Posted by: patenttranslator | June 28, 2012

In response to the demand for pro bono translation services worldwide…


Françoise Herrmann is a translator from French and Spanish into English and from English into French. She lives in San Francisco. This article was also published in the January 2012 issue of Translorial, Journal of the Northern California Translators Association.

Founded 18 years ago in Paris by Lori Thicke (CEO of Lexcelera) and Ros Smith-Thomas (co-owner of Lexcelera), Traducteurs sans frontières was established as a charitable organization in France. The name Traducteurs sans frontières was selected because the organization’s first client was Médicins sans frontières/Doctors without Borders, the medical disaster-relief NGO (non-governmental organization) that later won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2010, Lori Thicke founded Translators without Borders, a sister organization in the United States with non-profit 501(c)(3) status. Until fairly recently, Traducteurs sans frontières brokered pro bono translation services of approximately 1 million words per year to NGOs, representing about $250,000 of donated services per year. In 2011, however, with the foundation of Translators without Borders in the US, this number doubled, with 1 million words already translated as early as June; a 10-fold projected increase within the next few years was envisioned. (For the most up-to-date figures, see the counter displaying the number of translated words at the TWB Translation Center.)

For all languages

Translators without Borders is equipped to provide pro bono translation services in any language combination. For the first half of 2011, the highest demands were: French to English (34.6%), English to French (16.7%), English to Spanish (9.84%), English to Arabic (3.87%) and English to Russian (2.07%), with the balance (32.92%) consisting of another 40 language combinations, including English to Yoruba (0.33%), English to German (0.90%), English to Turkish (1.13%), English to Persian (1.13%)*.

Translators without Borders vets any NGO requesting its services. This means that all NGOs with which it works are verified in terms of their status as charitable and non-profit organizations. It also means that translators may rest assured that their pro bono services are received for legitimate non-profit causes. The requesting organizations are also vetted to ensure that they do not advocate extreme religious or political views. There are currently 53 NGOs registered with Translators without Borders, and the organization has the capacity to take on 100 more. (Browse the list of NGOs and their descriptions at the TWB Translation Center).

In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Translators without Borders partnered with, an online community of 
professional translators and adopted their networking tools. Inundated with requests for translations in Haiti, where an international rescue effort was underway, Translators without Borders initially turned to for more volunteer translators, and then to screen translators, because of the spectacular number of responses (800!) from the community of translators. Moving forward, this partnership, born in a crisis of catastrophic proportions, led to the development of the TWB Translation Center, an automated service and delivery platform, donated 100% by It is this invisible technology quietly empowering Translators without Borders that explains the quantum leap in the number of pro bono translated words in response to an increased capacity to process NGO requests.

As Lori Thicke puts it:

“The idea is that with a huge pool of talented volunteers on one side, and an enormous demand from non-profits on the other, the only bottleneck is getting those two groups together. Our guiding principle has been that we don’t need to be in the middle of this process. All we need to do is set certain standards for both translators and charities then put the technology in place to help them work together.” (Lori’s blog, posted May 30, 2011)

At the end of the day

To become listed in the Translators without Borders database of translators, linguists are required to submit an application at the Translators without Borders website (click on Translators>How to volunteer). Only professional translators are finally admitted. Translators are then evaluated via the automated testing platform using a series of Translators without Borders tests that the translator selects in his or her area of specialization and language combinations. A committee of three Translators without Borders translators then evaluates the tests. Once accepted, the translator’s name is registered in the Translators without Borders database of translators, and the translator is supplied with a login ID and password to gain access to the NGO requests via the TWB Translation Center. Once a translation request is fulfilled, it is uploaded to the TWB Translation Center for delivery to the NGO and pick-up. The turnaround time for projects is slightly longer, because this is pro bono work and translators are not expected to spend their entire week on a project.

There are currently 640 approved translators in the Translators without Borders database, and many more have recently submitted test translations. (See the list with photos, and query the database by language combinations and fields of specialization at the TWB Translation Center.) During the month of June 2011 alone, 319 translators were active, translating a total of 186,926 words. Among the 319 active translators, the top 10 (most active) volunteer translators averaged 6186 words of donated translation services, with jobs ranging on average approximately 1000 to 1600 words. As Gail Desautels, Translators without Borders super-superstar with 25 jobs and 16771 words to her credit during the month of June 2011, puts it:

“…translating for TWB is the redemption in my day. Not only do I get to travel to countries around the world, but I can also say at the end of the day that I have done something very worthwhile.” (Gail Desautels, from a personal email communication, August 20, 2011)

Even if pro bono work hardly pays the rent, here is how the process completes for Corinne Durand, another Translators without Borders top contributor with 4 jobs and 6795 words to her credit for the month of June 2011:

“I had often wondered how to go about bringing my personal contribution to the relentless work of NGOs. TSB/TWB has provided me with a way to do it that fits perfectly both with my personal and professional life. Indeed, I feel very privileged to be allowed to make a little difference by doing something I love.” (Corinne Durand, from a personal email communication, August 21, 2011)

In many fields

The types of NGO translation requests span such domains as legal, medical, healthcare, epidemiology, educational, and agricultural, including the following kinds of requests: translation of eyewitness or awareness reports in conflict areas; documentation for a campaign against child labor; field reports on urban violence; NGO web pages (see, for example,; instructions manual for dealing with child trauma victims; manuals for childcare of orphans developed in collaboration with local professionals; requests for micro-funding, directions for coordinating international disaster-relief teams; medical training manuals; medical information for childbirth, childcare, and first aid instructions. Projects range from one page to several hundred, with the larger projects divided among several volunteer translators so that no one is asked to translate more than 10 pages.

Translators without Borders clients include Doctors without Borders, Action Against Hunger, Zafèn, Trickle up, Oxfam, QuakeSOS, Make-a-Wish, AIDES, Handicap International, Partners in Health, Fair Start Training, Medical Aid Films, and many more. During the month of June 2011, the most active organization was Zafèn (representing 28.57% of the TWB Translation Center activity), an organization that organizes micro-financing opportunities in Haiti.

The Translators without Borders motto is “Every dollar we save for an NGO is another dollar that can be spent caring for people in the field.” At a rate of 1 million words (valued at $250,000) each year for 17 years, and the capacity for a projected 10 million words per year, with the empowerment of technology, this is indeed “changing the world, one word at a time” and is truly an impressive feat on more counts than one.

To get involved

If you want to get involved… this is the place to start. Despite moving mountains, Translators without Borders barely covers 1% of the translation needs of NGOs. As Lori Thicke has pointed out, it is not only diseases that kill. The absence of information, or misinformation, is also a major killer—for example, when mothers believe they must withhold fluids in case of diarrhea,
 when boiling milk becomes a cure for malaria, or when smoking is believed to be a cure for migraines and protection from stroke. The organization’s mission is to increase access to information through translation. As Lori puts it:

“The elephant in the access to information room is translation.” (Lori’s blog, posted May 16, 2011)

Stay tuned—because Translators without Borders has taken yet another step forward, securing funding to open, as early as February 2012, a Translation Training Center in Nairobi, in the Horn of Africa, that is designed to train healthcare translators. This center is envisioned as a pilot for future Translators without Borders training centers across the world “…wherever there is a devastating mix of extreme poverty, poor health and a non-existing translation infrastructure,” according to Simon Andriesen, Translators without Borders Board Member. This center is envisioned to fulfill some of the tremendous needs for translation in local languages: in Swahili, spoken by 5 to 10 million people as a first language and 100 million people as a second language, and in other local languages such as Maasai, Kikamba and Luo.

Similarly, stay tuned for more exponential community-building activity, linking professional service providers and the demand for services, since the pro bono TWB Translation Center has proved an extremely rigorous field test of technology and its amazing and beautiful capacity for vibrant empowerment.

Now, that’s worshipping Ganesh! **

*All statistics are courtesy of Enrique Cavalitto at

** Hindu deity—Remover of obstacles—represented as an elephant.



1. Translators without Borders (requires enrollment and registration to evaluate your credentials and capacities). This is the largest network of humanitarian translation opportunities and services. The non-profit status of the NGOs (non-government organizations) requesting translations, is verified, as well as their causes.

2. Work directly with an NGO or non-profit organization. In this case, verify the status of the requesting organization yourself with a non-profit watch organization such as Charity Navigator.

3. Regular translation agencies sometimes provide humanitarian translation services. In this case transparency is paramount and the best practice. Normally, if an agency accepts a pro bono translation project, it is the agency’s contribution and gift.

© Françoise Herrmann 2011


Drought-stricken Horn of Africa—12.4 million people affected. (UN WFP)

Famine officially declared in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda with catastrophic proportions in Mogadishu.

Water & sanitation
Even without drought 300 to 500 million people in Africa do not have access to sanitation and safe drinking water. (UN WFP)

Japan: March 2011 Earthquake and tsunami resulting in a nuclear crisis—500,000 people homeless, 20,000 perished.

Haiti: Cholera epidemic following the 2010 earthquake that claimed 250,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people. (PIH)

40 million people estimated living with HIV worldwide, with 95% in developing countries, two-thirds in sub-Saharan Africa. (PIH)

Curable lung disease killing 2 million people each year. (PIH)

Childbirth & labor
1000 women die from childbirth or the complications of labor each day: 300 in Asia and 570 in Sub-Saharan Africa. (WHO- UNICEF)

22,000 children estimated to die each day from preventable diseases. (UNICEF)

© Françoise Herrmann 2011


Many thanks for the information they have so kindly supplied for this article in a series of phone conversations: Lori Thicke (CEO Lexcelera), co-founder of TSF and TWB, located in France & Simon Andriesen (CEO of Medilingua) located in Holland, TWB Board Member in charge of Operations, and Enrique Cavalitto, Manager, located in Argentina, in charge of the ”white label” technology for the TWB Translation Center.




Translation Center

Lori Thicke Co-founder of TSF/TWB

Email Contact


  1. First of all, thanks for your blog which I’ve only recently started following but am already fully ‘dependent’ on.

    Thanks also for this specific post. I’ve registered and done tests for TWB (through the PROZ initiative described) but am still waiting for the results.

    I was told that the procedures could take long, which I quite understand, and also depend on language combinations (mine may not be ‘prioritary’ for the organisations TWB is currently working with, for example).

    I have a bit of ‘mixed feelings’ about the whole concept of humanitarian help organisations – why, oh, why can’t we attack the root cause of the problems instead of ‘patching up’ (not sure if this is the right term) their consequences?!

    But I was very happy to find out that translators have the chance to make some kind of contribution and I look forward to the chance of doing just that.

    All the best,
    Graça Ribeiro

    P.S. Thanks also for the great music 🙂


  2. Thank you for your comment. I assume you are a Brazilian translator.

    What is the root problem and what would be in your opinion the best way to attack it?


  3. […] In response to the demand for pro bono translation services worldwide… « Patenttranslator&#0… This entry was posted in Worldwide and tagged co owner, nobel peace prize, non governmental organization, northern california, phd, translators association by admin. Bookmark the permalink. […]


  4. A certain Mr. Steve Sung (Sing, Sang, or Song, the same), who names himself “wherestip,” wrote some year ago in the Chinese forum at ProZ, quoting Chairman Mao Zedong cursing, “There are some people who prostitute around and yet dare to expect a Portam Castitas erected for them!” (有些人既要当婊子又要立牌坊!)

    You see, high-end call translators would go to the ones who really need help, if they want to contribute to philanthropical activities, instead of contributing through a commercial translation workhouse. Since there are supposedly the whole world of professional translators staying at ProZ, they must have enough professionals to satisfy the demand of pro bono translation services worldwide for TWB.

    High-end call translators just don’t expect any Portam Castitas erected for them. The Portam Castitas is for the whorehouse, not for us.


  5. Dear Wenjer:

    I’m afraid I don’t really get what you are trying to say.

    I think I understand your Latin terminology via Chairman Mao, and I also think that like many translators who don’t like to work for peanuts, you really dislike Proz, but could you perhaps explain the whole thing again?


    • Dear Steve,

      It’s a long story. When I find some time, I’ll send you a mail along with some posts hidden from public view at the said portal. Some of the posts are whole pages of discussion in the moderator forum of those moderators who decided to leave the portal in 2010. It’s appalling to read those posts.

      – Wenjer

      P.S. Before I left, I posted a translation of a song sung by Вика Цыганова. Those Chinese ones who understood left along.


  6. Steve, I replied to your last post, but my reply disappeared.

    It’s all right. I write you some other time the whole story.


    • I will look for it in the spam folder.

      Sometime legitimate comments end up being trapped there.


      • Thanks, Steve.

        Here is something for your amusement:


      • How could anybody mistake 関 (seki) for 浦 (ura) is beyond me.

        I lost all respect that I used to have for Anonymous. Apparently, they know how to hack, and that’s all they know. They are not going to change this screwed up world.

        Japanese is difficult, but not that difficult!


      • Well, Steve, you don’t have to know foreign languages to run or work for a translation agency or portal. You don’t have to know foreign languages to hack around. And you can even proztitute around while getting enough blind people to erect a Portam Castitas for you. There are enough translators helping the hackers, agencies and portals.


  7. There are many people, including those connected with Doctors without borders who have written about the “humanitarian trap”. Here is a link to some information in regards Somalia:

    However, none of this should paralyze action… There is no seduction here.


  8. Dear Françoise,

    Surely, the suspection of “humanitarian trap” shall not paralyze actions. It is always good to act for a good cause. You may find out that I have joined TWB since quite a while. But there is almost no humanitarian actions in China. So, I have never been asked for help with Chinese translaion.

    In fact, I can understand why there are more humanitarian actions in Africa or Latin America and there are almost no actions in China. The poor Africa and Latin American need help, but the powerful China is not likely to let TWB help under any circumstances. It is always about power and money. ProZ can hide away posts in the forums at theirs or ban translators from theirs. The same happens when China decides to block some parts of the website ProZ. (Well, Chinese people are smart. They know how to escape the Great Firewall of China to ask questions in KudoZ. It is after all a convenient way to do translation jobs by taking answers from others than to do one’s own research.)

    Think of the story “Le procurateur de Judée” written by Anatole France, you might understand why some people get helped and some abandoned. The same good cause applies differently to different people.



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