Translating resources to save lives

15 September 2020

During a crisis, information saves lives. But what if public health alerts or emergency warnings are not in your first language? 

In collaboration with the Research School of Population Health (RSPH), academics at the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) in the College of Asia and the Pacific have been working tirelessly to translate important health information into different languages.    

Over the course of 2020, CHL have developed two groups of information resources: a collection of bushfire smoke health and safety factsheets and a series on maintaining good mental health during COVID-19. Resources have been translated across a variety of languages, including Indonesian, Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Mongolian, Thai and Bislama.  

In a rich multicultural society like Australia, providing resources in a variety of languages has been an essential component of our emergency responses to the summer bushfires and COVID-19. 

Dr Janit Feangfu was involved with translating resources about bushfire smoke into Thai. Dr Feangfu specialises in modern and contemporary Thai literature and cultural studies and lectures Thai at the School. Dr Feangfu is passionate about ensuring accessibility of information to culturally and linguistically diverse communities: 

"During the bushfires, the level of stress and anxiety, especially in vulnerable groups, could be critical. Accessing key information in one's mother tongue does not only ensure the safety of communities across age groups, it also engenders a sense of belonging to the geographical space where one's native language is recognised and publicised. This aspect of language in relation to identity, recognition and sense of togetherness is crucial in time of crisis." 

Dr Feangfu applauded the work of networks like the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) for ensuring translated materials are distributed across the country:  

"I admire the initiative of the SBS that hosts over 60 languages across its network. During crisis situations, information circulated in radio programs and websites that encompass culturally and linguistically diverse communities is extremely helpful. It also showcases how diverse and inclusive Australia is."  

Translating resources has also been an essential component of both the national and local COVID-19 response. Associate Professor Wayan Arka is a linguist at the School, specialising in Austronesian and Papuan languages of Eastern Indonesia. Associate Professor Arka was involved with the School's effort translating the 'Feeling good at home (during COVID-19)' resource into Indonesian. This resource provides a summary of ways you might look after yourself and stay well during COVID-19. 

When putting together these resources, Arka explains the importance to developing culturally appropriate messaging: 

"In developing multilingual resources, we have to ensure the multilingual resources are informative but are also culturally appropriate in the target cultures. This process necessarily involves teamwork with expert translators. This is to ensure that we produce a translation that retains the essence of the information and meaning of the source text, but is also as natural as possible in the target language and culture." 

For Associate Professor Arka, translating these resources has reemphasized the importance of ANU students learning Asian languages. Arka explained three reasons why we should be learning Asian languages: 

"First, in the context of the 21st Asian Century and being competitive in the job market, there is good evidence that companies are increasingly globally operated. Employers are increasingly looking for graduates who can work in different professions in Asia or with their Asian partners.  Being bilingual with fluency in an Asian language will give you an upper edge in the job market." 

"Second, being bilingual gives you a cognitive advantage. I am a linguist, and I can confirm that there's good empirical evidence from linguistics and related disciplines such as psychology that bilingualism is positively related to cognitive ability. It's good for your brain! It improves your memory; it helps you process information better and helps with multitasking skills." 

"Finally, languages are more than merely a communication tool. In addition to its function as a window to the world's knowledge and other peoples' cultures, it is also an important means for social engagement. If you're fluent in an Asian language, and if you speak that language with a native speaker, then you can engage them in a deeply positive and constructive way." 

Thank you to all our academics who have been doing the important work of translating resources. We are all the more richer for it.