Why Culturally Sensitive Translation Is Critical in a Public Health Crisis

Communication is vital in a public health crisis. COVID-19 has shown us just how important it is to disseminate clear, reliable information, and make it available in as many languages as possible.

For the past year, English speakers have been inundated with guidelines for handwashing, debates about indoor dining, and lately, research on the effectiveness of one mask versus two. While this flow of information has been important in helping to protect our safety and well-being, we also receive messaging that is unreliable and contradictory. For those who do not speak English as their primary language, the challenges of identifying and processing reliable information are magnified.

The coronavirus pandemic and early stages of the vaccine rollout have shined spotlights on inequalities throughout our society. The lack of language access further entrenches these inequalities. Inclusive and widespread access to information in one’s native language remains an obstacle for many already vulnerable populations. In this article, we look at translation through the lens of a public health crisis to illustrate the importance of culturally competent language access.

access to information

In a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, taking one action versus another can have significant consequences for an individual and their family. Slowing the spread of the virus requires cooperation from as many people as possible. This makes equal access to information a major public health issue.

Since the start of the pandemic, government agencies at all levels have been racing to educate as many people as possible on the importance of social distancing, handwashing, mask wearing, and testing. As the virus wreaked havoc on society, people needed to stay informed about unemployment benefits, housing rights, meal distribution, and other relief resources. And now, vaccination presents another series of hurdles as states grapple with the logistics of communicating eligibility guidelines, and making online appointment systems and testing sites user-friendly to all.

the need for language access

The social and economic fallout from the pandemic has brought to light an array of inequalities. Factors such as occupation type, housing condition, and healthcare access put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. People with limited means to cope with the crisis have seen their living and working conditions further deteriorate.

In a crisis of information access, those with limited English proficiency are among the vulnerable. This impacts many across the country. According to census data, the number of U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home amounts to over 67 million, or 1 out of 5.1 The census also finds that 8.3% of Americans report speaking English “less than very well.”2

During a public health crisis, speaking English “less than very well” has significant consequences. Miscommunication is more of a problem than ever. If cultural nuances slip through the cracks during translation, people are at risk of misunderstanding the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe. At a time when information must reach everyone, in a language they understand, translated materials must not only be widespread, but accurate, consistent, and culturally appropriate.

For nearly a month, a Google-generated translation on the Virginia Department of Health’s website told Spanish speakers “the vaccine is not required.” The error (since removed) has been attributed to Google Translate. The statement was part of a “Frequently Asked Questions” page that translated “the vaccine is not required” to “la vacuna no es necesaria,” which means “the vaccine is not necessary.”3 Errors like this undermine efforts being made to build confidence in the vaccine and urge individuals in vulnerable communities to get vaccinated.

subtleties matter in translation

Words have power. They contribute to feelings of hope and positivity. Conversely, words can instill panic or fear. Language can have a profound impact on the way people perceive a situation, and how they choose to act, in both positive and negative ways.

English is one of the world’s most nuanced languages, and translation entails more than substituting words from one language to another. The nuances of small statements matter, and the implications are amplified when a message is translated into multiple languages. Translating should always be handled by skilled professional linguists who are native speakers of the target language and have excellent command of the source. This allows them to understand the subtleties and communicate the nuances appropriately. It takes deliberate, informed language usage for a complex message to maintain relevance with the target audience and elicit the intended response.

translating with cultural competency

In order for the intended audiences to read, understand, and apply information, translated materials must be culturally appropriate. Effective translations must be executed by linguists who take into consideration the context, the background of the people they are translating for, and any cultural factors that might impact its effectiveness with the target audience. Otherwise, the information runs the risk of being ignored, misunderstood, or even mistrusted.

public health terminology

The coronavirus pandemic, like other health crises and historic events, has introduced new words and phrases. Terms that may have been obscure outside the medical community have become part of the public consciousness. Social distancing. Flattening the curve. Long-hauler.

The task of translating newly coined words and expressions can be a challenge, as not all new terms translate easily into other languages. A glossary, or term base, is a tool that helps mitigate problems that arise with new terminology. It establishes the most appropriate translations for specific terms and phrases upfront so that they can be used correctly and consistently across materials.

Last spring, the Eriksen Translations team created an 18-language COVID-19 glossary and made it available for download free of charge.

Download the COVID-19 glossary in PDF format:

Arabic  |  Bengali  |  Chinese-Simplified  |  Chinese-Traditional  |  French  |  GreekHaitian Creole  |  Hebrew  |  Hindi  |  Italian  |  Japanese  |  Korean  |  Polish  |  Portuguese  |  Russian  |  Spanish  |  Urdu  |  Yiddish

Download the COVID-19 glossary here in Excel format (includes all languages).

an equitable response

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the need to surmount language barriers. At a time when reliable communication is critical to helping people protect themselves and their communities, we must ensure all people have clear, accurate, and consistent information in their own language. As we continue fighting this public health crisis and begin to rebuild, we must support those who are at risk of being left behind, so we all emerge stronger.

Related Insights

Sources

1. “American Community survey: Languages Spoken at Home” United States Census Bureau, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=Language%20Spoken%20at%20Home&t=Language%20Spoken%20at%20Home&tid=ACSST1Y2019.S1601&hidePreview=false. Accessed February 23, 2021.
2. “People That Speak English Less Than "Very Well" in the United States” United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/people-that-speak-english-less-than-very-well.html. Accessed February 23, 2021.
3. Manzanares, Keyris. “Translation on Virginia Department of Health’s Website Told Spanish Readers They Didn’t Need COVID-19 Vaccine” American Translators Association, https://www.atanet.org/industry-news/translation-on-virginia-department-of-healths-website-told-spanish-readers-they-didnt-need-covid-19-vaccine/ . Accessed February 21, 2021.