Fidelis Morfaw

A Cameroon national, Fidelis Morfaw received his B.A. in Modern Languages from the University of Sierra Leone, his M.A. from Penn State, a Translator’s Diploma from Georgetown University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in Austin. He is now based in Brazzaville, Congo where he oversees the translation of documents at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa. Its website looks like any other belonging to a major international body: blue and white, the globe for a logo, a myriad of different divisions, and translations of every article into French and Portuguese. It’s that last characteristic, the translations, which is so easily taken for granted. Morfaw manages the translation of the website and the Health Sciences Library and Documentation Center into English, French, and Portuguese. After the materials are translated, that information then gets distributed to field staff, other United Nations institutions and international organizations, and researchers from around Sub-Saharan Africa. All of the documents are available online at the AFROLIB Database.

When picturing Morfaw’s team of dedicated translators, I figured there had to be at least 30, perhaps 50. No, the number of total translators for the WHO in Africa turns out to be three. But I then learned that the regional office depends heavily on outsourcing for their translations and that the three translators at the regional office focus mostly on quality control.

Fidelis Morfaw took a few minutes out of his time at the Making the eHealth Connection conference to speak with me about his work for the WHO and what he hopes to take away from this week’s session on Access to Health Information and Knowledge Sharing. As always, the source audio of our conversation is available below. What follows is an edited transcription of excerpts from our talk.

DS: Tell me more about what the Chief of Publication and Langauge services for the WHO Regional Office for Africa in Brazzaville does on a daily basis.

FM: I receive from the WHO’s technical units all kinds of health and health-related materials that need to go to the countries either in the form of advice, implementation, archiving, or other uses in order to support the regional program. So we receive requests for the material, we edit them, we print them, we translate them into the three languages, and we send them out.

DS: Has the translation workflow changed in the past ten years because of the internet?

FM: We insist now that requests coming to us should be in electronic format. Most of it comes in Microsoft Word. This is the raw material that we edit. And once the edited version has been approved we translate it.

DS: For example, do any of your translators use Google Translate or any machine translation software?

FM: No. We are not yet there and that is in fact on our plate right now – to slowly a.) identify the software that would most suit our needs and b.) train the people that need to use the software on how to do so for translation.

DS: Where are the translators based?

FM: They are based in Brazzaville at the regional office.

DS: All of them?

FM: Yeah. “All of them” meaning all three.

DS: Really!? Three translators!?

FM: That’s right, I have one translator working into Portuguese, I have basically one translator working into French, and I have one translator basically working into English. This means that we have had, over the past 10 years, to rely heavily on outsourcing. To the point that these three key people that we have for the three languages are involved mainly in quality control. This is what they do.

DS: I would imagine that, from let’s say English to Portuguese, that it’s not only helpful to Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, but it would also be helpful to Portugal, Brazil, and East Timor. Does it get distributed to those countries?

FM: We get requests from them – especially from researchers. And there is vibrant cooperation between us and Brazil, for example. Because some of the publications that Brazil puts out are relevant to our region, like say on malaria.

DS: But it’s not part of the automatic distribution?

FM: No.

DS: What do you hope to bring back to Brazzaville from this conference? Has anything at the conference surprised you?

FM: No, nothing has really surprised me. We did know that most of these technologies exist. But what we are trying to do is bring them together. All of these new ideas that we are floating, we are trying to put form into all of them. The new form that these arrangements are going to take will be the kind of thing I will carry back. I will brief my colleagues and say, listen, there were so many experts from so many parts of the world representing so many types of organizations and if they can come together and formulate something that is overarching where the North can tap in and where the South can tap in with equal ease, but without the constraints that come from being part of such a big organization. It’s a win win situation for everybody.


Download audio file (Right click, save as)


Given my interest in how the internet can facilitate and speed up the translation workflow, I was fascinated to hear how a group like the WHO handles internal translation of their documents. Ideally all of these groups would be using open source translation memory systems to make their work more efficient. Ideally they would also hire all of their translators in Africa rather than outsourcing the work to other regions.

And now, via Jill Sommer, a reminder about how far machine translation still has to go: