Every act of communication is an act of translation.Gregory Rabassa, translator of Spanish and Portuguese fiction
The translation of public health information is critical in emergency situations, particularly in a country like Canada that welcomes thousands of immigrants every year whose mother tongue is not English or French. A new discipline has been proposed, emergency linguistics, which promotes the inclusion of language professionals on front-line teams; the effort could help doctors communicate with patients and ensure disaster preparedness committees follow good communication practices.
Protecting vulnerable communities
The adoption of emergency linguistics could save lives. For example, Quebec is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. Many people living in the Tosh community in Boisbriand only speak Yiddish or avoid TV and radio, according to a Globe and Mail article. When the number of COVID-19 cases climbed, public health authorities worked with community leaders to translate public health directives and to protect the approximately 4,000 people living in the Tosh community.
As another example, Spanish-speaking farm workers in Quebec and Ontario are also a community at risk.
However, some of the most vulnerable people in the pandemic have been seniors. The Ontario government recognized that there are many seniors in Ontario who speak only French and who had to listen to Quebec Premier François Legault’s press briefings to get news. According to Le Droit, Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s minister of francophone affairs, announced in April that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s press briefings would be subtitled in French on YouTube. In addition, all Ontario news releases since the beginning of the pandemic have been bilingual. To Premier Legault’s credit, he set aside politics and added an English summary in his own words to all of his press briefings.
When we look at what other countries are doing, however, it is clear that Canada should be doing more.
Emergency language services
Author and linguist Tony Thorne references the Chinese government, who included linguists on the coronavirus outbreak team to explain medical terminology and health directives to patients. As there was a language barrier between doctors from other parts of China and the first patients in the Wuhan province, Chinese language services prepared a handbook of Hubei dialects for the medical team and made it available on social media. Then, a guide was prepared in more than 20 languages to better inform foreign residents about COVID-19 and to protect their health. Making language services part of the emergency response to this pandemic led to a whole new specialization, called “emergency linguistics,” says Thorne.
Given the significant health risks communities face in a health emergency, it’s important for language professionals to be involved in communications at all levels of government so that more information is available in French and other languages.
Are you aware of other examples where emergency linguistics could play a role?
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