Translators Without Borders: Pro Bono … or Cui Bono?

Is Translators Without Borders a force for good …
or just another front for the translation industry’s
corporate sausage-makers?

 “We have the Silvio Berlusconi of translation and a host of others representing companies with significant interests in the commoditization and sometimes hampsterization of the translation profession and markets encouraging their service providers to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts.”

Part I: October 25, 2014

For years I have felt growing unease at the calls for translators to donate their services to “good” causes like Translators Without Borders. It’s not that I’m opposed to pro bono work; I have engaged in it often enough myself over the years in translation and other professions. But with the exception of sustainable projects like the development of sustainable translation capacities for the Maa language in Kenya, with technology support provided by Kilgray and instruction time donated by colleague Marel Pawelec, I have not found the appeals particularly convincing.

It was at the IAPTI 2014 conference in Athens that I heard the concerns I had been able to articulate presented in another’s convincing words, with many more ethical issues to consider. About halfway through Attila Piroth‘s talk, the slide above summarized the greatest of my misgivings in a rather humorous way. My first reaction to the “new Board” for “Report Without Borders” was rib-breaking laughter and no f-ing way! But really, does the composition of those calling the shots at Translators Without Borders look much better?

Not really. We have the Silvio Berlusconi of translation and a host of others representing companies with significant interests in the commoditization and sometimes hampsterization of the translation profession and markets encouraging their service providers to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts. As the presenter expressed it, large buyers of bulk market translation, some of the largest translation companies, agenda-setters for the bulk market and providers of related services. What’s wrong with that?

Climate change affects not only our planet but the character of charity in its landscapes. In the territory of traditional charities, material profit motives are considered not to be part of the works and the charitable acts typically involve either in-the-moment services or goods to address immediate needs or fixed-long term assets usually managed under strict guidelines and localized in communities. Examples of the former are food, medicines and medical care, the latter might be hospitals, schools, clean wells or power facilities. Transparency in many cases serves to encourage donors with the expectation that the gifts will be used for good, non-profit purposes.

With translation, the picture is a little different. The work donated to TwB not only covers short-term needs and frees up funds to pay for administration, information technology services and other more professional, compensation-worthy needs, it comprises long-term intangible (language) assets which are not localized to the charity recipients but which can be stored, replicated and perhaps transferred to commercial applications by its curators, those who control the organization. There is no special legal regime to regulate the use of such assets; translation work which is given today in good faith for disaster relief might tomorrow find its way into the resources for paid pharmaceutical projects ordered from one of the large companies represented on the TwB boards.

In a series of posts to follow, I’ll examine some of the issues and ethical questions raised this year in Athens with regard to Translators Without Borders, so you can decide for yourselves cui bono?


As can be seen from some of the responses to the first blog post in this series, the response of some to a “need” is too often rooted in emotions which override logic and rational consideration. Something must be done! is a common refrain, and when questions are raised as to whether the actions taken are in fact correct and proper and serve their presumed objectives, the questioner may be surprised by the unhinged vitriol of some responses.

Nonetheless it is important in any relief efforts to consider not only how well the path to the goal is paved with good intentions but whether in fact the path gets to where it should. There is a long and unfortunate history, for example, of food aid to many parts of the world not only wasting resources in the logistics involved, but doing actual harm in the communities where there is an intent to serve. This is also a matter to be considered in “translation aid”, particularly in cases where there is no immediate humanitarian disaster on the scope of a tsunami or hurricane where the overriding principle is clearly to move fast and furiously before the death toll rises quickly higher through inaction.

In the presentation in Athens about Translators Without Borders and other language service charities such as the Rosetta Foundation, insights were offered into a number of past and current projects and what clearly worked well and what was perhaps less successful or sensible. This is the sort of review which should take place anytime one considers how to get the most out of the time and resources available.

An example of a clear, best practice success was presented with the translation training center established in Nairobi, Kenya. Here, the objective was to establish local resources not only for volunteer work but to serve the ongoing commercial needs for translation in the local communities. The training was launched with one of the finest translation technology experts I have the privilege to know, (English to) Polish colleague Marek Pawelec using state of the art translation environment tools; the result has been a great number of people trained in modern approaches to translation and full time employment for a significant number of them. Unlike the sometimes questionable efforts for food aid in some parts of the African continent, I don’t think there can be any rational objections to what was done here; on the contrary, it is a model to be repeated (without discounts).

An example of a project less well considered in some instances might be the Wikiproject Medicine, which was not actually (AFAIK) launched by Translators Without Borders but which is significantly supported by the organization.

My impression of this project is that it is unnecessarily obsessed with the silly symmetry of articles and languages in a matrix without really considering where the most critical needs may be. It wasn’t clear in the presentation whether TWB was involved in recruitment and execution for the full matrix here, but I think it is safe to assume that the real impact in Sweden, with its reasonably functioning health care system, will probably not be worth the effort. The situation may of course be quite different in some other language like Pashto.

The Automated Community Content Editing Portal (ACCEPT) was given as an example on the far end of the spectrum.

Once again, this was a project not launched by TWB (or in this case, the sister organization, TSF) but where resources were provided. And here there was a clear, and to my mind ethically questionable, use of corporate materials in the training phase, with the translated texts benefiting a corporation represented on the TWB board. This is smoke – is there a fire?

In a world with so many needs, it’s a rare organization that will get it right every time. But some limits should be clear enough to those with good ethical standards and common sense. And for those inevitable gray areas, well-considered codes of ethics and other guidelines can be helpful. These should be subject to honest, critical review on an ongoing basis so that the worthy objective of helping those truly in need can be met effectively.


From the Translation Tribulations blog by Kevin Lossner.


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One Response to Translators Without Borders: Pro Bono … or Cui Bono?

  1. I have done slightly over 155K of transaltion for TWB; even if valued at a small fee, still a signifiant amount of money.I felt frustration at texts parceled out where no central TM or no centralization of terminology was available and sometimes no answers to questions, So I am not sure what kind of TM you could get by aligning texts cut in bits processed by several translators without any communication between each other, At various ATA conferences where TWB had a table, I did offer my services to try to create valid TM per Clients of TWB from all the translations provided. I myself try to work for the same end clients to gain better knowledge of their activites and terminology for consistency sake. So MSF, Action contre la faim, ASMAE, BorneFonden are the end Clients I stick to. I do appreciate the comment about all these free translations used as input material with translation agencies sponsoring TWB. The thought had not crossed my mind and I am glad that your post raise that issue and also identifies who is who within TWB.

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