I remember at the start of corona crisis, news from around the world was breaking at a feverish pitch. Prime Minister Mark Rutte several times addressed the nation about the measures within the country and internationally. I tuned in to NOS, but what I didn’t see coming was that my basic A2 level Dutch with limited vocabulary and even more limited comprehension for Dutch nuances fell flat at this very crucial time. Even familiar Dutch words from my vocabulary failed to make any sense. I had nothing to offer when my husband asked if I had seen the broadcast.
If I thought I was the only one at a loss, the growing number of followers of the Facebook page ‘NOS in English’ would disagree. With 23,000 followers and counting, ‘NOS in English’ has quickly become a go-to place for the latest on the corona virus for the large expat population in the Netherlands. The reliability and speed of the updates is a clear indication of the dedication shown by the student volunteers who run the group. Marie Claessen was typing along on her laptop as Mark Rutte was giving a press conference, and translating it real time, to publish as soon as possible – which meant shushing her father who wanted to discuss the latest measures.
Though it started humbly, the thought behind ‘NOS in English’ was very noble. It started as an initiative by students of University College Utrecht (UCU), aiming to translate the latest news on the pandemic in English for their non-Dutch speaking fellow students. It began with a 19-year-old student, Noes Petiet, posting a message in the UCU Facebook group asking if anyone was interested in a new group with English translations of NOS news on coronavirus. The page quickly took off and was soon shared by other universities. The real momentum came when NOS itself mentioned the initiative in its live blog, resulting in huge interest from expats. Over 10,000 membership requests meant that the students’ phones crashed dealing with the influx. Soon, the closed group became a public page.
With the growing interest, the page quickly grew into an active newsroom run by twelve students. “At the beginning of the crisis, every student had an editing shift of one and a half hours daily,” says editor Manar el Amrani. “You translated the latest news from NOS, put it on the Facebook page and read and improved the translations of the previous editor.” Though it has been serious work, it has had its lighter moments, as Petiet recounts: “We made a translation mistake. We translated ‘cotton swab’, which is used for corona test, as ‘nose bar’, which means a chocolate bar with a questionable flavour.”
The group owes its success to the benchmark parameters of fast, objective and reliable news posts. El Amrani believes “people panic less because we translate the news quickly”. She understands panic from first-hand experience: she was an exchange student in Singapore at the start of the crisis, waiting to hear from the embassy if the borders were closing. “I was constantly refreshing the NOS live blog for information. That is perhaps the reason why I joined the editorial team of ‘NOS in English’. I wanted to help others who were having the same anxiety.”
Now, with the corona measures tapering off, the workload has come down to an hour a week per student. Given the immense news support that the page provided during the crisis, the students feel that they now can hand over the work to the right people. They feel that English subtitles for the 8 o’clock NOS news would be very helpful. However, NOS spokesperson Onno Duyvené de Wit says that NOS is currently strapped for capacity; he looks forward to continued support by ‘NOS in English’: “It is a great initiative. We do our best to disseminate reliable and independent news and it is great if a Facebook group like this lends a hand.”
Appreciation has been pouring in for the students in the form of offers of sponsoring, but this has been politely declined, as they don’t want to benefit from the crisis or lose their independence. Many users have also offered to cook for them to show their gratitude. As Petiet says: “I don’t think we will have to make our own food for a year after the corona crisis.”
Written by Geetanjali Gupta
In addition to ‘NOS in English’, there are other sources like ‘Dutch News’, ‘NL Times’ and ‘Expatica’ that bring local news in English. Only ‘NOS in English’ is exclusively focused on news related to the current pandemic. The RIVM also has an English page about the corona measures.