Skip to main content
All CollectionsCase studies
Language support for two-way communication in Cox’s Bazar during COVID-19
Language support for two-way communication in Cox’s Bazar during COVID-19

A case study from Translators without Borders

Guest author avatar
Written by Guest author
Updated over a week ago

Country and region: Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Point person and Role: FanMan Tsang, (former) Programme Director for TWB‘s Rohingya refugee response and Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for TWB’s Global Crisis Response Programme

Population served by the programme: approximately 700,000 Rohingya refugees and surrounding host communities via direct support to over 40 organisations serving them.

Unique characteristics of the setting: The Rohingya language is an oral language without a standardized written from, and the only language that all Rohingya refugees understand. It is closely related to the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali, the primary oral language spoken by host communities in Cox’s Bazar. Although Rohingya speakers estimate that there is around a 70% similarity between Chittagonian and Rohingya, technical language and medical terms are different in the two languages. The use of Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh, is forbidden in the camps. Although we identified Burmese as the most effective written language to use, after Rohingya, literacy levels still pose issues. In 2017, 73% of Rohingya refugees self-identified as being illiterate. A detailed assessment of language dynamics in the Rohingya refugee response can be visualised here.

Number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19: 212 cases and 8 deaths among Rohingya refugees, 4376 cases and 68 deaths in host communities as of September 20th, 2020. Within Bangladesh more broadly there are 362,043 cases and 5,219 deaths to date.

Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders

Briefly describe the key components of your COVID-19 project.

Translators without Borders (TWB) is active in the COVID-19 response in the Cox’s Bazar Rohingya refugee camps as a member of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability.

We are funded to support responding agencies and implementing partners in building language awareness and capacity, creating and sharing communication contents, translating key words and messages, training programme staff and interpreters, developing feedback mechanisms, tracking rumours and misconceptions circulating in the camps and ensuring community concerns and challenges are brought to the attention of our partners.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our work in the Cox’s Bazar context has encompassed three main activities:

1. Translations of key words and communication materials for responding agencies: Risk Communication and Community Engagement has been a key pillar of most COVID-19 responses. As a Common Service for other organisations creating and sharing communication messages, we have been involved in refining COVID-19-related terminology. This has involved translating technical words which had no direct translation in Rohingya such as “virus”. We have also supported partner organisations in translating several Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials which are then distributed in the refugee camps. This has helped to ensure the quality, relevance and coherence of all messages.

2. Development of the TWB Glossary for COVID-19: This glossary is a multilingual, plain-language word index of key COVID-19 terminology. To date, 190 terms have been translated in 30 languages. We have designed our glossary to be an accurate language resource for all COVID-19 responders and to support the fieldworkers and interpreters who are engaging with communities on COVID-19. For the Rohingya language, each COVID-19 term in the glossary is provided using the Latin alphabet to help users understand the correct pronunciation. Thanks to the built-in audio feature, users can also click on the word they need to translate to hear a native speaker saying the word in Rohingya, Bengali and Burmese. In the COVID-19 response for Rohingya refugees, the glossary has been used to identify the appropriate terminology, standardise communication messages, and directly communicate with Rohingya refugees using words they understand. We have recently launched a low-data version of our glossary to ease its use among implementers with limited connection. This version also includes pre-recorded oral translations, as verbal communication is the most effective way to engage with most refugees.

Snapshot of the TWB Glossary for COVID-19 terminology

3. Production of research findings and sharing feedback from Rohingya refugees: A key part of our work is researching language in relation to people's socio-linguistic and anthropological contexts, as well as continuously engaging with communities to understand information gaps, priorities, concerns and communication preferences. We share all research findings with operational partners with the goal of developing tailored responses which address local needs and provide timely and relevant information. In the Cox’s Bazar context, we are conducting a series of key informant interviews in cycles of 2–3 weeks and regularly publishing “What Matters?” bulletins to provide a snapshot of feedback received from Rohingya populations and host communities.

What process did you use when designing your COVID-19 response programme?

We have been working with Rohingya refugees and host communities since the onset of the crisis in 2017. Since then, we have been building up our expertise in the Rohingya language and our capacity to support operational partners in understanding the context and developing effective communication materials and community engagement strategies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for information to be available in a language that Rohingya refugees can understand. While working in the camps have been restricted to operational partners, we have been able to rely on our existing network of local and religious leaders and Rohingya enumerators to design and tailor our COVID-19 response.

We first assessed what refugees and host communities already knew about COVID-19 and how they would talk about it in their language, using phone-based interviews with a random sample of 50 community leaders and enumerators. These initial interviews allowed us to identify gaps in the existing Rohingya terminology – especially for technical medical terms – as well as key information gaps, misconceptions, and concerns of the wider Rohingya community.

We then began an iterative process of discussing with refugee representatives, refining and translating COVID-19 terminology in Rohingya, and pilot-testing all words and concepts with members of our network. Approved terminology and translations were added to our TWB Glossary for COVID-19 and produced in an oral format to be used by operational partners.

We have also played a key role in training programme staff within partner organisations to use the translated terminology correctly while communicating about COVID-19. Many fieldworkers often use Chittagonian when talking to Rohingya communities, leading to misunderstandings or confusion among refugees. We developed two online training sessions comprising small workshops, role-plays and slide shows. These sessions aimed to increase the language capacity of fieldworkers and promote the use of our glossary. To date, we have provided this training to staff of more than 40 organisations working in the Cox’s Bazar context.

TWB’s trainer facilitates an online session on language for staff members of partner organisations.

What is one thing that has been working really well so far and is there something other programmes could learn from this?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic required rapid action, we have seen the value in allocating time to developing a detailed understanding of the contextual use of language. Having coherent, systematic and relevant terminology is key to avoid confusion, misconceptions and rumours, and to build trusted relationships with communities. This is especially important in the Rohingya context where the language is oral and does not have existing terms to describe most technical and medical terms, such as “virus”, “isolation” or “ventilation”. Persuading our partners to pay attention to language and use certain terms has sometimes been a challenging task, but positive feedback from Rohingya refugees, especially on their understanding of key terms and messages, has confirmed the importance of following an iterative design and implementation processes for better communication and community engagement - even if this process takes time.

What is one challenge that you have encountered and how are you trying to overcome this?

Getting agreement across all of the organisations working in Cox’s Bazar on aspects of Risk Communication and Community Engagement has been challenging. Initially this was because some implementing partners were not invited to the Risk Communication and Coordination meetings. This resulted in many organisations wanting to use their communication materials without discussing their translations or COVID-19 terminology. This also meant that in the early stages of the response, some voices were not heard and it was more challenging to share learnings or difficulties. This impeded TWB’s capacity to provide timely, relevant and coordinated support.

As a third-party organisation providing Humanitarian to Humanitarian services, we had the opportunity to push and advocate for more inclusivity on the coordination side of the response. In collaboration with BBC Media Action, we have successfully advocated for the inclusion of all implementing partners in the Risk Communication and Coordination meetings. This has helped to build new momentum around information sharing and led to the development of a better coordinated response.

How have you been engaging communities throughout your programme and what feedback have you received?

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing the camps to gather feedback from refugees and host communities was easier. Currently, we are relying on feedback provided by health and hygiene workers as well as regular phone-based interviews with our network of community leaders across the camps. Interviews and reports from staff within other organisations have been useful in helping us to provide tailored answers to people's questions.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when approximately 80% of humanitarian staff left Cox’s Bazar, refugees were more concerned about food procurement, loss of financial resources and the monsoon than the virus or the pandemic, for which they sometimes did not even have the words to talk about. Our work was therefore mostly concerned with raising awareness about the virus and the disease and identifying adequate COVID-19 terminology. As the pandemic evolved, community leaders reported a better understanding of the terminology among refugees and that oral announcements via speakers was the most trusted method of communication. We have therefore tried to prioritise oral translations when communicating with refugees and the use of TWB’s Glossary for COVID-19.

Our latest key informant interviews continue to highlight remaining information gaps and outstanding questions, encouraging us to pursue on-going research activities and collation of feedback. Our glossary has also received a very positive response from users. Since March 2020, the glossary has been accessed by more than 1000 unique users.

Did this answer your question?