People walk past an ebola treatment centre in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo: Getty
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How translators can help stem the ebola crisis

Ignorance about ebola can be as fatal as bodily contact with an infected person. The problem is that most information about how to prevent ebola is not available in the languages understood by the people at risk.

The international community has agreed that more must be done to contain ebola’s spread. Yet while people decry the shortage of funds for all the needed field hospitals and hazmat suits, there is one relatively low-cost, low-tech solution that is barely discussed: translation.

Ignorance about ebola can be as fatal as bodily contact with an infected person. People at risk need to know how to prevent infection and what to do if someone around them catches it. Communicating this information is a key strategy to halting the epidemic. Prevention has the added benefit of being much cheaper than the cure. The problem is that – unbelievable as it may seem – most information about how to prevent ebola is not available in the languages understood by the people most at risk.

The ebola communication failure was recently highlighted by UNICEF, Focus 1000 and Catholic Relief Services. In September the organisations reported that in Sierra Leone – one of three West African nations at the epicentre of the outbreak - nearly a third of the people believe ebola comes from mosquitoes, or the air. Almost two-thirds could not identify the ways to prevent the disease.

Clearly, the message is just not getting through to the people most likely to be infected and to become, in turn, carriers of ebola. Translators without Borders believes that the failed communication efforts in West Africa are directly related to language barriers.

In Sierra Leone, the use of English is limited to the educated minority. Similarly, in Liberia, despite its founding by freed American slaves, only 20 per cent of the population speaks English. Untranslated posters, flyers, banners and billboards that are aimed at educating the public are, in fact, educating the minority elite because they are the ones who speak English. For the vast majority of West Africans, English information is of no more use than Swedish would be in the UK.

The translation industry has been saying this all along. According to Gary Muddyman, CEO of UK translation agency Conversis and Advisor to Translators without Borders, “in order for any material to qualify as ‘information’, it must be produced in the language of the intended audience. Otherwise it serves no purpose at all.”

Besides the obvious benefit in promoting understanding, making sure information is in the culturally appropriate language also builds trust. Messages in English that “ebola is real” failed to convince a group of young men who raided a quarantined clinic in Monrovia in August, sending 20 infected patients into the community and stealing even the blood-stained mattresses.

Trust is also important when you want to change behaviour. Today, in the interest of public health, people in west Africa are being asked to abandon cultural traditions, such as bathing the bodies of their deceased family members. Addressing someone in a foreign language is not the best way to convince them to make profound changes in their customs and practices.

Fortunately, translation offers a solution to the language gap. The UNICEF report cited above singles out the use of local languages as a lead recommendation.

Admittedly, adapting to local languages is not as easy as it sounds. With over 2,000 languages, Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent on Earth. Translating and printing materials in all the relevant dialects would be prohibitively expensive. However, a relatively small number of regional African languages can provide decent coverage in the affected areas. For example, there are 522 languages spoken in Nigeria, but only three – Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo – will reach over 65 per cent of the population.

Cost as a barrier all but disappears when the Internet enters the equation. Mobile technology is ubiquitous. Over 65 per cent of the people on the African continent have access to a mobile phone, even the very poor. Besides translating printed Ebola information into some of the major local languages, Translators without Borders has also been translating online information accessible on mobile phones via Wikipedia. In the right languages, online information is not only effective, but provides a scaleable way of reaching large numbers of people.

In the coming days, weeks or months, it’s likely that ebola will come to the UK as it continues its march across the globe. In order to contain this epidemic while we still can, it's critical to empower people with the facts about prevention in a language that they understand.

Lori Thicke is the founder and president of non-profit organisation Translators without Borders, the world's largest translation charity. She also founded Lexcelera, a translation company with offices in Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Vancouver. For more information on the charity or how to support it, please visit: translatorswithoutborders.org

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.