An interview with TED Translator & TEDx Organizer Hamzeh Koumakli

Hamzeh Koumakli is an Arabic TED Translator who resides in Homs, Syria. He’s currently an undergraduate medical student and a freelance translator for a company that uses smart technology to streamline health care. In 2016, he helped organize one of the first-ever TEDx events in his country, TEDxMimasStreet, for which he’s now the lead organizer. And recently, Hamzeh became a TED Translators Mentor for the Arabic-language community. We spoke with him over email about these experiences and more.


How long have you been a TED Translator, and what drew you to the program?

I joined the TED Translators program a bit over three years ago, in September 2017. But my journey with TED began in 2015, when I was a college freshman: My cousin introduced me to TED via an inspiring talk called “How to speak so that people want to listen”, which Julian Treasure delivered at TEDGlobal 2013. It’s a talk that I believe is more urgent and relevant than ever, especially for we Syrians who’ve had to live under the dark cloud of war for almost 10 years now, all the while seeking peace through dialogue.

Soon after watching Julian’s talk, an idea occurred to me: What if the TED community in Syria could leverage TED Talks to provide Syrians with a powerful means to both share vital, groundbreaking knowledge among themselves and to potentially help end the war? So when I found out that TEDxMimasStreet (one of the first-ever TEDx events organized in Syria) was set to take place in my hometown of Homs, I jumped at the chance to join the conference’s organizing team. It was at this gathering that a TED colleague of mine filled me in on the TED Translators program.

Not long afterward, I started translating for TED Translators. My aim from day one has been to spread TED Talks’ unique insights throughout the Arabic-speaking world in order to effect positive change, particularly for those of us who’ve had to endure the war in Syria.

As you told us above, you recently helped organize and put on TEDxMimasStreet, one of the first TEDx events to take place in Syria. What inspired you to do so?

First off, every war inevitably results in death and destruction, which is most of what I’ve witnessed here since 2011. Furthermore, when wars end, the majority of reconstruction efforts tend to focus on infrastructure at the expense of adequately addressing war’s psychological, social and cultural traumas. We at TEDxMimasStreet, however, believe that rebuilding Syria and its society requires the bolstering and sharing of knowledge, be it cultural, academic or otherwise. And given that the country is filled with creative and smart people who want to share their stories and insights with each other and the world, organizing a TEDx event where Syrians from an array of backgrounds could gather and exchange their ideas seemed like an excellent way to help unite and heal war-fractured Syria.

Can you tell us what it’s been like for you to work as both a TED Translator and professional medical translator while both war and the COVID-19 pandemic afflict Syria?

The past six months or so have been tough for all Syrians, but I think we’ve learned a lot in that time that’s strengthened us. Speaking for myself, both the war and pandemic have increased my sense of responsibility toward my community, particularly in the context of my medical studies.

I’ve been working professionally for Infermedica, a company that employs smart technology to “[make] it easier to pre-diagnose, triage, and direct…patients to appropriate medical services.” Recently, I translated a COVID-19 assessment tool that’s been deployed in many countries around the world.

I’ve also been trying, via my personal blog, to provide reliable and actionable information on how people can stay physically and mentally healthy during the pandemic, as well as how they can avoid mis- and disinformation on COVID-19.

With regard to my TED Translators work, I’ve lately been focusing on translating coronavirus- and COVID-19-related talks. I encourage other TED Translators to do the same: The more we share and spread accurate info with each other and the world, so much the better for humanity.

This summer, you were a TED Translators delegate at TED2020, which happened to be TED’s first-ever virtual conference due to the pandemic. Can you tell us about that experience?

As a Syrian citizen, I was initially worried about whether or not Canada would grant me a visa, as Syrians have been denied visas to various Western countries for several years now. My worry disappeared, though, when I learned that TED2020 would take place virtually because of travel and other restrictions owing to the pandemic. Of course I would have loved to travel to Vancouver and meet some of my fellow TED Translators in person, but this year’s flagship conference offered a remarkable panel of speakers whose talks I was still able to enjoy with my colleagues; it was the experience of a lifetime for me.

What do you have planned for the future translation-wise?

I plan to reach 100 completed translations by the end of this year, and to establish five successful TED Translators Mentors program relationships with mentees. As a Mentor, my aim is to help as many new TED Translators as I can to pursue their respective translation journeys.

I’m considering applying to become an Arabic Language Coordinator, too. The Arabic TED Translators community is growing rapidly, and I think that as an LC I could positively contribute to this expansion.

Do you have any advice for new TED Translators?

There’s a huge variety of TED, TEDx and TED-Ed talks, so I recommend selecting a subject that interests you and going all-in with your translations. And don’t forget that your work as a TED Translator enables the free spreading of vital knowledge across languages and borders.

Real-time chat added to Mentoring program

We’re excited to announce that we’ve enabled a real-time chat feature in the TED Translators Mentoring Program. This upgrade allows for faster communication between mentees and mentors, as well as the ability for both to easily scroll through their conversation history.

To access the new chat feature, just click on the “Messaging” tab in Chronus. And if you use the Chronus mobile app and turn on push notifications, you can see and reply to messages right away.

We look forward to the increased connectivity this new feature will bring to the TED Translators Mentoring Program, and we hope you do too!

Meet the winners of our second annual TEDWomen subtitling contest

To celebrate TEDWomen 2020, we recently hosted our second annual subtitling contest to spotlight novel ideas that female speakers from around the world are sharing. The TED Translators who participated were asked to select a TED or TEDx talk given by a female speaker, and then collaborate with a reviewer or Language Coordinator to create and publish subtitles for their talk within a month.

What was on the line prize-wise? A gratis conference pass to TEDWomen 2020; each winner’s choice of a subscription to Audible, Babbel or Headspace; and a TED Translators blog feature highlighting all of the winning teams.

A huge number of TED Translators took part in this year’s contest, and we can’t overemphasize that every entry we received was sincere and thoughtful in its own way. A hearty thank-you to everybody who participated! Without further ado, check out the winners and their timely and incisive submissions below.


Razaw Salar Hassan, Zhila Mawlood and Daban Jaff

Translated talk: Khalida Brohi: How I work to protect women from honor killings

Here’s what Razaw told us about why she translated into Kurdish the devastating-yet-hopeful talk that Khalida Brohi delivered at TEDGlobal 2014.

Khalida’s talk really hit home for me for several urgent reasons. To start, one of my friends was murdered by her father and brothers in a so-called “honor killing” here in Kurdistan. This hideous crime is perpetrated against women and girls in many different countries, from Brazil to the U.K. to Iraq to Pakistan to the U.S., and its prevalence among the traditionally conservative Kurdish culture is horrifying. The “honor killing” of women and girls here, as elsewhere, stems from a largely non-secular patriarchal society that regards male repression of and violence toward “dishonorable” females as both legitimate and necessary. It’s no surprise, then, that, also as in other countries, men who murder women and girls in Kurdistan in the name of “honor” are never punished for their crimes.

As a woman, a human being, I want to help raise awareness of and fight against this abhorrent practice. One way I knew I could do so was translating Khalida’s talk into Kurdish; I saw my translation as a vehicle to teach Kurdish women, who often turn a blind eye to or even support “honor killings,” that men’s pride should never dictate the self-determination of women and girls. What’s more, increased social and economic freedom for women and girls enhances societies and humanity as a whole. Women’s struggles against patriarchal oppression and repression (including “honor killings”), therefore, are inseparable from local, national and international movements for racial, political, sexual and economic self-determination. And it’s in this fight where real honor lies.

Anna Ryu, Sarah Jeon and Jihyeon Kim

Translated talk: Karen Scrivener: A concrete idea to reduce carbon emissions

Here’s what Anna had to say on why she translated Karen Scrivener’s groundbreaking Countdown talk into Korean.

I decided to translate Karen’s Countdown talk because it proposes a practical and sustainable large-scale means of potentially slowing manmade climate change in a big way — a development that’s very important to me as a biotechnology major. The more I’ve studied climate change caused by humans, the more I’ve realized that it’s both massively interconnected and at odds with economic growth. I’ve simultaneously come to understand that many of the methods offered up to us as countermeasures to climate change are micro-level and ultimately ineffective.

In that context, Karen’s talk on manufacturing cement (which is vital to the building industry around the world, and especially in South Korea) that could reduce concrete’s colossal level of carbon emissions by up to 40 percent showed me a remarkable new approach to driving back the advance of climate change — and it could be implemented on a global scale without shuttering whole economies. Learning about Karen’s work was an epiphany for me with regard to my (and so many others’) concerns about climate change, and so it felt necessary to me to translate and share her talk with my fellow Koreans.

Baan Alzoubi and Allam Zedan

Translated talk: Joy Buolamwini: Code4Rights, Code4All

Why did Baan translate Joy Buolamwini’s bold and timely TEDxBeaconStreet 2016 talk into Arabic? Read on below to find out.

I have been trying to see where curiosity would lead me the last year or two, and for the last couple of months, it has been programming and computer science. I can positively say that it is slowly becoming something I might be passionate about. Although the speaker meant algorithms that would result in exclusionary practices for minorities, I have been noticing how as a woman, I have been excluded from the world of IT, and it’s always nice to see women in STEM. I do wonder often about what it would’ve been like if I was more exposed to STEM fields myself as a teen. However, I have made it a personal goal to find that out now, and so far I am very much into coding, data science, and physics. I’m definitely no expert, but I am looking forward to seeing where curiosity leads me.

Kejia Rui and Yanyan Hong

Translated talk: Carola Rackete: Save trees and refugees

Kejia gives us a brief breakdown of why she chose to translate Carola Rackete’s must-watch talk at TEDxAmsterdam 2019 into Simplified Chinese.

The protection of human rights and the environment are inarguably two of the most (if not the most) urgent crises we face today. Furthermore, both are inextricably linked to each other. Carola’s talk, which is informed by her work as a ship captain rescuing refugees and migrants at sea and as an ecologist, deftly deconstructs eco-fascism, which prioritizes saving trees over saving human lives. Moreover, and particularly as a teacher, I view Carola and what she’s courageously accomplished as exemplary of how we can circumvent the limits power tries to impose on us and enact real change in the world. All of which is to say that I translated her talk because it (like Carola) is indispensable for those of us who seek to preserve humanity.

Mentoring program expands to Portuguese and Turkish

We’re back with exciting news on the TED Translators Mentoring program! This month, we’re introducing the initiative to two more of our most active language communities: Portuguese and Turkish. The mentors and mentees in these communities will join the nine other language communities already participating. We can’t wait to see the collaborations that our Portuguese and Turkish communities will undoubtedly bring to the Mentoring program!

And, as we’ve announced before, we plan to continue rolling out the initiative to new language communities each month. And we’ll continue to adapt the TED Translators Mentoring program based on each community’s feedback. Stay tuned here for updates!

Introducing Mentoring program certificates and badges

We’re happy to announce that we’re now sending certificates to mentees who complete their three-month mentorship connections! We’re also giving special badges to mentors who connect with one mentee or more.

Each mentee certificate displays a mentee’s name, subtitling specialization and a brief description of the mentorship program. (If you’re a qualified mentee who hasn’t yet received a certificate, don’t worry—it’s on its way.) Mentor badges display a mentors’ role and mentoring language.

If you’re the recipient of a certificate or badge, we encourage you to share it on social media and to tag @TEDTranslators. Interested in joining as a mentor or mentee? Get started here!

TED Translators at TEDxBangkok2020


Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect people worldwide, many TED Translators language communities have been carefully organizing online and in-person workshops, translate-athons and other collaborative events throughout the year that have enabled the TED Translators project to flourish despite the virus.

One of the most recent in-person gatherings was TEDxBangkok 2020, which took place on August 17 in Thailand’s capital. (Social distancing measures were meticulously adhered to throughout the event.)

Thai TED Translators Sakunphat “Keng” Jirawuthitanant and Kelwalin Dhanasarnsombut were invited by several organizers (who are also TED Translators) to deliver a two-hour presentation on the TED Translators program and why it’s crucial to TED’s mission. The duo also detailed their own experiences with TED Translators, as well as the application process (which will soon be posted on TEDxBangkok’s Facebook group page).

During their presentation, Keng and Kelwalin emphasized that the goal of the TED Translators’ project as they see it is “to bring knowledge from TED Talks to Thai society, and vice versa.” And they discussed how translating both enhances foreign-language proficiency and opens doors to an array of career opportunities.

All in all, TED Translators made a positive impact at TEDxBangkok 2020, so look out for more Thai translations of TED Talks in the near future.


Mentoring program launches in Simplified and Traditional Chinese

TEDSummit: A Community Beyond Borders. July 21-25, 2019, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo: Diane Lofton / TED.)

In mid-July, when we introduced our application process for the TED Translators Mentoring program, we also announced that we’d be adding more languages to the initiative on an ongoing basis. The newest language communities to join the program? Traditional and Simplified Chinese. These latest additions expand the program to nine language communities overall.

What’s more, mentoring pairs can now customize their collaborations to set specific goals according to individual subtitling skills and content interests. We’re also putting out an open call for new mentees in our nine supported languages — if you’d like to apply, please read our Mentee qualifications before submitting your application here.

TED Translators Mentors and Mentees, as always, receive exclusive perks for their contributions to the program:

  • Invitations to virtual TED events
  • Subscriptions to useful digital tools
  • A certificate of completion for Mentees
  • Badges that Mentors can add to their social media profiles, CVs, etc.

We’re thrilled about these recent developments, and we hope you are too. We look forward to you joining us!


TED Translators at TED2020: a recap

TED2020 Language Exchange hosted by TED Translators

This year, TED’s annual flagship conference took place online for the first time ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic. TED2020, appropriately themed “Uncharted”, was converted into an eight-week virtual event that spanned June and July.

A selected contingent of 12 TED Translators participated in the gathering, which featured a talk by Bill Gates on how COVID-19 will shape our future, as well as a talk by Malala Yousafzai that addressed why advocating for girls’ education will be essential to rebuilding our societies in the wake of the pandemic. TED Translators also attended a timely panel discussion about how we can potentially end systemic racism in the U.S. What’s more, they enjoyed TED2020’s main stage sessions each Thursday and engaged in a wide array of Discovery Sessions with TED Speakers and other TED-sters. Head here to read weekly highlights from the conference.

In addition to all of the above action, a group of six TED Translators hosted a social-hour gathering for TED2020 attendees and speakers called “Language Exchange”. This meetup enabled those who participated in it to explore various alphabets, dialects and indigenous languages from around the world; at the same time, the session provided a concentrated look into what it’s like to be a TED Translator and the incredible work these translators do on a daily basis.

TED2020 wrapped up on July 10, but there was an extra deep-dive treat for the TED Translators who attended the conference. On July 15, they met online with three-time TED Speaker Sally Kohn, author of the book “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”, which was the basis of her TEDWomen 2017 talk “What we can do about the culture of hate”. All of the translators had read Sally’s book prior to this first-ever virtual TED Translators book club gathering, so everybody was primed for an in-depth conversation with her during which they asked the author questions, shared their reflections on her thesis and discussed personal experiences with hate. Moved by the stories she heard, Sally explained that one of the best antidotes to hate is information—which, of course, TED Translators are dedicated to spreading as freely and widely as possible every day.

TED2020 Translators discuss combatting hate with TED Speaker Sally Kohn

Spanish-speaking Translators and TEDx-ers connect at GranTOTE 2020 workshop

Over four days in late May, one of the Spanish language community’s largest workshops for TEDx organizers and TED Translators, GranTOTE 2020 (or Gran Taller de Organizadores TEDx y Traductores en Español 2020), took place virtually. The theme of this year’s event was “Earth”, and the online gathering’s attendees included organizers and translators from Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Spain, the UK and the US.

Two of the participants were GranTOTE 2020’s TED Translators workshop host, Sebastian Betti, and its cohost, Gisela Giardino. The session was called “TED Translators: Translations to go further”, which, as Sebastian told us, focused on exploring the following questions and propositions:

“While organizing an event, we frequently ask ourselves if what we are doing contributes to the spreading of ideas. But in [the] context of lockdown, in which we lose physical contact with the audience, can we reinvent ourselves so as not to lose relevance? Can translations help us in that endeavor? Let’s think together about ways to use…translation to bring…ideas to more people.”

The workshop’s participants were encouraged to think up novel, even eccentric, approaches to expanding the reach of TED Translators’ work. The discussion homed in on increasing the engagement of both new and frequent viewers of TED and TEDx talks. In the end, Sebastian and Gisela’s session yielded over 100 ways to potentially accomplish these goals; here are 20 that Sebastian translated into English.

“We consider these ideas ‘throwable concepts’,” Sebastian said, “which is a category we adopted from previous workshops, like TOTE2020 in Notion and TOTE2020 in Padlet.” Among the out-of-the-box ideas explored in the workshop was a sing-along to Nina Vais’ performance, providing a much-needed mental break and altering the experience from passive to active.

“At the end of the workshop,” Sebastian added, “Gisela and I showed the TED Translators promo video and invited the attendees to join the TED Translators program.”

For our part, we look forward to welcoming these new volunteers to the TED Translators global family!


Introducing applications for the TED Translators Mentoring program

We’re happy to report that we’ve implemented an application process for the TED Translators Mentoring program! We’ve developed a mentor application and a separate mentee application.

Each application includes a quiz designed to vet prospective mentors’ and mentees’ knowledge of TED Translators’ guidelines and subtitling best practices, while reinforcing specific quality standards across the Mentoring program.

We encourage TED Translators from the Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, French, Italian, Korean, Russian and Spanish language communities to apply. However, we add languages to the program monthly, so do check back in with us if yours isn’t currently on the roster.

To ensure successful mentor-mentee connections, we ask that both commit at least one hour per week during the three-month program to collaborating on subtitling talks. For their participation, TED Translators mentors and mentees receive exclusive perks: invitations to virtual TED events, premium subscriptions to digital tools, soon-to-launch Mentor badges and Mentee certificates of completion, and much more.

We look forward to you joining us in this fast-developing project!