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Unbabel Podcast: Lori Thicke and the language last mile

At 27, Lori Thicke moved to Paris with one goal in mind — to write the great Canadian novel. But life had other plans in store for her and the novel was put on hold.

Instead, Lori founded a global translation business — Lexcelera — and, after crossing paths with Doctors without Borders, went on to creating the world’s biggest translation NGO.

At Translators without Borders, Lori has done it all, from sitting behind a computer screen to travelling to Kenya to work with translators and interpreters in the field. What started out as a small project eventually grew to a network of over 30.000 volunteers in 180 different countries. All thanks to one woman’s belief in the power of language.

In the second episode of the Unbabel Podcast, we asked Lori about her 20-year long career in the translation business, what sparked her interest in languages and the life events that shaped both her humanitarian and entrepreneurial mindsets.

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The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Fernando: Hi Lori. Welcome. It’s great to have you. Thank you so much for joining us. I’d like to start by talking about Translators without Borders. And I would like you to take us to the moment when you decided to create a nonprofit organization to provide free translation.

Lori:  First of all, thank you so much for inviting me. I’m really excited to do this podcast with you. And also it’s something I’m super passionate about, so it’s a great day today. And I also love telling the story of how Translators without Borders was formed, because it was just one of those fortuitous things. I had meant my entire life, like many people, I think, to do volunteer work. And I always meant to. But you know, I got, first of all, I was busy at university and then I moved to France and I started a business, and then I had a son, and there’s always an excuse. And I, I was realizing that meaning to volunteer wasn’t the same as really volunteering, but I still wasn’t doing it. And then one day, doctors without borders, Médecins sans Frontières, that fantastic organization knocked on our door, so to speak, and asked my translation company for a bid, to bid on a translation project for them.

And all of a sudden it just was like the stars were aligning. And I thought, well, if I don’t charge you for this, then what happens? Can you use the money elsewhere? They said, we can, we have a lean organization. This was just before they won the Nobel peace prize and they said they could use the money elsewhere. And so that’s how Translators without Borders started helping nonprofits do more. And that’s what Translators without Borders does today.

Fernando: So that first project, this is how you, the project kind of picked you, but then when you started scaling this, how do you choose the projects that you accept to do, the causes that you support? How does that process work? 

Lori: If we’re going to talk about the scaling, I have to go back a little bit. So between 1993, believe it or not, it was that long ago, and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, my office did all the volunteer management, the translators did all the volunteer translation, and it was a small organization, even if we were doing a million words a year. Then the Haiti earthquake happened and because a lot of our nonprofits were very much involved in Haiti, like Doctors without Borders, Action against Hunger, for example, the needs just exploded and I realized we needed to scale and we needed it to scale beyond managing it on a volunteer basis in my office. So I found a board of directors who helped me scale the organization. And that’s when we really started kicking off in 2010.

Fernando: So as you’ve mentioned, I guess the work is not always done sitting behind the screen in the comfort of your home. You have people that work in the field in crisis situations. Can you tell me a little bit more, how does that work when you go on the ground?

Lori: Oh, Translators without Borders has really changed, that happened when we realized the importance of local languages. So yeah, we were sitting behind a desk when we were supporting nonprofits with main world languages, which we still do today, so yeah, a lot of that is behind the screen, a typical translator activity. In fact, the translators are amazing. I have some friends who also translate for Translators without Borders, who will put in a day of work and then go home and translate for Translators without Borders. But after Haiti, I thought, you know, it’s not these, um, European languages that are really reaching the vulnerable people. I thought, how could that be that we don’t really have that on the nonprofit, you know, the humanitarian radar about local languages. So I went to Africa to look into that. And I was just astonished by how little access people had to information when it was in a major world language like, like English or French and not in their language.

So now to answer your question, and I could talk about local languages all day, but to answer, you know, to focus and answer your question. The truth is that we’ve discovered a real need for local languages. So there’s a need for main languages to support nonprofit work, but there’s also a really big need and that’s where we need to go into the field. That’s where we support translators and train them, and interpreters as well in the field.

For example, in working in Nigeria, the democratic Republic of Congo to extremely dangerous areas, and I’m really proud of the team that they go there and they do do the training. They do do the work with the Rohingya, also in refugee camps working with them, opening up access to knowledge and their language is super important.

Fernando: So the translators, in Translators without Borders, who are these people? What kind of people are volunteering and can anyone offer their translation service to you? How do you screen that? 

Lori: There are 30,000 volunteers today, as we speak, not everybody’s working everyday. So I think we’d cover 180 countries and 200 language pairs. They may be students, working translators, retired translators, there’s a lot of different profiles, but there’s also translators we’ve trained, interpreters we’ve trained, who maybe came from a different field, maybe were doctors or engineers and just wanted to help their country.

So they’ve made it out. They’ve got an education and they want to give back to the people in their community.

Fernando: That’s great. So Translators without Borders on their website mentioned 83 million words translated so far. Besides this impressive metric, how do you really measure the impact that Translators without Borders had?

Lori: Oh, I love that question. So there are a few different ways. I think that’s a great metric. It’s not the only one. We have a Wikipidia project, for example, we’d call it Wiki medicine that translates medical articles. And we’ve seen that 120 million people have accessed those articles, which is super significant because there’s such a dearth of language.

I mean, we can access anything we want in our languages, but there’s a real dearth of of information in a lot of local languages. And with Ebola that there was some major measurement going on there, and I also personally participated in some measurement in Kenya. You know, the frontline of any health crisis, in say most countries of Africa, are the health workers, the community health workers. So we measured Ebola information and you know, that was a problem of information as much as a problem of the disease. So we measured the understanding of the healthcare workers, the frontline health people when they were trained on Ebola prevention in English, the Ebola prevention was 60% understanding and in their own language it was like 90% understanding, and that’s hugely significant.

Fernando: So you really cared about measuring the impact, I understand now from your answer, because it’s important to you to understand what is working and what’s the impact that it’s bringing.

Lori: Yeah. And it’s hard to do, you know, it’s not like when you give money. Umm, like, I also have a project where I help orphans in Kenya, in a village in Kenya.

So you can see that’s really tangible. The kids go to school, they literally get a little fatter, and that’s their grandmothers have food in the house. So things like that happen that are really tangible, but us, in the language industry, it’s so not tangible that I think we have to work super hard, but also to feel a sense, all of us need to feel the sense of that what we’re doing is helping and is making a difference.

Fernando: Obviously, you’re very passionate about this subject. You dedicated 20 years of your life to leading Translators without Borders, and then you decided to step down. So what led you into that decision?

Lori: Well, Translators without Borders is not the kind of thing that should be managed part-time. In my free time, I couldn’t be nearly as effective as the management team is now, and they are, they just, they’ve really taken it quite a lot bigger than I could.

Fernando: How did you see the world change in that time? Are we getting closer to universal understanding?

Lori: Are we getting close?

I think we’re very, very, very far. I know that’s not the answer that I wish I was giving, but I do think we’re very, very far because three fifths of the world’s population can’t access the knowledge they need to live healthy lives, to take care of their children, to develop new technologies that can make their lives better too, fight poverty, to fight disease. And that is just so wrong. We talk about, this is the information age, but in fact, there’s this language last mile.

You know, we talked about the digital last mile. So people have digital access to the whole of the world through the internet, but they still have to get it to their home, so that’s the digital last mile. Well, we had this language last mile, where all the information in the world practically is available on the internet, but if you’re stuffed by the language last mile, you can’t get it into your head.

So it can’t help you this so-called information revolution, the information age, people can’t access the basic information they need if it’s not in their language.

And, well, while Translators without Borders supports humanitarian organizations around the world, boy, it would be so great if people were less vulnerable, if there was less poverty, if there were less need for humanitarian aid because they can actually access the same information we can, whether it’s to build something, to make an advance in science, to protect ourselves against completely preventable diseases that people shouldn’t be dying from. To eat healthily, to know so much that we, that we know, and language is the barrier to that.

Fernando: I love that, that concept of the language last mile, because I think that’s the premise that led to Unbabel being created. So there’s so much information out there, but then if it’s not in your language, you cannot really access it unless you have a way to translate everything, which is Unbabel’s vision of the future. So I love that.

Lori: Oh, definitely. So my vision for a long time has been that we need technology and the crowd to deal with that, but that means the technology to let the crowd in whatever country, whether it’s in Uganda or India, for the crowd to translate their own information and we need a place for it to be able to live on the web. Wikipedia has that, but there’s so much other content that could be translated, it needs the technology. People need to be trained as well. They need access to the tools. 

Fernando: It looks like we are still far, as you said, from universal understanding, but we know the way there and we will get there.

Lori: I love that vision. I love that picture. And then I hope you’re right.

Fernando: You said you had a love for your language, English in this case, and on your website there’s a tagline that says, “Speak to me in my language”. What’s the meaning of this statement? Is a person’s language and, uh, the right to being spoken in their own language a universal right?

Lori: Oh, it should be. It really should be. Because I, again, I, I mean, you know, obviously my heart is with humanitarian work, but I’ve also been really frustrated too, because until Translators without Borders started really advocating and raising awareness, mostly humanitarian work would be delivered in English or French or Spanish or Portuguese, whatever the quote unquote official language of the country where they’re giving aid is. And the thing is marginalized, poor rural person is so unlikely to speak a European language.

So how is that helpful? To have a poster telling you not to, how not to get HIV, how not to get Cholera, how not now, how not to get Ebola or Coronavirus, how not to get those diseases and many more when it’s not even in their language?

So yes, speak to me in my language. I need to understand what you’re saying. 

Fernando: Without even going to those smaller countries in the United States, there are currently movements that are pushing for English to be the official language of the United States and maybe making it harder for people that speak other languages like Spanish, that millions of people are speaking, to have access to the information in their language. What is your view on this movement to make English the official language of the U.S.?

Lori: I think it would be a lot more easily justified if the U.S. wasn’t an immigrant country in the first place. If you want to speak the native language of the U.S., it’s not English.

Fernando: So when you say native language of the U.S., which has obviously existed before English was spoken in the U.S., are those languages alive today? Are there many?

Lori: Once I started looking at these new eyes, these new language eyes at what’s going on, I went back to my home province of British Columbia and Canada. British Columbia had the richest, most diverse, probably in all of North America, collection of local languages, spoken by the local people.

There were 32 indigenous languages, most of them not from the same family group. So it’s, it’s really quite diverse. But what happened was, in order to get rid of the culture, I think they, I think their goal was to quote unquote, “take the Indian out of the Indian”. So in order to get rid of the culture, they had to get rid of the languages.

People in Canada and Australia and the United States, were literally punished for speaking their languages. And those languages have been all but all but killed. And there’s been some really interesting research being done because there is a little bit of a resurgence, at least in my province of British Columbia and people wanting to reclaim their languages.

There was some research done from the university of British Columbia I believe, that found out that those villages that were reclaiming their languages, the young people were six times less likely to commit suicide.

And what that says to me is how important language is for our confidence, our sense of self, our sense of identity, our sense of belonging to our culture. Think of how many Wars are fought so people can speak their language.

Fernando: So you clearly believe that it is important to preserve languages that are dying. It’s more than the language that, that you are saving by preserving them, right?

Lori: Yes, absolutely. There are certain words and certain concepts that are only available in one language and not in another, and that’s a richness and a certain kind of knowledge that’s kept, that’s preserved in one language. For example, again, in British Columbia, what we call a trout, they called salmon in their language, and it took a long time for geneticists just recently to find out that was actually salmon. It’s, it’s actually a salmon. It’s a lot of trout, and that knowledge was contained in the language, but it’s more than that. It’s, it’s sure, it would be way easier when I’ve talked about access to knowledge.

It would be way easier if we all spoke the same language, but the truth is it’s not only a richness of the culture, it’s people’s identity and confidence and how they see the world, we can’t take that away. 

Fernando: You mentioned certain languages have words that are untranslatable, and if you lose the language, we lose the meaning of that. Portuguese have a  favorite one, which is “saudade”. That is not translatable in almost any other language. Do you have any favorites in any language, a word that is not translatable?

Lori: Just, I mean, it’s not my favorite, but it’s one that I’ve noticed cause I live in France. I’ve lived here for a long time. I noticed that the fact that they have no word for overachiever, means there’s no concept of overachiever. You know what I mean? There’s no way to describe, I mean, I know a doctor who’s an Olympian who’s, uh, written a book and I can’t remember what else. There’s no way to describe her. So that comes with concept and the words come with the concept. 

Fernando: Okay, so going in the complete opposite direction, the quest to have one universal language and that would break down language barriers, right? Is this something that humans can ever do? Create one language and is this something that we should be trying to do?

Lori: I don’t think so. Cause we will fight to preserve our language. Imagine if it’s the universal language is not one of ours. It’s not ours. Not even one of ours. It’s not our language. We’d fight to the death. So the only way that would work is if there is an authoritarian government that literally punishes people for speaking their own language.

Fernando: Yeah. I guess if you went with the most spoken in the world, it would be Mandarin, so I would not speak it. 

Lori: It would take generations, and that’s the problem. Even people understanding a bit of French, a bit of Portuguese, for example, and reading really important literature about science or technology. Even if they have notions of those languages, they’re still going to miss so much.

It would take generations to get that kind of fluency of understanding back.

Fernando: Yeah. So assuming we do keep our different languages, but we want to understand and to be understood, how do you see the role of machine translation in the future of translation? 

Lori: People aren’t going to like this answer, but we have no choice. We have absolutely no choice. It’s, it’s like travel agents. We love them, but they’re more or less gone now because we can do it on TripAdvisor. And the truth is, over the last say, 10 years, translation became commoditized. People weren’t like valuing what we did. It became a commodity and all, and every translator knows this pain all based on price. It was just a commodity. No one was any different from any other, like tissue paper, but now it’s democratized. So it’s becoming to the point with neural machine translation, NMT is so good that anyone can access translation. I feel what we need to do as translators now is move up the value chain, or we will go the way of travel agents.

So whereas you see some travel agents are becoming super specialists in Safari travel, they’re carving up niches. I believe translators need to move up the food chain somehow, whether it is with creative services, trans creation, training machine translation engines. Anyway, I’m sorry to say, but neural machine translation is so darn good that, yeah…

Fernando: Well, you’re in the right place to say it because Unbabel, as you know, strongly believes in the model of AI and humans working together.

And the crowds helping the AI to get better, the AI helping the crowd to get better and evolving together. So that’s clearly Unbabel’s point of view. And it seems that we are aligned. I mean, humans will always find their place in this system, but the machine translation will just get so much better with time right? And how do you think in terms of years, how far are we from really machine translation being to the point where it does most of the tasks?

Lori: Two years, two years max. Two years. You’ve heard it here first. We’re doing, in my company, machine translation neural, it gives you a really good first draft, so it takes away some of the grunt work.

I know absolutely some people would prefer to do  everything from scratch, but neural machine translation means you can go at 900, 1000, 1100 words an hour, making it better. 

Fernando: Well, that’s certainly the future. Now, let’s go back in time. I’m curious. You started your first company selling Christmas trees when you were only 12 years old and another at 17 selling flowers. How did you go from trees and flowers to language and translation? 

Lori: Okay. Well, um, it’s always been a pull for me. My dad was a businessman and was convinced that his daughter would go into business no matter how many times I told him that I would never go into business. I moved to France to write the great Canadian novel, and I needed to make money, so of course business was my, it was my fallback. And that led me being in France and loving languages. That led me to found a translation company, which I did when I was 27. 

Fernando: Is this the same company that you still managed today?

Lori: Yes. Yes. So, we’re not going to do the math on this, okay? 

Fernando:  So I’m curious because for so long you did balance being an entrepreneur, managing your own business, and creating a hugely successful nonprofit. So how did you achieve that for so long? 

Lori: Uh, now I was, you know what, to be honest, it was really tough, um, to manage all that. And I think both suffer a little bit. I couldn’t get my company its full attention and I couldn’t give Translators without Borders their full attention, Translators without Borders was obviously the, the one that gets your heart. So I didn’t do a very good job of it. My son says he’s, he’s not damaged, but yeah, I didn’t balance it well. 

Fernando: There’s also that connection with work and family. Not only work and nonprofits, but then you also have family on top of that, and your Twitter bio reads that you’re currently working on a book about your nomadic life with an unusual father. So I guess it all, it all goes back to that. Can you reveal a little bit about this project? 

Lori: Yeah. I started the book to actually write about the founding of Translators without Borders and why language matters, because we’re aware that language matters like no one else is. So I really wanted to write that book, but somehow I ended up writing about my background.

My dad was super humanitarian as well as a business person, so obviously affected me, but there are so many good stories in my eccentric, crazy background that I just got sucked into writing that story. For example, when I was 14, just to give you an example of my crazy upbringing, when I was 14 our house burned down and my father, who was a single father raising me and my brother, had forgotten three weeks earlier to send a check in to renew the fire insurance.

So we lost everything. Our house burned to the ground. There was just nothing left. And my father looks at my brother and me and says, well, kids, now we’re free. 

So that’s how I grew up. 

Fernando:  Do you think that, uh, your son will be doing a book about growing up with you in the future? 

Lori: Oh my God, no, because I’m so stable. I did Translators without Borders from 1993, I did my company from 1986 – I’m way too stable. 

Fernando:  So this, uh, beginning of your nomadic life with your father, you think that’s where your passion for languages and traveling and other cultures comes from?

Lori:  No, but it’s, it’s where my passion for business, cause I actually do have a passion for business, and my passion for helping people. I was just thinking the other day, when I was growing up, if you saw a car with the lights on, you’d open the door and turn the lights off for them. Now of course you’d be arrested or something. But I mean, it’s a very small example, but that’s, I just grew up, my dad always wanted to help people, whether it’s turning their lights off or helping families that didn’t have much money. That’s what I got from my crazy dad. 

Fernando: So the language, this love for language, where did you get that from? 

Lori: I’ve always had a love for my language and that’s where I get it from.

When I came to France, obviously, maybe to make money and not having enough money to write the great Canadian novel, I started working as an editor and that led to the founding of my translation company. Then, I mean, my eyes were just open, especially by going to Kenya the very first time and realizing that language is this huge barrier to knowledge.

And then I got a really big appreciation for it and I started looking at the world in completely different light, realizing how important language is, not only to people’s self identity and understanding of the world and culture, but to the very information they can access. 

Fernando: So my final question would be to ask for your advice. You said that before you started Translators without Borders, you wanted to contribute, you wanted to volunteer, and you were almost doing it, but not really doing it. What’s your advice for other people that feel the urge to contribute to start a nonprofit project, but they still didn’t find the right moment or the right trigger to do it?

Lori: Oh, that’s a tough one. I mean, you want to say the Nike slogan, “just do it”, but I still need to get to the gym this week, so I know, “just do it”, it’s easier said than done. I was just so lucky that Médecins sans Frontières, doctors without borders, gave me the chance to do something and made it easier for me to help them. Even though starting a nonprofit is tough, it was the opportunity to see the need and also the need falling right in my, um, my wheelhouse. That made it a very lucky and fortuitous meeting for me.

Fernando: Thank you very much, Lori. Is there any final message that you would like to leave us with? 

Lori: Oh, thanks Fernando, it has been really great and very exciting talking to you. I think we need more political will because something that’s really important, and the thing that I’m probably most passionate about of anything is access to knowledge. There’s no money in it so, it’s, people don’t want to do it, but we should do things like that, even if there is no money in it.

But we should do it just because it’s important. As translators, for example, I could envision a world where where existing translators are helping train up translators in the developing world.

Fernando: As they say, teach them how to fish instead of just giving them a fish for dinner, right? 

Lori: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And translators themselves are super, you know, as a group, they’re really nice people. It’s, it’s basically a creative job and I find that they are super happy to help, but they need a way, a structure for how to do that. Obviously, 30,000 volunteers, there are a lot of translators who’ve come forward.

I just envisioned something even more where there is some mentoring and helping build capacity in the crowd. We’re talking about the crowd here. That’s the only way we’re going to have universal access to knowledge. 

Fernando: Okay, Lori, thanks again. It was great having you in the Unbabel podcast, and I hope we will talk again in a few years because at the speed that things are developing, and I’m sure you’ll keep contributing to it, uh, we can have a conversation in a few years.

Lori: Oh, thank you Fernando, and I’m really looking forward to seeing your other podcasts. I saw some of the guests you have coming up. It will be really interesting to see what they add to the conversation.

Fernando: Thank you for listening to the Unbabel podcast. 

If you want to learn more about Lori’s work, head over to her blog, at If you liked the Unbabel podcast and don’t want to miss future episodes, subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And if you really, really like this, help others find our podcast by leaving a review or sharing this episode with your friends.

The Unbabel podcast is produced by myself, Raquel Magalhães, Raquel Henriques and resonate recordings.

The post Unbabel Podcast: Lori Thicke and the language last mile appeared first on Unbabel.