Tackling the pandemic through translation

Tackling the pandemic through translation

Just over a year ago, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic. Individuals and countries around the world started to face what emerged as an extreme shortage of supplies and equipment to address the outbreak. Articles such as masks, gloves, ventilators, and other medical supplies were running out fast, leaving health professionals unable to meet the needs of the skyrocketing number of patients who needed treatment.

To respond to this problem, maker communities – do-it-yourself enthusiasts who fabricate mostly tech and electronic devices – launched Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS) in March of 2020. The project brought together a global network of makers, medical professionals, community organizers, and others to provide information, guidance, exact instructions, and support for building precisely those supplies needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. It soon became clear that this group was providing an absolutely vital source of information needed by communities around the world.  

While OSMS was starting to meet a crucial need, another issue quickly emerged: language.  The information they were producing was in English, and in order to reach maker communities world-wide, it needed to be translated into a daunting number of languages. OSMS put out a call for volunteer translators, and initially got responses from over 800 people. OSMS was overwhelmed. Realizing they needed expert help, in May they learned about and reached out to Translation Commons.

Since then, 186 vetted and qualified volunteers – language professionals, both those beginning their careers and seasoned veterans – have provided translations from the original English into at least 15 languages. Over 40 instructional documents have been or are being translated, including open-source designs for supplies such as protective gear, ventilators, hand sanitizers, home care management advice for people infected with COVID-19, and back-to-school guides. Aside from the instructional documents, the OSMS website is also being localized into Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, and French, and the goal is to have it localized into all six official United Nations languages.


“We brought to our partnership the professionalism of the language industry, and the expertise of having worked with big projects. We knew what to do”, says TC Founder Jeanette Stewart. TC offered all the aspects of project management: onboarding and interviewing the volunteers; creating processes, documents and best practices; coordinating translators, reviewers, and project managers; and training everyone involved to use a computer aided translation (CAT) tool, donated by Wordbee. “That’s what TC brought to this project: the manpower, the knowledge and the know-how to make things happen”, Silvia Pinheiro, TC Localization Program Manager, summarizes.

The beginning was a little rough. Project managers had to explain to their OSMS contacts features of the CAT tool at the same time that they were learning it. A lot of documentation was needed right away to support the  volunteers. Translations needed to be reviewed for formatting and terminology. Participants coordinated across multiple time zones. Pia Christensen, also a TC Localization Program Manager, compares it to a full-time job. “I think we all put in about 40 hours a week in the beginning. We were in the middle of COVID, we thought, we have to move now to get as much done as possible”. Now, eight months later, the workflow has become easier. “I think things are flowing much better. We have a lot of processes in place”, Silvia describes.

Through all of it, volunteer engagement was great. “The translators were really good to work with, they were happy to help. We got the ball rolling really fast”, says Pia. There have been ups and downs, naturally. Both program managers recognize it can be hard to keep volunteers motivated compared to paid staff or freelancers. Especially after infection cases started dropping in most countries, local restrictions were relaxed, and the first versions of documents were completed, some translators were less active. On the other hand, “there are individuals that have almost single-handedly translated all the documents for their language, and they’re always ready to do more”, Silvia points out.

For Pia, “our job as a manager is to motivate the volunteers. A lot of my time is meeting them, keeping them motivated and feeling that they’re still helping out and that we still need that help. And thanking them as much as we can”. As a recognition of their effort, both TC and OSMS have dedicated webpages featuring volunteers’ names, along with photos and links to their personal pages.


By the end of 2020, at least 42,000 people in 86 countries had worked to produce over 48 million units of medical supplies, with an estimated market value of over $271M. These supplies have been distributed to medical professionals, healthcare facilities, organizations serving under-resourced communities, essential workers, schools, and others. These staggering statistics only add to the pride and satisfaction that TC has had in partnering with OSMS.

Even with some initial workflow challenges, the partnership with OSMS has been rewarding. “I’ve been learning a lot. It’s in the field that I want to work in, so it’s been a great experience to grow and also to learn how to deal with people”, says Silvia. She also believes that the project is important “because of the issue we are trying to solve, which is lack of information and an abundance of misinformation”. Pia also feels proud of being a part of it. She mentions that friends have used the Home Care and Back-to-School guides in their communities. “It’s about helping in any way you can”. As Silvia puts it: “language is the most important thing that you have. If you don’t have information in your language, you’re left out”. 

TC extends a heartfelt thank-you to every person involved in this timely and far-reaching project, and hopes that the benefits may continue to extend to many communities, far beyond expectation.


Dayana Hashim

Dayana is a content writer and translator at Translation Commons. She is also a professional English and Brazilian Portuguese translator with experience in English teaching and an academic background in Journalism. Sharing knowledge is one of her passions.

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