Covid-19: the biggest translation challenge since records began

Covid-19: the biggest translation challenge since records began

Covid-19 has impacted the way things are done across virtually every industry, and it represents arguably the biggest challenge to translation, ever. Pandemics are global, meaning any speaker of any language can become infected. So everyone, regardless of native tongue, needs to be given vital health information. Helpfully, within the UK, Public Health England has produced information leaflets on the virus itself, guidance on social distancing and Covid-19 infection details in Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Gujarati, Polish, Portuguese, Urdu and Welsh.

Yet the challenge doesn’t stop with a handful of primary languages, there are possibly over 7000 languages in the world, some completely unknown. So just how do people stay informed about the virus?


Not all languages are recognised

Keeping people up to date with the correct information involves more than just a quick google-translate. The non-profit organisation Translators without Borders is translating Covid-19 information into 89 languages, 25 of which are not even featured in the app. Of course, for those of us using widely spoken languages, we can simply google our symptoms and find out quickly where to get further assistance. Yet for many Third World language speakers, they may not even have a pamphlet or oral instructions, let alone the internet.

This could be harmful to speakers of exotic languages. For instance, with over 500 languages on the Endangered Languages Project, a crisis like the current pandemic exposes those speakers to multiple dangers and difficulties due to lack of translation. The people who have been most seriously affected are those already marginalised, many of whom from a language point of view. A Congolese community were relying on traditional medicines to prevent coronavirus such as inhaling onion, orange and hot water as they did not have access to key medical details in their language. However, a project member translator has been interpreting key updates in Swahili and Kinyarwanda for Congolese migrants in Mount Gambier. Receiving the information in their native tongue meant they understood it more accurately, started to follow expert advice and were able to ask further questions.


Accuracy is always the best medicine

Medical data needs to be accurate and culturally appropriate, otherwise it risks both negligence and potentially making people unwell. Covid-19 is the first pandemic in human history where we have had not only a comprehensive understanding of diseases and hygiene but at the same time also the need to share medical information rapidly and correctly. Machine translation and apps can be useful for finding a quick word but, for informing people about coronavirus and further updates, it cannot be relied upon to encompass cultural meaning or local complexities.


Human input is needed. Let’s take the phrase “wash your hands”. Google Translate provides the Japanese equivalent ”手を洗いなさい” which is, in fact, how a parent would instruct a child. This indicates how cultural meaning and register need to be given correct importance when targeted at adults. Similarly, for public signs and posters, even something as simple as using the authoritative, French formal polite pronoun “vous”, rather than the familiar “tu”, is important for people to trust the information they are reading.


Overall, the pandemic has highlighted the need for accurate health translation. As well as how translation in general needs to evolve to incorporate many more languages.


At SELBL, we know when people receive information in their own language that they understand it better and more safely. And this is of the utmost importance for all the industries we work in, not only medical. Producing the right information in a timely way that is culturally correct and localised – that is what we are totally passionate about.