The Emergency Lab’s First Words: Translation Cards

During our first scoping mission to fYR Macedonia late last year, the Emergency Lab identified the complexity of working in multiple languages as a key challenge. Ensuring that we share accurate information with refugees and migrants in a language they can understand is paramount for UNHCR. Interpreters who are able to provide this vital service—translating between a group of Dari speakers and Macedonian volunteers for example—are in short supply. The Emergency Lab needed to support the UNHCR operation on the ground to generate solutions that would help them to share accurate, accessible information with refugees and migrants in the language they understand.

What’s already ‘out there’?

We didn’t want to recreate the wheel, nor develop a complex solution if a simple product existed. Could putting up larger signs be our starting point? We quickly realized that this wouldn’t be the best option as refugees and migrants actively sought UNHCR staff and partners for advice and support. This observation confirmed what we already knew from previous information and communication needs assessments – that refugees’ preferred communication channel with humanitarian agencies was ‘face to face’. More signs wouldn’t necessarily lead to more people reading them, especially taking into account differing literacy levels.

We also considered online translation tools, which could be accessed through mobile phones. Accessing the internet is possible in Gevgelija, on the Southern fYR Macedonian border, but access to internet across all sites is not consistent and cannot be guaranteed. In addition, while online translation services are continuously improving – for example voice recognition for Arabic – there are still inconsistencies in translation. When we tested the translation of phrases multiple times – between Farsi and Macedonian for example – we got inconsistent translations, sometimes with unintelligible results. We needed something more stable, accurate, and simple to use, especially when sharing information on registration procedures and International Protection processes.

The Key Players

UNHCR wasn’t the only organization to have identified the translation challenge. In December, we met with Mercy Corps who were supporting volunteers from Google, and later ThoughtWorks, to develop an App called ‘Translation Cards’. The Translation Cards concept allows users to create and use simple audio and visual ‘flash cards’ so that refugees can hear a pre-translated phrase spoken aloud in their own language. Version 1.0 was being prepared and the Emergency Lab were keen to support the group by testing it out in the field. With UNHCR Protection staff in fYR Macedonia we developed sets of information (called ‘card decks’) based on the frequently asked questions from refugees and migrants. We also developed some key questions that would help field teams to determine how best to support refugees or which services to refer them too. We weren’t sure how feasible it would be to include questions in the card decks, and were keen to test how these would work in practice. The Emergency Lab had been closely collaborating with Translators without Borders on a couple of our other projects, and they were able to support with written and audio translations for the different decks. With the first deck in hand, the Emergency Lab begun field testing with refugees and migrants in fYR Macedonia in February 2016.

Field testing Translation Cards

Not speaking a word of either Arabic or Farsi, I was a perfect ‘test case’ for the field testing. Over the past couple of months, I have spent a number of days working with refugees in fYR Macedonia to test the first versions of the App. It was a great experience, to be able to sit and start simple ‘conversation’ with people who I’d only been able to indirectly communicate with beforehand. The questions worked well. People were able to respond with head and hand gestures, or by saying their name, the name of the language they spoke, or where they were from. Comprehension of the information being shared was clear as people were able to demonstrate that they’d received their documentation, or had collected a blanket or drank tea/coffee. The UNHCR team in fYR Macedonia told us that the real benefit of the App was having confidence in the information that they were sharing, knowing that the information had been professionally translated.

Creating Connections

As we wanted a better understanding of the ‘user experience’ from the perspective of refugees, we conducted a number of interviews with them to see how they perceived the App. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive—children gathered around the tablet and all wanted the opportunity to answer questions and listen to information. We were told that the information being shared was ‘very helpful’ and ‘very practical’ and answered key questions. One man from Afghanistan told me that it was the first time he felt ‘connected to the humanitarians’. People also shared recommendations which included making the translations less formal and more conversational in style. We’ve started to develop some more decks with common greetings and are working on ‘child-friendly’ sets too.

Without speaking a word of Farsi, it was a great experience to have a ‘conversation’ with someone using this App — and especially when they said they felt ‘connected’.

Next Steps

On the ground, UNHCR staff are currently working to further roll-out the use of the App and we are supporting partners in fYR Macedonia to develop their own ‘card decks’. The latest version of the App is now available here on the Google Play Store – for free download – with a basic card deck which includes greetings, questions, and information.

Having seen the positive impact in fYR Macedonia, the Emergency Lab definitely recommends Translation Cards for those facing similar translation challenges who would like to ‘follow suit’. We will continue to work with Mercy Corps, Google, ThoughtWorks and Translators without Borders on the ongoing development–and will keep this blog updated.


We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at

If you’d like to repost this article on your website, please see our reposting policy.