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.

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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