Faithful in All | The Liberian Civil War

Alvina Federwitz, Jim Laesch, and David Federwitz

About The Episode

In the past 60 years, missionaries with Lutheran Bible Translators have seen war and destruction effect the growth of ministry—but the faithfulness of God has never been disrupted. On this episode of Essentially Translatable, host Rich Rudowske celebrates the organization’s 60th anniversary and explores a significant pivot in the history of Lutheran Bible Translators during the 1980s and early 1990s.  

This episode brings listeners stories from the Liberian Civil War and the impact it had on the organizations’ approach to Bible translation. With extensive translation work being done in Liberia at the time, the war disrupted operations but subsequently led to a shift towards local ownership and partnerships within translation efforts.  

Hear interviews with Alvina Federwitz, Jim Laesch, and David Federwitz: all missionaries who were affected by the civil war in Liberia in various capacities. Reflect on Alvina’s first-hand experience with the violence of war. Consider the challenges Jim faced in regulating administration during a period of great uncertainty for the organization. And learn from David as he explains the outcome the war had in leading to the formation of the Liberia Translation and Literacy Organization (LIBTRALO).  

Through God’s faithfulness, a transformative impact came from this crisis. Lutheran Bible Translators pivoted to an innovative strategy of fostering local ownership and engagement within the language group when no other options were available. Today, this groundbreaking approach has become the ideal standard and continues to be used by the Bible translation community in the modern era.  

David Federwitz: [00:00:00] In a sense, that Civil War was like a catalyst for moving LBT in the direction of more local ownership. And like I said, then that put us, I would say that put us probably five or ten years ahead of most of the rest of the Bible translation world.

Rich: Welcome back to another episode of Essentially Translatable, brought to you by Lutheran Bible Translators. My name is Rich Rudowske and I am your host today. We are going to dive into some content around our 60th anniversary. Lutheran Bible Translators had an organizational planning meeting on May 4th, 1968.

1964 and then was officially incorporated on May 13th, 1964 in North Hollywood, California. And we’ve been celebrating 60 years of the Lord’s faithfulness. And there’s a lot of great stories around Lutheran Bible translators, history and [00:01:00] founding that we talk about quite a bit, Dr. Morris Watkins and his family in Nigeria, and that vision to get more Lutherans involved in local language, Bible translation work.

What we want to look at today, though, is about midway through Lutheran Bible Translators history in the 80s and early 90s. There was a civil war in the West African nation of Liberia, and then that eventually spilled over into Sierra Leone, too. And it happened to be that for the first 25 years or so of Lutheran Bible Translators ministry, quite a bit of the ministry focus and missionary sending had been to those two nations.

So it was quite, Disruptive, and yet as we look back today, uh, we can see it as an important pivot point in Lutheran Bible Translators ministry and how we view ministry and partnerships and the importance of that and how even we were and have remained sort of ahead of the curve of the thinking about how to best implement that [00:02:00] and work through that.

So what we’re going to hear today is content from. Alvina Federwitz, Jim Laesch, and David Federwitz. Three folks involved in various ways in this founding of Libtralo. Alvina Federwitz and her husband, Dale, were longtime missionaries in Liberia and were there at the time of the civil war and the evacuations and the founding of Libtralo.

So we’ll hear some of Alvina’s. on the ground experience. Jim Lash and his family had also been resident missionaries in Liberia and had only recently returned from Liberia and actually had been at some of the very initial instability. They were still there in the country. Jim, at the time of some of these more cataclysmic events, was in administration as the program’s director.

And then, uh, David Federwitz, uh, one of Alvina and Dale’s sons, who’s now the West Africa Regional Director for Lutheran Bible Translators and is part of his work, works in Liberia, has some reflections from his perspective, both as [00:03:00] a teenage high schooler, seeing what his parents were, uh, I’m going through at that time, but also just reflecting as he thinks about his role today, how this really was an important pivot point in our history.

So I’m going to walk you through that. The audio that you’re going to hear is interviews that all three of these folks gave to Molly Poppe, who’s on our writing staff, and this was just to create transcripts. They used for writing articles and some blogs and things like that. But there’s so much great rich content here that in the writing process sort of had to hit the cutting room floor, or you just don’t get the same emotion of their voices through that process that I wanted to share that somewhere with you guys and take a deep dive on this topic.

So that’s what we’re going to dive into today real quick before we get there. Just a reminder to subscribe to Essentially Translatable on YouTube. Whatever platform you listen to, whether that’s Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube Music, and just about any podcast platform now has Essentially Translatable [00:04:00] on it.

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So first, we’re going to hear from Elvina Federwitz as she’s just talking about being on the ground there in Liberia with some of these formative moments in Libtralo’s beginning, but just the danger of the situation as well and how the Lord walked with she and Dale and their family through that tenuous time.

Alvina Federwitz: That’s kind of where we fit in. And I mean, my husband and I, we just saw that if we wanted this to go on and then the war hit in 1980, And that was just the fertilizer that we needed to say, yes, it needs to be done from the country itself.

Molly Poppe: Wow. Like you think that the war was what pushed it over, like the conversations had started before the war.

Oh, [00:06:00] yes. Oh, yes. But then the war was actually what caused you to just, we need to move forward. Right.

Alvina Federwitz: I mean, the war took out our missionaries. Yeah. You know, just like that. I mean, we, we were a team of 64 missionaries there, I mean, 64 people there. And all of a sudden, you know, we were all gone for a little bit.

And then my husband and I were the first to return. And I mean, then we needed to depend

Molly Poppe: on them. When you were pulled from the country, did you stay in contact with the nationals at first or was it, was it not until after you returned to the country? Well, we returned pretty soon

Alvina Federwitz: there

Molly Poppe: after. Okay.

Alvina Federwitz: Yeah. We just wanted to go back and do a survey and see what was going on and ended up staying.

I guess God just, and both my husband and I came from a pretty simple farm backgrounds. And we could live pretty much without all the creature comforts of life. [00:07:00] And we just took every day as it came. I mean, we were basically the only missionaries that had come back and we just took it day by day, realizing that if the heavy fighting really started, we’d have to leave again, but.

We never did. We just stayed there.

Molly Poppe: Was it just really exciting to be building Libtralo at that time? Or was it, like, nerve wracking? What were the emotions that you had, that they had?

Alvina Federwitz: I don’t know. I, I think it’s much like, I mean, you are in that state now with your children. Mm hmm. You know, you’re not exactly sure how they’re all gonna turn out, but you’re gonna do the best you can to make them, you What they’re going to be as an adult.

Molly Poppe: And

Alvina Federwitz: I think that’s where we were. There were several times when we thought, okay, we’re going to have to leave. I mean, we ended up not staying at the same place. We ended up being in different places at different times because we had Operation [00:08:00] Octopus, where they came in from eight directions into Monrovia, you know, and our life was, you know, I mean, life or death situation.

We had a couple of other missionaries there. We evacuated them. And then my husband and I weren’t quite sure what was the next step, but there was somebody at the embassy that we knew who said, I’m required to leave. You can have my apartment. So we moved to the embassy, you know, and that’s just how the Lord operated.

That’s how we operate it. Not that we were sitting there planning Leptralo, Leptralo evolved as a result of what was taking place because it was obvious with the war that missionaries were not going to be coming back and some did and then ended up having to leave pretty suddenly and we just kind of hung in there and the Lord protected us.

I mean, very clearly protected us many a good number of times when we knew that he was watching over us. Cause there was several coups, several times when they tried to take over and we knew [00:09:00] that the Lord was watching out for us. I mean, we were walking from the office, which was around six or seven miles from our home where we were living.

And we met the rebels that were creating the coup and we knew that we were probably going to be shot. Wow. And they walked by us like they didn’t even see us. Wow. And I had this big bag, we called it, it was a Kenya bag. And as we were leaving the office, the Nationals stuck a bunch of stuff in there that they thought was important.

And yet, you know, they had their guns, they had them aimed. ahead of them. And I remember my husband saying, well, I think we’re going to be meeting the Lord today. And they, they just walked right past us.

Molly Poppe: Wow. Wow. I just think of that as that Isaiah, where it says, and you walk through fire and not be burned.

Like that’s just the first thing. I just imagine you walking with just the Lord surrounding you. And that [00:10:00] is incredible.

Rich: It is really amazing to reflect just how, you know, they were able to walk through these dangerous situations and clearly the Lord was providing for them, protecting them, whether just moving in the hearts of the people or making it so they couldn’t see them.

I don’t really know, but I think that is pretty amazing. And again, you just hear Elvina’s heart. Because it was on Dale’s heart that this, this process of handing over and making sustainable Bible ministry become a reality, that it was on her heart too. And then again, as she says, the war sort of becomes a catalyst.

Like now, while we’ve been thinking and kicking this idea around, we have no choice but to really lean into this. And, and I find that to be fascinating and very forward thinking on their part. Next, we’re going to hear from Jim Lash. Jim Lash, again, a time of the situation in Liberia in the mid 80s and 90s, was an administrator here, and we don’t get into this in the podcast or many of our published materials, but I can say, and Jim would say if he was talking to you about this, that this was [00:11:00] a cataclysmic time.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment in our history, but it was also a moment that nearly drove the organization into the ground, trying to figure out and pivot from all of this. And you know, the Lord’s faithfulness, even through difficult times is evident here. And so just listen to Jim’s take on how these moments from an administrator point of view, trying to work these things out and what this looked like from his perspective.

Molly Poppe: So did that. Change those conversations and how everything was established with LibTralo. Did that kind of inform where LBT went from there and how things were for, like you said, there were things you would have changed and done differently, but. And I mean, obviously everyone feels that way when we look back, but as you went into new countries, did that inform how you established things there?

Jim Laesch: So I would say that actually happened in the early 1990s. Okay. Where we made sort of shifts of perspective of having [00:12:00] more indigenous participation and that programs were based on a, or a project model where LBT and LBT people didn’t call all the shots. And we strove to play our part in our role and then to, to have the partnerships and.

Before so that, and already like in Cameroon, when that country was opened for LBT already that. Model was in use. So that was even in the 1980s. And so a partnership was between LBT and the Lutheran church there. I would say later on, we then like added, you know, the Bible society to be part of that also.

And then of course, with SIL who had an office there. So that every project always had [00:13:00] these, this collaboration and a number of Well, because when he went to Ghana as first LBT people there, and, uh, on a long term basis, you know, it was that same sort of model that we used in his partnership with, you know, national organizations and institutions.

So we, we didn’t, and I always was a believer whenever possible, not to sort of start our own organization or help start a, LBT dash Liberia or Bible translation, Liberia branch, but to actually strengthen existing organizations that shared vision and shared programs. And they could build and invest with that.

So, you know, working partnership in the early 1990s, we actually had a name. Forrest, we, we called it the. Indigenous program model, IPM, [00:14:00] within LBT. I don’t know if we’d use those words today. We probably wouldn’t, but at that time already that shift was being, you know, made and how LBT did its work around the world.

And so in Liberia, what did that mean? That, that meant. In saying what, what do we believe the plans for the next year and budget for the next year was always done not with what sort of the LBT missionary or consultant thought, but sitting down together with the people working in the program and the community and, and the partner organization to figure out what’s possible and let’s be done together.

Very often those programs were only funded by LBT. There wasn’t always a lot of other funding, although we did have a lot of joint projects with the Bible Society as well. [00:15:00] Rightly or wrongly, one of the strategic tactical decisions I made, I would say it was a practical decision, was that translation project and their structure for, for planning and accountability, hiring people, publishing.

Thank you. You know, and so forth. We made LBT participate with the National Bible Society. And language development and surveys, literacy in particular, then was to be with Lib Trollo. Again, in hindsight, Dale Federwitz and I should have had a lot, and others should have all had more meetings and more discussions about all of that, rather than just kind of saying, okay, this is where we do things.

And I don’t want to say that was purely that way, but more discussion could have been done. So I would say, you know, some of those experience where we look back and said, Oh, we really shouldn’t talk this through more, have an impact with how LBT operates today, so that like when we went to Ghana. [00:16:00] Or we went to Botswana, Southern Africa and other countries, we would invest more heavily in what are the sort of pre project planning and discussion and what roles people play and, and so forth.

So that sort of preparation phase of a project. It’s significant and important, even though from an American point of view, like get in there and get one, what needs to be done that needs to be done. Okay. Yeah, we can build this bridge here. We can get this engineer. Let’s get these guys over here to do it.

You know, we often think that we have the best approach and way to solve problems and bring technology and resources and money to do something. But if you jump in too quickly. With a lot of those ideas, then the local initiative and ownership, and we’ll sort of take a backseat and say, okay, they really want to do this themselves.

We’ll let them do it. [00:17:00] So, so this notion of, you know, lots of community meetings and seeing where. There’s interest in trying to sort of fan that flame of interest, you know, has a greater role, you know, since those 1990s period of time.

Rich: All right. So there’s Jim’s perspective on things here. And again, you hear a theme developing that you come to realize that the right people are in the right place and you start to shift your point of view and perspective about.

how to get things done. And in that vein, I want to take a quick excursus to another section of the interview with Jim and Molly. That’s kind of off topic, but it is interesting in terms of rewind a few years back to Jim’s earlier years in the village and just how people perceived what was going to be happening with their language and how that still leads to some levels of suspicion and some [00:18:00] difficulty, but also great opportunity today and, and the opportunity to really lean into local leadership as a way to say, no, there’s nothing really suspicious going on here, but just take a quick listen to Jim’s take on how the, the economics of the time and maybe still to this day in some areas, the economics of the current time, create some difficulties that genuine and authentic partnership can remedy.

Jim Laesch: So in a very often we. I think we as an LBT have a perspective that, of course, everyone would like to have the Bible in their language, but that’s not necessarily so. So let me tell you a story. I mean, Laura and I lived in the rainforest jungle, southeastern Liberia, and these places were just, they have, people have lived and survived and thrived for generations and generations.

Then all of a sudden, you know, like the government comes through to build a road and then logging companies come in to [00:19:00] build a road. And so we lived there in the 1970s when logging companies then came in to harvest timber and whenever you build roads. That’s when civilization starts to change. People get more mobile and they’re moving.

And already people had walked for days to go down and work at the Firestone rubber plantation. And so these were all important parts of the economy and, but they bring about change. And in Liberia, the common thinking about education was if you want to advance, you want to learn English. You want to become literate, you want a good education and be civilized, you know, and so the.

Indigenous languages were really seen, and I had many people tell me, they said, no, we, we, when we went to school, they told us that was the devil’s language. You cannot speak that language. Children would get beaten if they, and sent home, if they spoke their language. [00:20:00] And I’ve had many, many Liberian friends just described this to me and very, And so not unlike in the United States here, Native Americans, you know, their children were confiscated and taken and put into schools so they would be taught English and lose their Indian heritage, language, and culture.

And that’s the viewpoint that it was seen. So in the past, you know, 50, and especially 25 years and over time, these perspectives change. But when we lived in the village, you know, 1975, and then it came time, we were making that trip back to America. And then people would say, what are you going to do?

You’ve been here learning our language and studying our language. How much will people pay you for it? You know, I was thinking their mind was, I was there gathering the language and doing it. So I [00:21:00] could take it back to America and sell it. Now, why would they think that the only other white people really who showed up there were people from logging companies and mining companies.

And what do they do? They come to extract and to take and to sell.

Molly Poppe: So

Jim Laesch: why not? Well, that’s the frame of mind that people would have, you know, automatically, unless you really made an effort to say, Oh no, we’re, we’re here, you know, to be a blessing and she’s to work with the church. And so that took years really to, you know, just help in lots of those, It’s discussions and demonstrations and will there still be misunderstanding?

Sure, there will be, you just have to try to talk through that. So even today to primary education in the local language, uh, in Liberia is still somewhat of a struggle. [00:22:00]

Rich: So again, I, I really liked that story framed in the framework of authentic partnership and creating space for dialogue and co creative thought toward local program goals can help to alleviate some of this suspicion, can help to really build sustainability and, and create ownership and, you know, desired vision towards shared goals in the Bible translation movement.

So, we’re going to wrap up by hearing from David Federwitz. David is Elvina’s son, and again, as I mentioned at the outset here, he was in high school at the time of the Civil War, and has some reflections on what things look like from there, and I just love Elvina, Jim, and David basically, I think in every one of the interviews, even the excerpts that we’re going to share here, They’ll eventually refer to each other as the person that will know best about this, but, you know, very close group of folks and, and really that recognition and, and the respect for each other, but David’s going to tell things from his perspective and then really sort [00:23:00] of.

Again, just walk us through how these are our moments that are God moments, even when they look terrible. I mean, there’s a scripture passage, of course, from Romans that we know that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purposes. And yet, There are so many terrible things that happen in life and sometimes you don’t get the privilege to see how God keeps that promise that we can only know that he has or he will.

But in this, in this situation with enough reflection, we can see in spite of great suffering and there are many people who suffered and even lost their lives in this war. The Lord was at work and yeah, it’s just really encouraging. So take a listen to David.

David Federwitz: Okay. We also, we’ve seen this with COVID, right?

You know, so like COVID comes disrupts everything. Look at all the churches that are having online services now. Okay, you can look at that and say, Wow, people aren’t coming to church. And that’s sad, but then you also look at it and say, [00:24:00] there’s a lot more opportunity for people to go to church, which is great, you know, so there sometimes what we look at as, I mean, even, um, Joseph said to his brothers, you know what you meant for evil God, you know, use for good or what you intended for evil God used for good.

And sometimes we can look at that in a situation that we’re going through, whether it’s civil war, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s. You know, even that our pastor takes a call, right? And you’re like, Oh my goodness, this is like the worst thing ever. But God has a way because he’s a redeeming God and he’s a regenerating, like he, he’s a God of regenerate.

He just has a way of taking those things that are just terrible. And working them into good. And sometimes we, as people, don’t have patience to wait for God to do that. And sometimes God surprises us with how quickly it happens. And sometimes God [00:25:00] surprises us with how slow He is. You know, so you just don’t know.

Molly Poppe: Yeah, no, it’s true. And God can do so much. And we limit Him when we think, Oh, this civil war, I guess we can’t work in this country anymore. But instead, we limit Him. God put the right people there, obviously through your parents and Jim and everything like that, who had their eyes open.

David Federwitz: And then the Liberians who were there, who made it work.

And then you get the Liberians who stood on the board who, during, you know, In the middle of the Civil War, they’re creating an organization. Right. And you know, they don’t, that’s amazing. They don’t know. Yeah. They don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna hold. They may have to, to run out of their houses with the clothes on their back, you know?

But yet they’re forming an organization.

Molly Poppe: Yeah. That that is true. That is incredible to think about.

David Federwitz: Yeah.

Molly Poppe: Just really amazing what God did there and the people he knew were gonna be there at that time. Were placed there and living there and, yeah. So. Very cool.

David Federwitz: I would not have thought about this unless you asked the question, and that is, [00:26:00] because of what happened in Liberia with the Civil War and with kind of birthing Libtralo, LBT was ahead of the curve, I would say of almost all the Bible translation agencies in the sense of all of a sudden, in just that, I would say a short period of time.

Recognizing that our expatriate missionaries were on the sidelines. They were all out. They were all in the United States speaking at their churches, raising support, but essentially on the sidelines, they could not get back to Liberia.

Molly Poppe: So

David Federwitz: what that did is it made linkages back to people in Liberia. In the language community.

Now, keep in mind, this was before cell phones, email was just barely a thing.

Molly Poppe: Okay. This

David Federwitz: is back when you would check email once a week because you’re not getting that many messages. [00:27:00] It didn’t really matter.

Molly Poppe: Yeah.

David Federwitz: And so you, and then mail, you know, you have written letters, but that would take forever. And then with the civil war, the post office was closed down and everything.

So it was hard for the missionaries sitting on the sideline to communicate with people in Liberia. But in, in as much as they were able to communicate with people in Liberia, they were relying on those people in Liberia, in those language communities. So a lot of times you can ask my mom about this.

Actually. A lot of times my parents became sort of the link or the conduit. So my parents had email. So missionaries who were in the United States, let’s say a missionary who was, I’m just going to make this up. Let’s say a missionary who was assigned to P you know, the Cron people. Yeah. Doing Bible translation for the Qur’an or literacy for the Qur’an there in the United States.

They can’t go to Liberia, but mom and dad are there. Okay, for most of the Civil War mom and dad were there. And so they would send an [00:28:00] email, mom and dad would get the email, but it’s not a, it’s not an email to mom and dad. It’s an email to whoever was in the cron, you know, mom and dad would print that out almost like a letter, print it out, give it to that cron person.

The cron person would basically do their work assignment that they were given by the missionary, right? Or a list of data and send it back to the missionary again, using that same, you know, Like backwards channel, giving it to my parents. Mom would type it up, send it as an email. OK, so what happened is LBT started realizing the importance of working with.

We always were working with indigenous people, but we were doing it. kind of our own way. But when you have to work through somebody else, you start doing it, you start doing it their way. And then, and so, you know, it was clunky at first, but in a way it’s, you [00:29:00] streamline the process. First, it’s kind of, I would say, missionary driven, like missionary driven questions, work assignments, those kinds of things.

But then, As time goes on, those Liberians who are working in their community, they’re starting to say, oh, what if we did this? What if we did that? You know? And they’re talking to my mom and dad and saying, what if we did this? Then all of a sudden they start getting involved in a way that, in almost in a decision making or in a strategy kind of way.

Can we link this up with some relief work or something like that? And so in a sense that civil war was like a catalyst for moving LBT in the direction of more local ownership. And like I said, then that put us, I would say that put us probably five or 10 years ahead of most of the rest of the Bible translation world, most of the Bible translation agencies and thing.

Okay. How do we [00:30:00] foster better local ownership? Because we see that the local ownership is key. What do you guys have at the table already? Or what can you bring to the table? How can we work together? Rather than This is, you know, LBT, we’re just coming in, we’re doing it and, you know, we’re going to pay you to work alongside us, but we’re doing it and you can help us versus this is what you’re doing.

Now LBT will come in and, and help you accomplish what you want to the point where, when, when Valerie and I went to Ghana and we were together with Nathan and Thera Essela, I think you knew that. So as we work together in Ghana, that, that partnership was different than how LBT had worked before that. In that partnership, our LBT primary partner was the Lutheran church of Ghana, but then we also worked with the Bible society [00:31:00] of Ghana and we worked with the Comba community.

And so we have a, an agreement, an MOU, memorandum of understanding. It’s a four way MOU, okay? LBT, Bible Society, ELCG, and Quilevia Trap. So those four coming together. That, I don’t think that would have happened had the civil war in Liberia not happened if it had not changed the way we in LBT think.

Rich: Yeah, just again, just amazing to see the Lord’s hand to, to put things that are really difficult and problematic in the framework of the Lord is at work.

I can trust that the Lord’s at work, even when I can’t see it. And, uh, like David says, sometimes it happens really fast and sometimes it happens a lot slower than you’d want. And sometimes we lose sight of the fact that God’s at work and we don’t really want to wait for that. And yet the Lord is faithful in all.

And so I hope you’ve been [00:32:00] encouraged by this episode here. And just a look that we haven’t really explored much in our conversations about our own history in Lutheran Bible translators, but the real pivotal moment that exists because of the Liberian civil war and the faithful leaders who had the vision to know God still called us into a mission.

God’s still asking us to. Be at work in this, and we’re going to lean into how best to do that. That really forms an important part of our ethos to this day, how we approach partnership, how we view the importance of community engagement, co creative planning and processing, how we believe the Lord is leading us to be aligned with local communities and the church as we move forward into the next generation of Bible ministry.

And Lib Trotlow is not just a, uh. A feature of the past, we are currently still in partnership with, uh, the Liberian Translation and Literacy Organization. You can find out about our work with them by going to our website at lbt. org and navigating to the programs page, [00:33:00] or you can type directly in lbt.

org slash Liberia hyphen translation. That’s Liberia hyphen translation. Thanks for listening, everyone. God bless. Thank you for listening to the Essentially Translatable Podcast brought to you by Lutheran Bible Translators. You can find past episodes of the podcast at lbt. org slash podcast or subscribe on Audible, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Follow Lutheran Bible Translators social media channels on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, or go to lbt. org to find out how you can get involved in the Bible translation movement and put God’s Word in their hands. The Essentially Translatable Podcast is edited and produced by Audrey Seider. Artwork designed by Sarah Rudowske.

Music written and performed by Rob Veith. I’m Rich Rudowske, so long for [00:34:00] now.


  • Stories from the Liberian Civil War are shared in reflection of the 60-year history of Lutheran Bible Translators. 
  • The civil war prompted the organization to prioritize local ownership of translation projects—an innovative decision.  
  • Learn more about LIBTRALO here 

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