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MediLingua CEO applies translation knowledge to help increase medical access in Africa

news-releasesMediLingua Medical Translations B.V.
September 22nd 2014

Leiden, Netherlands: -Simon Andriesen, founder and CEO of the Netherlands-based medical translation and writing specialists MediLingua, says his collaboration with the not-for-profit organization Translators Without Borders (TWB) in Kenya is making a real difference on the ground.

Andriesen, who is a board member of TWB, has been working pro bono for the past few years with the organization in Nairobi, helping to create a new translation infrastructure to bring access to medical advice and understanding to millions of non-English speaking Kenyans.

“On the TWB website, we have an automated counter that shows the number of words we have translated for free, using volunteer-translators for dozens of language combinations. That counter has now passed 20 million words, with a ‘street value’ in Europe of around 4 million Euros and rising,” said Andriesen.

“The content of those words is much more important than the monetary value. What they do is to open up access to vital information for many of the 5 billion people in the world who do not speak English.”

New translation teams

Andriesen and fellow TWB volunteers have been working to recruit and train a new generation of Kenyans to translate medical information from English into Swahili, the language most widely spoken in Kenya and neighboring countries, and for which there are hardly any translators around. This work requires much more than language skills.

“The whole point about medical translation is that it requires the translator to possess understanding of life sciences concepts and terminology as well. This is a specialist discipline,” Andriesen reflected.

“For example, it is common for medical and scientific errors to be caused in translation by lay reviewers who struggle to make the original text clear and readable and try to overcome the problem by adding or removing words, unintentionally changing the original meaning with potentially disastrous results for patient safety,” he warned.

Simon Andriesen first became involved with TWB in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

“Lori Thicke, TWB’s founder, called me the day after. TWB had received hundreds of test translations from volunteer translators who wanted to contribute and she asked for MediLingua’s support in reviewing them, as most of these were medical. One thing led to another and I was invited to join the Board, focusing first on Operations, and later redirecting my focus to Training. It is a lot of work and I am constantly amazed by the dedication of the directors, and the amount of time they put into it,” said Andriesen.

Leading language campus

The TWB translation center is based in Nairobi, co-located with the Bible Translation and Literacy (BTL) organisation.

“Our campus represents possibly the largest concentration of language experts in Africa,” says Simon Andriesen.

“Together, with the SIL organization, that develops the Ethnologue (a database listing and describing all 7,000 current world languages, we have around 75 people, all professionally involved in translation, linguistics, or language research, which makes this a really exciting and stimulating environment for our TWB team,” he comments.

So far, more than 125 trainees have completed our one-week introduction to translation, with at least 30 progressing to the six-week advanced course.

“All of the translators and editors who currently work in our center have followed the advanced course, and have been with us for between 12 and 24 months,” notes Andriesen.

Special projects

“We have spent most of our time working on health, education and crisis translation projects, including training materials for community health workers, medical articles from Wikipedia, repair instruction manuals for water pumps, books for very young children, subtitles and voice-overs for health videos,” said Andriesen.

“During the summer we began translating a library of messages and text segments on a variety of topics prepared for distribution during crises as part of our Words of Relief special project,” he reported.

“The TWB center will soon start training new people to become translators for a range of 12 different Kenyan languages, trained to use translation memory tools and to learn specific requirements for the translation of the message library. These trainees will be members of the Words of Relief ‘spider’ network we are building of people who will be translating into their local languages in times of crisis,” Mr. Andriesen added.

He paid tribute to MediLingua’s generosity in allowing him to take an extended sabbatical leave in order to get the project established.

Lessons of Ebola

“Over the past two years we have built up contacts with more NGOs who are interested in the language support we can provide. Many of these organizations tell us we are the area’s best-kept secret when it comes to translation,” said Andriesen.

“I can understand that: In Africa it is hard to find a dozen trained translators in one office, with computers, internet access, and translation tools, who can translate health and technical information and who are prepared to drop everything to translate crisis documents when disease, war, tsunami, earthquake or famine strikes.”

“The Ebola crisis in West Africa has shown how important infrastructure, knowledge and communication become when disaster threatens non-English speaking communities,” Andriesen said.

Mr. Andriesen said TWB was still looking for more translators, project managers, graphic or web page designers, fundraising specialists and database managers gurus and urged “anyone with skills and energy to offer to a really wonderful project” to contact the organization at

About Translators Without Borders

Traducteurs sans Frontières (TSF) was founded in 1993 by Lori Thicke and Ros Smith-Thomas to link the world’s translators to vetted NGOs that focus on health, nutrition and education.

TSF’s American sister non-profit organization, Translators without Borders (TWB), is also a volunteer organization run by an eight-strong board of directors, which assists in translating more than two million words per year for NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Médecins du Monde, Action Against Hunger, Oxfam US and Handicap International.

The organization’s mission is to increase access to knowledge through humanitarian translations. By developing an open digital platform and establishing organizational structure, Translators Without Borders hopes to increase that number to 10 million words or more every year.

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About MediLingua

MediLingua Medical Translations B.V. is a company based in Leiden, Netherlands, that specializes in medical and healthcare translations from and into all European languages as well as several non-European languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Swahili and many others.

The company has over 30 years of translation business expertise and translation teams based in over 40 target language countries. The teams combine medical and linguistic skills to offer specialist services to pharmaceutical and life sciences organizations that include translation and generation of compliant registration dossiers for medicines, packaging texts, patient information, text books and scientific publications.

MediLingua also offers source text editing, expert review, in-country validation, cognitive debriefing, use testing, back translation and readability testing services.

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