The Dutch students who set up a volunteer English news service during the pandemic

Just over two years ago, on 17 March 2020, the government of the Netherlands – like most other governments around the world – implemented the most severe economic and social freedoms in living memory in response to the coronavirus. Within hours shops had closed, people had rushed home, and it seemed like the whole country was anxiously watching the news for updates on an almost minute-by-minute basis.

For the roughly 80,000 foreign students in the Netherlands, most of whom are from other EU countries and do not speak Dutch well or at all, getting real-time information wasn’t easy. As a student in Amsterdam myself at the time, I remember checking my phone, waiting for messages from Dutch friends or using Google translate on national news sites such as Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS), one of the Netherlands’ public broadcasters.

But in Utrecht, a small city to the southeast of the capital, one group of enterprising Bachelor students was working on a better solution. The Facebook group – later page – NOS in English was born less than three days after lockdown measures were announced, providing students and other immigrants to the country with direct translations and summaries of the news broadcasts put out by NOS. 

NOS in English volunteer translators, March 2022.

A favour for friends

“We were surrounded by non-Dutch speaking students, and noticed they had a hard time keeping up with the Dutch news – and felt anxious about not knowing exactly what was going on,” Noes Petiet, the page’s founder, told me. “I asked in one of our student Facebook groups whether there were some Dutch-speaking students willing to help me out in translating some of the most recent updates. We made a Facebook group for people to join, and many of them did.”

The page was initially a private group meant only as a favour to friends who were struggling, but it rapidly became clear that there was a much wider demand than the founders had anticipated. “I shared our page in some groups for expats living in the Netherlands. That’s when the group kind of exploded,” said Petiet. “All of our phones crashed from the number of requests to enter the group. We switched to a page, because it was easier to manage, and continued our work.”

Foreign-born residents of the Netherlands account for about 13 per cent of the total population in the country, according to OECD data, while international students make up some 23 per cent of the total student body. Although a lot of these young people are more native to Instagram and other platforms, Facebook made sense as the most obvious tool to broadcast lengthy text-based updates.

Two years on, NOS in English has amassed over 44,000 followers who are updated daily by a rotating team of around 10 volunteer translators, all of whom are students and speak a very high level of English. “This is a number we could never have imagined,” explained Petiet. “It was also never our intention to grow as such, we just responded to the need we saw.” 

Immense gratitude from readers

A strong sense of public service was present from the start at NOS in English, and readers were immediately impressed by the quality of the translations, which could be long and extremely detailed – as well as the objectivity with which the information was presented. Readers would comment expressing their gratitude, offering feedback and support, and hundreds donated a total of EUR €4,424 during a charity fundraiser.

The translators had never envisaged such high levels of engagement, but they knew they had created something that served a very real need – especially during Covid-19’s early days, but also beyond them.

Hester Groot, 22, is a Master’s student in Linguistics at Leiden University who got involved as soon as she heard about the page shortly after its founding, back in May 2020. “It was reaching thousands per day, and was a very real and tangible way to help other people in a time when there was little else that we could do beyond ‘just stay indoors!’” she told me. “As such, when I heard from friends who were already involved that they were looking for translators, I offered to help right away.”

How did they manage to keep up with all the news broadcasts? During the height of Covid-related news in the first few months of the pandemic, “every ten minutes new and frightening developments were coming in,” Groot explained to me. “We split the day into shifts that covered the whole day, from 8am to 10pm or something like that. Everyone would just sign up for shifts, and in that way, we managed to keep up with the NOS liveblogs pretty well.”

Maintaining a sense of community

As the page has reached new levels of popularity, it has also had to deal with rising concerns about fake news and maintaining a sense of safety for the community it serves. Just a few months ago, moderators decided to disable the comment section in response to people posting unverifiable information about vaccines and other contentious topics, as well as comments that were occasionally abusive in nature.

“We started receiving messages from readers saying they felt unsafe in our comment section (some even receiving death threats) and that they were concerned about the misinformation being shared in the comments. We did not want to facilitate that in any shape or form, but also wanted to stay objective,” explained Petiet. 

Nonetheless, because people had consistently told the translators at NOS in English how helpful it was to have a two-way information exchange on the page, closing the comment section was a hard decision. They decided to put it to a reader vote, and while some responded negatively, the vast majority of respondents overwhelmingly supported its closure. 

“Luckily many of them said they would completely understand it if we would shut down the comment section – as managing the hateful comments was a task we never signed up for and to be frank, also did not quite know how to handle in the best way,” said Petiet.

We just responded to the need we saw.

Noes Petiet

Providing an essential service

As the severity of Covid-19’s grip on the country has ebbed and flowed, the frequency of posts has been reduced. “Nowadays, we only translate the NOS’s 8pm news broadcast, working with shifts where each translator takes one day every week or two, depending on their availability,” Groot tol me. “It’s the easiest way to make sure that we’re dividing the workload evenly, and is a little less taxing on our personal and academic lives. Translation does, after all, take up a fair amount of time, particularly for people who don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, so we try to keep the workload manageable in this way.”

Instead of providing only pandemic-related updates, NOS in English has inadvertently become a go-to destination for English speakers to learn about the country they live in: the remits of different government departments, upcoming events to be aware of, and topical debates in Dutch culture.

There is a clear demand among the foreign population for reliable and timely English-language resources, and the success of NOS in English points to the fact that – from a media perspective – immigrants who do not speak the local language represent an underserved market, not just in the Netherlands but in many other countries, too.

On this basis, the translators behind NOS in English intend to continue the service for as long as it remains useful to their followers – which, judging by the strong engagement and positive reviews from readers, it very much is. Despite the page’s popularity, it remains an unofficial source of news and does not have direct links with NOS itself. Petiet told me that the page’s translators therefore hope that eventually “professional translators are hired by the NOS to take over our work”. 

“We do think our success shows that the Dutch government performs insufficiently in its communication to non-Dutch-speaking people residing in the Netherlands,” she added. “We also reached out to the NOS itself to ask if they have the resources to include English subtitles, but they responded saying they do not. Hopefully this will change in the future, but until that day we will continue with our work.”

Immigrants who do not speak the local language represent an underserved market.

The Dutch are some of the most competent English speakers in the world, and many government services are available in English to meet the needs of foreign residents. Even at Dutch universities, the majority of Master’s-level programmes are taught in English, not Dutch.

Yet not everything is completely accessible, which is where services like NOS in English play an important role. Groot agrees with Petiet: “The past two years have really shown how important it is that news and important developments can be followed by every person living in a country—after all, every person will be affected by policy changes, new measures, and other developments, and for them to not be informed of said developments is, frankly, irresponsible,” she said. 

“Hopefully, at some point there will be the possibility and the budget for major news organisations to offer English versions of their news to the members of the Dutch public who don’t speak Dutch, so that they’ll have more official versions of it than our not-officially-affiliated-with-any-major-news-organisation, student-run platform.”

Nonetheless, she is happy that they were, and continue to be, able to offer a service that is so widely appreciated and useful to readers. “Based on the reactions we receive from them, it’s a service that they rely on and are very glad to be able to follow, so I think that as long as there does remain a need for our work, we will happily keep it up!”

From URLs to IRL

Sadly, despite their shared dedication to their work, the translators haven’t had a chance to meet each other in person much – an obvious side-effect of having been formed during the early stages of the pandemic.

 “We’ve gone out for drinks, and had a picnic together,” Groot told me. “But the composition of the team has changed quite a lot from when we initially met up, with a number of translators leaving and others coming in, so not everyone who’s part of the group now has actually seen everyone else face to face. We plan to meet up again soon, so that new and old members can get to know each other outside of our laptop screens, too!”

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