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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. Whilst crises happen in many countries during the course of a year, it’s incredibly rare for the entire world to be struggling with the same problem. A global outbreak of a dangerous illness requires a global response, and that means fast, efficient and, most crucially, accurate communication of information is vital. Billions of people need free access to public health information in a language they speak fluently.
How have translation services helped in the fight against Covid-19 and what is the future of the medical translation services sector during these times?
In 1918, the world was hit by the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which infected approximately 500 million people, one third of the global population. About 50 million people died, 2% of the planet at that time. This health catastrophe taught lessons the hard way, and the world was forced to come together to develop unprecedented scientific collaborations to deal with future pandemics. The sharing of information and data on viruses among different nations was recognised as a critical tool in global efforts against epidemic and pandemic illnesses. It became clear that the swift distribution of this data to important parties such as hospitals, research units, medical institutions and universities would quite literally save lives.
Fast forward a century and a new global pandemic began to emerge. Covid-19 started with a cluster of cases in Wuhan, China in early December 2019. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 20th 2020. From this moment China and the WHO began sharing information about the virus around the world, and, as the virus spread, other countries began sharing advice and information too. How was all of this information understood? Through translation.
The first weapon in the fight against Covid-19 was information and data sharing, putting language on the frontline. People need to be able to access healthcare and understand public health protocols, such as social distancing and hand washing, as well as what to do if they get ill. They also need to be informed about changes to unemployment benefit, furlough schemes, lockdown measures, housing rights and many other factors. This is no small task, as 726,000 people in the UK do not speak English well, and they all need to receive safe and accurate information. With 300 different languages spoken in London alone, the translation of this information is vital for public health safety.
At Brightlines, we translated Covid materials for Doctors of the World into various third-world languages for distribution in the UK, including Malayalam, Amharic, Tigrinya and Somali. Though accuracy is important in all translation, it is especially so in healthcare translation. This is why our translators are not just professional translators, but they are also qualified in a related technical discipline and have also worked within the healthcare industry, in medicine, medical technology or pharmaceuticals.
Whilst machine translation has its place, it should be approached with caution when it comes to something as serious as Covid-19. Whilst simple instructional or technical texts may be easily translated using something like Google Translate, it isn’t able to deal with the kind of nuanced translations that humans are capable of. A recent article in Wired magazine cited an example of the Japanese equivalent of ‘wash your hands’ being translated by Google Translate. The result was technically grammatically correct, but the style was appropriate for a parent to say to a child. When being used on posters aimed at adults, this could reduce compliance due to the messaging being viewed as patronising or condescending.
Another problem with machine translation is that it isn’t even an option for some languages. Google Translate supports 109 languages, out of 7,117 languages currently spoken in the world. Though less than 1000 people speak 40% of these languages and just 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population, it’s clear that machine translation can’t reach everyone. It takes organisations staffed by real people to make information about mitigating the risk of the pandemic available in many different languages. One example of this is the Endangered Languages Project, which has coordinated a multilingual response to Covid-19 in over 500 languages.
The changes brought to the world by Covid-19 aren’t just to do with medicine and health. Due to lockdowns, a huge amount of people have spent much of this year working from home, and many will continue to do so. Face-to-face events, from casual meetings to international conferences, have been forced to move online. Video, already the most popular form of content on the internet, has become a crucial method of communication for businesses and organisations, and are used for things like staff training, which may once have been done in person. Translating these materials offers global reach, which is crucial at a time when travel options are limited.
Another sector that translation can help during the pandemic is education. With so much learning now having to happen online, translation broadens the appeal of e-learning material and opens it up for people who may previously not have been able to access it. Universities, for example, can translate online lectures and make them available in a wide variety of different languages. Translating learning materials is particularly important in the face of an economic downturn and potential mass redundancies as it gives people the opportunity to retrain from home.
The importance of translation services in fighting Covid-19 can’t be overstated. Medical data and information needs to be quickly and accurately shared in a huge variety of languages, as does public health information. The pandemic has changed the way we live our lives and translation is vital for us to be able to communicate within work and education settings. It is through the sharing of knowledge that the world can come together and beat Covid-19.