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

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.