In 2010, when the earthquake devastated Haiti, Traducteurs sans frontières was already 17 years old. I had founded the non-profit in Paris in 1993 with my partner, Ros Smith-Thomas. That came about one day when Medecins sans frontières, or Doctors without Borders (MSF), asked my company, Lexcelera, to quote on a translation project. Ros and I talked about it, and we decided to donate the translation instead so that they could put the money they saved into caring for people. That day, Traducteurs sans frontières was born.
For 17 years we grew through dedicated volunteers all over the world, and were able to help not just MSF but other humanitarian organizations. Over the years, volunteer translators donated around $2 million worth of translation services to help global aid work.
Then the crisis hit Haiti. Some of the non-profits we served – like MSF, and Action Against Hunger – had already been on the ground in Haiti, and their need for translation in the first few hours and weeks quickly swamped Traducteurs sans frontières. They needed to get the messages out to the world where people were still buried, and where survivors were in need of food, water, shelter and medical aid.
To my shame, we couldn’t keep up.
That’s when I realized that we needed to scale to become a larger, more sustainable, organization – one that could react quickly in the event of another catastrophe.
In order for us to become a better organization, I asked some of the most well-known people in the translation industry, people who led companies or were executives in large enterprises, to help us grow by being on our Board of Directors. I convinced them to join us by promising it wouldn’t take very much of their time. (How wrong I was on that count!)
I asked people like Henry Dotterer, Ulrich Henes, Andrew Bredenkamp, Françoise Henderson, Renato Beninatto, Iris Orriss, Daniel Goldschmidt, Sergio Pelino, Paula Shannon, Ghassan Haddad, Rebecca Petras, Salvo Giammarresi, Donna Parish, Val Swisher, Michael Smolens, Nico Posner and Simon Andriesen.
Later on, I added Gary Muddyman, Dorothee Racette, Shelly Priebe, Diane Wagner, Robert Etches, Adelaida Maidagan, Arturo Quintero, Pablo Vasquez, Don dePalma and more as official and non-official advisors. They were joined by many other volunteers, too many to mention but including Scott Abel, Gary Lefman, Rocio Haskell, Ildiko Santana, Markus Meisl, Serene Poon, Anna Harju, Marina Sayfulina, Kalinka Hristova, Dominic Spurling, Josefina Zubillaga … I could go on and on.
Those were the people who had skills I didn’t have. Skills that were needed to grow our organization so we could help more.
I don’t mean to be self-deprecating, but what I’m good at is seeing a problem and formulating a vision of how we might solve it. But as Haiti taught me, when there’s a disaster, you need more than a vision: you need a rock solid organization that can respond to the need, no matter how great.
So in 2010 the Board and I founded Translators without Borders as a registered 501 c 3 charity based in the United States. And we grew. Thanks to our sponsors from the language industry and to thousands of professional volunteers, as of today we have donated over 21 million words to other charitable organizations. With the donations from translation companies we were also able to hire Rebecca Petras as Program Director to manage our growth and our charity work. (Today Rebecca is still our only paid employee outside Kenya.)
Along the way, the Board composition changed. That “minor” time commitment I had used to convince the Board to join me was not the reality: the hours were getting longer, and it was sometimes hard to balance the needs of TWB with work demands. Some of our Board members became Advisors instead, leaving us with a smaller Board that had to be very hands on.
With Rebecca and our new Board, we grew to take on more projects, starting a translator training centre in Nairobi, winning a grant from Microsoft to develop a program to link up translators to disaster relief teams, subtitling health videos for pregnant women in India, translating Ebola information for people in West Africa and much much more. This is all work I’m extremely proud of. But the need is greater still.
That’s why I had to step down.
As President of this Board, I was raising awareness of how translation saves lives, but I wasn’t contributing as much to shore up our organization and make it ready to meet needs around the world. With as many as 3 billion people unable to access information because it’s in the wrong language, the challenge is huge.
I can see what kind of organization we have to become, but I can’t necessarily get us there.
Today, I’m relieved to say that TWB has a new Chair who will help build that organization. Andrew Bredenkamp will take over that role, with support of the rest of the Board, myself included.
Our current Board is small, and hardworking, and they will have to work even harder now as we shore up our structure. Salvo Giamarresi has been leading this governance work, and Donna Parish is not only our Secretary but also our Chief of Staff. Edith Boehler keeps our finances in order as Treasurer. Val Swisher leads our English simplification efforts. Simon Andriesen manages our translators’ training centre in Nairobi. Enrique Cavalitto manages everything to do with our day to day work on the translation platform, donated to us by ProZ.com. Everyone volunteers their time, selflessly.
Speaking of giving selflessly, I can say the same for the almost 3000 translators around the world, vetted, talented professionals who somehow find extra hours in the day, in addition to their regular jobs, to volunteer their time. Some people give money to worthy causes: the volunteers who can say “I’m a translator without borders” are giving of themselves, their time and their expertise, to help make this world a better place.
I want to help as well, which is why I’m stepping down as President – though I will stay on the Board if they will have me. I love the work we do. It’s what gets me up in the morning, the idea that in some small way we are making the world a better place by using skills and knowledge that only people in the language industry possess. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to appreciate why translation is important. And that’s part of our work, too, to tell them.
I have already spent 21 years of my life working as a volunteer for Translators without Borders. I certainly don’t intend to stop now. I’m pretty sure that this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
I’m just glad we have a strong Board, and a new Chair, an amazingly dedicated community of volunteers, and industry sponsorship so that we can continue to build an organization to be proud of.