Covid-19 Is History’s Biggest Translation Challenge

You, A person who’s currently on the English-speaking internet in The Year of The Pandemic, have definitely seen public service information about Covid-19. You’ve probably been unable to escape seeing quite a lot of it, both online and offline, from handwashing posters to social distancing tape to instructional videos for face covering.

But if we want to avoid a pandemic spreading to all the humans in the world, this information also has to reach all the humans of the world—and that means translating Covid PSAs into as many languages as possible, in ways that are accurate and culturally appropriate.

It’s easy to overlook how important language is for health if you’re on the English-speaking internet, where “is this headache actually something to worry about?” is only a quick Wikipedia article or WebMD search away. For over half of the world’s population, people can’t expect to Google their symptoms, nor even necessarily get a pamphlet from their doctor explaining their diagnosis, because it’s not available in a language they can understand.

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This health-language gap isn’t unique to Covid. Wuqu’ Kawoq|Maya Health Alliance is a nonprofit in Guatemala that’s been providing health support in indigenous Mayan languages such as Kaqchikel and Kʼicheʼ for the past 13 years. An early client of Wuqu’ Kawoq was a Kaqchikel-speaking woman who knew she had diabetes—she could repeat the name that the Spanish-speaking doctors had told her, but a big part of managing diabetes is carefully balancing one’s blood sugar through what one eats, which an opaque, untranslated name didn’t help her with. That is, until Wuqu’ Kawoq developed a name for diabetes in Kaqchikel—kab’kïk’el, literally “sweet blood,” in consultation with medical professionals. The new terminology made it easy for Wuqu’ Kawoq’s health workers to explain how to manage the disease in her native tongue: Your blood is too sweet, you need to make it less sweet by eating less sweet things. With this information, the woman was able to go back and explain to her family how they needed to cook to help her.

Like diabetes, Covid is, for the moment, a lifestyle illness—until we have a vaccine or other treatments, the best way we currently have of managing it is through changing the way we live. All those handwashing and social distancing posters. A doctor can give a pill or a shot to someone who doesn’t understand how it works, but since we don’t have that yet for SARS-CoV-2, we’re facing what the Epidemic Intelligence Service program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a communications emergency—what the WHO calls an “infodemic.”

In the past few months, Wuqu’ Kawoq has expanded from its usual mandate (primary care issues like diabetes, midwifery, and child malnutrition, and accompanying its indigenous clients to Spanish-speaking hospitals for interpretation and advocacy) to looping in translators on telemedicine phone calls with doctors and producing Covid podcasts in Mayan languages to air on local radio—the most effective way of disseminating information at a distance in rural areas where internet service isn’t always available.

That’s just one of many Covid translation projects springing up all over the world. Adivasi Lives Matter has been making info sheets in languages of India including Kodava, Marathi, and Odia. The government of Australia’s Northern Territory has been producing videos in First Nations languages including Yolŋu Matha, Pintupi-Luritja, and Warlpiri. Seattle’s King County has been producing fact sheets in languages spoken by local immigrant and refugee communities, such as Amharic, Khmer, and Marshallese. VirALLanguages has been producing videos in languages of Cameroon, including Oshie, Aghem, and Bafut, starring well-known community members as local “influencers.” Even China, which has historically promoted Mandarin (Putonghua) as the only national language, has been putting out Covid information in Hubei Mandarin, Mongolian, Yi, Korean, and more.

According to a regularly updated list maintained by the Endangered Languages Project, COVID information from reputable sources (such as governments, nonprofits, and volunteer groups that clearly cite the sources of their health advice) has been created in over 500 languages and counting, including over 400 videos in more than 150 languages. A few of these projects are shorter, more standardized information in a larger variety of global languages, such as translating the five WHO guidelines into posters in more than 220 languages or translating the WHO’s mythbuster fact sheets into over 60 languages. But many of them, especially the ones in languages that aren’t as well represented on the global stage, are created by an individual, local groups who feel a responsibility to a particular area, including governments, nonprofits, and volunteer translators with a little more education or internet access.

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