Ebola: Lost in Translation?

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Ebola is a horrible disease, and education is crucial to keeping it contained. Unfortunately, however, most educational campaigns to date are missing an important element: translation.

For example, earlier this week in the New Statesman, Translators Without Borders founder Lori Thicke noted that despite efforts to educate Africans about how the virus is spread and how to protect themselves, ignorance about the disease remains disturbingly high:

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.

One big reason for this lack of knowledge? Information, signs and billboards have so far been mostly distributed in English or French, which only a minority of West Africans speak. Fail.

As TWB told the Telegraph:

“People will die because they do not have access to information in a language they can understand. Whether it is the cultural practice of kissing the dead soon after death, or eating bats, or simply a lack of understanding about how the disease is transmitted or treated, this lack of information leading to lack of knowledge is costing lives and facilitating the spread of the disease.”

Even in English-speaking countries, language barriers often prevent accurate language about Ebola from reaching the most vulnerable immigrant populations.

For example, according to USA Today, it took a week for the Dallas County health department to get Ebola fact sheets translated into the languages spoken by the mostly immigrant population living in the apartments where the first US Ebola victim was staying. The original announcement was distributed in English. Anne Marie Weiss, president of the DFW International Community Alliance, told USA Today that for the most part, residents of the building “don’t speak English. The health department was too slow to translate the documents. It should have happened immediately.”

We have to do better than this!


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