advocacy for children’s rights.

Leonard Hill told Slator that, in 2016, Save the Children translated approximately 2.3 million words. “The main source language is English. And top target languages are French (West Africa), Spanish (Latin America) and Arabic (Middle East). The top language pair is English-French,” she said.

“We deal with a huge range of content” — Verity Leonard Hill, Translation Manager, Save the Children

Interestingly enough, she said the organization employs only two people to work in some translation or localization capacity.

“We work primarily with freelance linguists and also a couple of small language service providers (LSPs). We have been working with a number of our freelancers for many years and we value these relationships very highly,” she said.

The organization works closely with local teams to ensure that its communication materials are fit-for-purpose in local markets.

Save the Children provides emergency response and development programs throughout the world, runs events and fundraising activities in different markets, manages thousands of volunteers worldwide, and leads advocacy to champion the rights of children to encourage philanthropy. 

Leonard Hill continued, “We try to use the ‘audience focus’ of translation to add value to our global communications.”

One of the key challenges in translation the organization grapples with is expertise in translation of rare languages.

“We want the voices of children throughout the world to be heard. We work with the hardest-to-reach children – including linguistically – and resourcing the translation of their words in a true and resonant way is a constant challenge,” Leonard Hill said.

“At the moment, we are working with children throughout East Africa and this includes small linguistic communities such as Toposa,” she added.

“We work primarily with freelance linguists and also a couple of small language service providers (LSPs)” — Verity Leonard Hill

Another challenge is balancing translation cost with quality. According to Leonard Hill, it is, of course, about getting the best possible quality within the constraints of limited budgets. As most involved in aid or development work would attest, they are accountable for every dollar received from donors or sponsors.

The Save the Children website states that for every GBP 1 it receives, it spends, 89% on activities to benefit children, 10% to raise the next GBP 1, and 1% on governance and other costs.

Asked how they measure translation quality, Leonard Hill said they employ quality assurance measures to follow the ISO process. “We also benefit from colleagues throughout the world reviewing translated work and providing feedback,” she said.

Do they expect advances in machine translation to drive translation costs down in the next five years?

“Not especially,” Leonard Hill said. “I don’t think there will necessarily be a linear decline in costs as advances in machine translation are made. I think what is more likely is a continuing shift in what translation is required for and how that is delivered.”

Marion Marking

Communications specialist, veteran journalist, and online editor at Slator who dreams of driving a Veyron on the Autobahn