Translating COVID messages vital for Indigenous health

3 June 2020

Health messages are absolutely critical and they have be culturally appropriate and delivered by the right people

COVID-19?has?underlined the urgent?need for a?coordinated?national?framework of?interpreters and translation services?for?Australia's?Indigenous languages, say?leading experts.?

Indigenous community members, academics and?language researchers have raced?to?translate crucial COVID-19 health messaging into 29?Australian?Indigenous languages with a further 50 to 100 languages still to go.??

To help,?the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) based at The Australian National University (ANU) has established a?resource?and information clearing house?for?translated materials.??

Director of?CoEDL,?Professor?Nicholas Evans said getting?correct?messages?to many?Indigenous?communities has been?an enormous undertaking.??

"While the health messages are absolutely critical, they also have be culturally appropriate and delivered by the right people," he said.?

"Messaging around?restricting numbers at?funerals and 'sorry camps'?-?where friends and family gather?after a person's death?-?have had to be communicated very?sensitively.??

"Our race to translate these important messages has shown the vital need for?a central communications group for Indigenous communities?to be established?and built into emergency plans."?

According to Professor Evans, ensuring the wellbeing of Indigenous Australian communities in a health emergency also?requires?ongoing education?and the development of new ways of talking about disease and epidemiology in First Nations languages.?

"There's also a lot background teaching that has to be done first, like the basics of epidemiology, germ theory, what an incubation period is and why asymptomatic people still pose a danger, that's so much more than just translating five measures people should take,"?Professor Evans?said.??

"You can't?simply translate a message like 'cough into your elbow' without ensuring people understand the nuances behind?such a?message."?

Professor Evans?said?COVID-19?had?necessitated?developing?local?languages?in ways?that haven't been?done before.??

"Rather than just translating words and phrases, it's?about?taking apart a?complex?concept?and?rebuilding?it?using existing aspects of your?language?to convey the message?and its importance.?That takes real skill and intimate knowledge of a language and its speakers," he said.?

"Some?aspects of Aboriginal cultural law lend themselves to?this.?There are?traditional?rules?of physical avoidance?running right through Indigenous Australia, like?between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law.??

"So there's?often a verb?in a language?that means to keep a respectful distance from your?son-in-law and?by using that word you?can explain social distancing quite accurately."?

The translation of crucial COVID health messaging?has been amplified by?the?CoEDL?network of four Australian university nodes (ANU,?University?of Melbourne, University?of Queensland and?University?of Western Sydney), their affiliates, Aboriginal?communities,?and?people working?as linguists?and in?interpreting services.??

The?clearing house for translated materials?and resources?has been managed, maintained and made accessible by the voluntary work of?CoEDL?and ANU affiliates?Ruth Singer and?Mahesh?Radhakrishnan.??

The resources are now online.??

Visual Collection of resources?in Indigenous languages:?

Visual Collection of resources in English aimed at Indigenous communities in remote areas:?