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Translation as a Tool for Equal Information Access in Crises

By Sharon O'Brien, Professor of Translation Studies in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University

The GCLR supports grass roots advocacy efforts and promotes the voices of language advocates around the world by publishing their content on our blog. The views expressed in this post are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Coalition.

The Great East Japan earthquake of 2011 is an example of a disaster in recent memory. Some might argue that the ongoing pandemic is also a disaster. But, what constitutes a crisis, emergency or disaster is not agreed in the field of Disaster Studies. Generally, a crisis is a sudden occurrence that has a negative impact on an individual, group, regional, national or even global population. The three terms are usually differentiated by the scale and impact of the event. What do crises have to do with language and, specifically, with translation?

One thing we have learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic is that accurate and timely information is crucial for effective crisis response. This is not a ‘new’ learning. We have known this for a very long time, but the global pandemic has brought it home to us, literally and figuratively. Given the globalised nature of large parts of our planet today, with the inherent multilingualism and multiculturalism in our societies, crisis communication can no longer be monolingual. Those responsible for emergency response have learned, some perhaps the hard way, that only communicating in one dominant language is ineffective if you want to bring all members of your society with you on a journey out of a crisis. In fact, many linguistically marginalized communities may end up not being informed at all due to lack of information in their language and end up at a higher risk of loss of life during a crisis situation, thus it is important to have a communication plan that reaches all members of a community during a crisis event. Enter the crucial role of translation for crisis communication. Translation is a core tool in the crisis communication toolbox for ensuring equal access to essential information, but, until recently, it was largely ignored.

When people think about ‘translation’ in a crisis, their first thoughts usually turn to interpreting (the act of oral translation) and to the immediate stage of crisis response. For example, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake we can visualise an interpreter assisting an ambulance crew. Yet translation has a much wider application in crisis response and can play a much bigger role in providing access to essential information for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.

Emergency response policies

Crisis response and communication is normally the remit of national or regional governments and so the need for translation ought to be recognised in formal emergency response policies.

As part of an EU-funded project called INTERACT, my colleagues and I carried out an analysis of five national emergency response policies to investigate whether they recognised the multilingual composition of their national populations and how that was factored into crisis response policy. We examined policies for New Zealand, Japan, the UK, Ireland and the USA.

The need for translation was recognised by all national crisis response policies, but to a very limited extent. It was not clear how these countries might mobilise translation for crisis response. Of course some national policies were better than others. For a more detailed description the full paper can be accessed here.

Although this was a glimpse at just five national policies, it suggested that bodies responsible for crisis communication had not quite caught up with the changing multilingual make-up of today’s societies. An inherent assumption is that everyone living in a particular region should speak and read and comprehend the dominant language(s). This risks leaving people behind in a crisis. Our project produced ten recommendations for improving policies for crisis translation.

Disaster cycles

Disasters are often studied using a four-stage ‘cycle’ of s Response, Recovery, Mitigation and Preparedness. The written form of translation (translating, for example, posters, leaflets, website content etc.) plays a very important role in the recovery, mitigation and preparedness stages of this cycle, but this fact largely goes unacknowledged.

Think, for example, of trying to apply for insurance coverage if your house has been destroyed by an earthquake and the form you have to fill in is in a language you struggle with. Add this to the trauma you and your family may be enduring and you have a very difficult situation.

If that form had at least been translated into a language you understand well, and can write, it would make a big difference. During traumatic periods, it’s hard to operate even in a language you master. Consider how difficult this might be if you have very little or no competence in the dominant language, or if you have low or no literacy!

Translating Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic forced governments to eventually recognise that failing to provide access to information for culturally and linguistically diverse communities in their regions would compromise the fight against the virus.

My colleagues and I carried out an analysis of how well Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) did in relation to translation of pandemic-related information in the early days of the pandemic. Despite the lack of formal recognition in the national emergency response policy, the HSE managed to translate information into at least 24 different languages. This was quite an impressive achievement.

Nonetheless, issues still prevailed that speak to a relative immaturity in understanding of multilingual crisis response. For example, much of the translated information was hosted on the HSE website. As a speaker of Polish, for example, you first had to know that the information was there, you had to navigate to the website and then you had to figure out how to find the Polish translations on the website, because it was definitely not obvious. The issue here is one of web content accessibility as well as language access and is not unique to Ireland. Web content accessibility, as defined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, is frequently overlooked in web site localisation in non-crisis periods. The negative consequences of this oversight for deaf-blind communities are exacerbated when a crisis occurs.

In addition, it raises the question of relevant communication modalities. Embedding content on a website and hoping that relevant stakeholders might eventually find it, if they have the patience to search for it, is not best practice. Crisis communicators need to understand who the CALD stakeholders are and how they normally access content (social media?, radio?, churches? community groups?) so that they can tailor not only the message but also the communication medium. Having connections with people who can form bridges to the larger community is an essential part of this puzzle.

Other potentially vulnerable communities

Providing information for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or who have other disabilities is also an area of study in crisis translation. Sign language interpreting plays a really important role for ensuring that these communities have access to crucial information in a crisis.

Governments’ track records are not always stellar when it comes to thinking about the needs of these people. For example, significant lobbying was required by deaf people in Ireland to ensure that the government provided essential information during two serious storms in 2017 and 2018.

Furthermore, while ageing is not considered a ‘disability,’ our increasingly digital society presents considerable barriers and challenges to older people when they are expected to navigate websites, email, social media etc. just to gain access to essential information and services. A key example here is the anxiety felt by many older people if they had to book a PCR test or a vaccination appointment online during the pandemic. This issue requires another kind of ‘crisis translation’, i.e. translation of content and services to a format and mode that allows for fair access despite the level of digital skills.

Translation technology

Technology, of course, presents us with opportunities, not only barriers. We have seen very significant improvements in translation technology in the past few decades, in particular in what is called ‘machine translation’ (MT) systems, such as Google Translate, DeepL, Microsoft Bing, to name just a few. A typical response from the uninitiated when we lobby for crisis translation is: why not just use MT? Indeed, why not?

MT can be really useful for some contexts and some language pairs. However, its use is not without considerable risks due to the technology’s immature state. Errors in meaning can and do occur. If that error could have serious consequences for well-being or life, as could be the case in crisis settings, clearly MT is not the solution. This topic is so much more complex, however, and possibly deserves its own dedicated blog entry.

In the meantime, INTERACT produced a series of freely available, very short, introductory YouTube courses on translation for anyone operating in a crisis setting and we included some ‘101’ content on MT. An initiative of the University of Ottawa has also produced some very nice resources on MT Literacy in general for those who are interested in learning more about the critical use of this technology.

There are many more topics being studied in the domain of ‘crisis translation’ such as, for example, volunteer translation, training, ethics and so on, which are too plentiful to delve into here. We have published an edited volume that provides a broad perspective and a second one is due out in November 2022.

What’s clear to us from our research so far is that translation is a vital crisis communication tool for enabling fair access to information and progress can only be made through collaboration of all stakeholders, including emergency responders, CALD communities, translators and translation scholars.


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