The key role of translation in ensuring that life-saving Covid-19 information reaches minority language communities within countries

Published in:  Translation industry

Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

Never before has translation been as important as during the current coronavirus pandemic. Understanding relevant medical terms is vital at all times but all the more so during a global health crisis, where compliance to containment measures is critical in order to protect individuals and the community at large. Governments have either not systematically been sharing information about the coronavirus in languages other than the official language of the country, or have not done this in a timely manner, and, as a result, regional and minority language communities risk getting “lost in translation”. Thanks to calls from NGOS, international organisations (including the EU Commission and Council of Europe), community advocates and civil society activists worldwide, things are now moving. Different organisations have pitched in to support national government efforts, adapting communication channels and formats, where necessary.

Examples include medical schools (in the US, at Harvard, for American indians), regional authorities (in Australia, for aboriginal populations), social cooperatives (in Italy, for migrants), newspapers (US, La Noticia, for Hispanic communities), immigration and settlement agencies (Canada), community radios (Mexico), city councils (Oslo, Norway), provincial language publishing houses (China), police forces (East Anglia, UK), medical charities (UK, Doctors of the World) and artists (Bollywood actors in India). For languages which are not written, e.g. in Tibet, materials have been translated into video and audio formats by village leaders. At the international level the non profit Translators without Borders  is doing a commendable job by building a glossary to standardize COVID-19 related key words across different dialects. And, as the pandemic spreads to nations with lower literacy rates and more vulnerable groups of people, it is working on alternative communication channels and formats.

Face-to-face translation of medical information is also major issue, even in the best of times, and gaps widen of course in times of crisis. In hospital settings, for example, difficulties in finding interpreters can lead to Covid-19 patients who do not speak the mainstream language not getting proper attention and care. According to the US non profit ProPublica , with more than 40,000 confirmed cases within New York City limits, 49% of which speak a language other than English at home, mistakes can be made during triage, as underlying conditions may get overlooked, and patients well enough to go home may misunderstand their discharge instructions, causing them to not quarantine properly. This, in turn, represents a threat for the population at large.

Looking ahead to the future, the coronavirus pandemic may serve to view the translation and interpretation profession under a new light, and make us rethink our assumptions about the roles of “smaller” languages.