Can’t read, might not survive

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the significance of communicating clear, concise messages across communities. What lessons have we learned and how can the localization industry continue to help?

Text by Alison Toon


Image: © rparobe/

It’s been almost two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, bringing huge changes – often tragic ones – to so many families, individuals, organizations, and businesses. This has also been a turbulent time for the localization industry with some companies flourishing while others struggled. In a survey of CEOs at over 100 LSPs, CSA Research reported an increase in translation early on in the pandemic, when businesses and organizations needed to communicate information about the virus and the changes it forced. Communication was essential and meant that these LSPs kept very busy in early 2020.

Whether to help employees move to remote working, inform travelers about flight cancellation policies, or update a website with notices on potential shipment delays, enterprises rushed to translate content. Over the year, many companies transformed their in-person events into global, innovative, and multilingual online gigs, and localization teams had to rapidly adopt new knowledge in the areas of media localization and interpreting modalities. But much broader than the business relationship between enterprises and their language supply chain was one vital need of every inhabitant of this planet: understandable information about the pandemic. We all relied on information enabling us to stay safe, obtain medical help, get tested, support our families, and where to ask for help when we need it. As communicators working in multilingual and multicultural environments, people reading this article probably anticipated the enormity of this challenge.


Disproportionate damage to minorities

Data now clearly shows that the virus disproportionately and more severely affected specific groups of people, with age, race, underlying health issues, housing situation, literacy, fluency in the local language, and income levels just a few examples of the factors in play. These disparities will continue to be revealed and investigated as more data is collected and analyzed. Just how big a part has language played? If people cannot understand critical information, how can they act on it? When there is a gap in essential information, rumor and untruths quickly fill the void. If misinformation is easier to find than truth in your own language, what do you believe?

The localization industry has been heavily involved in helping to deliver meaningful COVID-19 information in a multitude of languages. Translators Without Borders, for example, quickly established a COVID-19 glossary of key terminology and technical terms to assist field workers and interpreters in raising awareness about the pandemic. LSPs told CSA Research about voluntary activities that they and their staff participated in. No doubt, these actions all helped to protect people and save lives. Yet, there is more work to be done to make sure everyone, in every community, can receive clear and actionable information in a language they understand.

Just as with the content that enterprises create for digital products, services, and marketing, governments and healthcare organizations can no longer consider that their words will reach all of the audience when delivered in one language only. With that as the premise for their content strategy, they can design content and plan categories of human resources to be better prepared for future needs. The reaction to a major earthquake in a specific location might need similar levels of information and communication, for example.

When analyzing languages spoken in a particular country or a particular state, we can often be surprised by the findings. A multilingual market might appear fascinating to language nerds, and profitable to businesses with the capacities to care for their domestic, multilingual audience. Yet, it provides an overwhelming challenge for many organizations that must provide vital information for all their communities. For example, according to the Judicial Council of California, more than 200 languages are spoken by Californians, and the state is home to at least 11 million people who were born outside of the U.S. – many of whom are not confident with English or Spanish (Public Policy Institute of California). Yet the California government’s COVID-19 website appears to provide official but partial translations to only seven languages and relies on Google Translate for all others. The website covers translations into Spanish, but there are no translations to Nahuatl or Zapotec, or K’iche’. These and the other languages of Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries are vital to a subset of migrant workers in the farming and hospitality industries who often arrive in the U.S. speaking neither English nor Spanish.

Did the Californian government formally assess this language need, the speakers’ access to the internet, and other logistics such as the location and concentration of the language, and decide that the best way to reach these communities was through outreach and spoken communication – such as through the state’s ethnic radio stations – in these languages? Or was it all trial and error, learning along the way?

Data gathered from the UK’s 2011 census – which happens every ten years – indicates that 7.7% of the British population speaks a language other than English (or Welsh) at home, with more than 20% of Londoners reporting another main language. Yet, the government website for Covid information is in English only, with no easy-to-find link to any of the minority languages such as Gujarati, Polish, or Urdu. While information mailed to every household about the vaccine included a sentence on obtaining help in more than 15 languages, it made the assumption that people would find this information inside the glossy English brochure.

Israel – ahead of many countries and regions in vaccinating its population – has a contact tracing app that played a major role in managing the pandemic. The app has a UI in Hebrew plus the most-spoken non-official languages: English, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian), Russian, and French. Other communities – such as Thai farmworkers – were assigned outreach workers, interpreters, and pre-translated materials. This may have played a significant part in controlling the virus and the early rollout of the vaccine.

The challenge is not limited to regions where English is prevalent: The pandemic has brought the communication challenge to any location with multicultural communities, immigrants, or migrant workers. For example, Arabic, Igbo, Kurdish, Russian, and Turkish spoken in communities in Germany; Karaim, Kashubian, Rusyn, Romani, and Tatar in Poland; or Baniwa, Nheengatu, and Tukano, in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. For successful and trusted outreach into these communities, you have to speak the language of the people. Under the pressure of dealing with a situation nobody had experienced before, it seemed to take government bodies a long time to realize this.

The challenge isn’t just linked to content, but communication in general: If contact tracers, for example, do not speak the language of the person they are trying to reach, they cannot succeed. This increases the risk of letting the virus spread further. If a resident phones in to find out where their unemployment claim is, but cannot understand the instructions in the recorded message before reaching an option for an interpreter, the family may go hungry.

Just like identifying the exact revenue generated by language alone for an enterprise, it’s challenging to extricate the effect of a missing translation from other factors to determine why certain communities are more severely affected by the pandemic than others. For-profit businesses have a combination of localization, logistics, local presence, staffing, marketing, GDP, fluency, and other costs and considerations to tie into any ROI calculation for the value of language. Anyone scrutinizing the cost of a missing language in communicating the risks, treatment, prevention, and support plans during the COVID-19 pandemic must also identify the parts played by housing, access to health care and technology, trust in government and authority figures, and more. It’s not easy – but it is obvious: During a pandemic, it’s not so much a case of can’t read, won’t buy – it might be can’t read, might die.


How can organizations make information more accessible – in all languages?

There are measures that organizations can take to make their information as linguistically accessible as possible to people of all origins and cultures within their communities. Whether you are providing official translations or assuming that readers or community-outreach workers will use a browser-based MT tool, you can write in a way that makes translation easier and more accurate:

  • Use short sentences
  • Write concise paragraphs
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Define and use consistent terminology
  • Use simple tenses (past, present, future)
  • Use fewer words (“tolerate” rather than “put up with”)
  • Do not use slang or jargon
  • Don’t forget to use the article (“a”, “an”, “the”)
  • Describe one action per sequential step
  • Use the active voice (“do this” rather than “this should be done”)
  • Use a reading level that is accessible to most of your community

Content that is concise, clear, and easy to understand in its original language is vital when communicating during a pandemic. You want people to understand and trust the information without struggling with complex concepts or grammar. It’s basic communication, not creative writing (CSA Research, “Writing to Optimize Your Global Customer Experience”.)

The pandemic challenges any assumption that the general population today has access to the internet – or the ability to use it – not only for information about COVID-19, but also for children’s remote schooling, claiming government and state benefits, and even ordering groceries online. How you create content cannot fix this – nor can it ensure that every person lives in safe, uncrowded housing, has a healthy diet, or access to all of the medical help they need. But it can make your content more accessible to many more people that might otherwise not be able to use it – whether through machine translation or by making it easier to understand.


What can the localization industry do to help?

We all know there have been challenges communicating information about the COVID-19 pandemic and the testing and rollout of vaccines, as well as for people claiming benefits or asking for help. This is not a one-off for the current pandemic but will continue to apply to many situations ranging from natural disasters, international incidents, or terrorist attacks, to other outbreaks of disease such as Ebola (CSA Research, “Managing Translation of LEP Content”). We don’t control how governments and other bodies create or disseminate information – but as language experts, we can play a role in lobbying, education, and influence.

Here are some suggestions for how localization workers can help:

  • Use data to make your voice heard. If you know how many people speak minority languages in your location, take those numbers to local or regional government and help influence how information is communicated – in which languages. While these organizations should know their communities, lobbying – with hard data – will bring more awareness. People who grew up with only one language don’t always know how difficult it can be when you are struggling to understand a second – or third – language.
  • Promote clear and simple source language. When talking with clients or prospects in government, NGOs, and other organizations that must inform people of safety measures, laws and guidelines, help, or benefits, show them how writing style can allow them to translate and interpret more – and more accurately.
  • Publish and share case studies. If your company or organization has been involved in outreach work to help share information in minority communities, publish the data and human success stories. The more awareness of how communities have suffered from lack of information in an accessible language – and how easily this can be fixed – the more likely organizations will address this as a basic human need.
  • Connect the dots. For example, if you know of local radio in a minority language and see a gap in information in that language, find a way to link the two. This is one way that California spoke to communities of farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala who speak neither English nor Spanish.
  • Monitor social media. If you are fluent in a minority language within your community, be sure to flag misinformation that circulates on social media. Point people to authoritative and factual information in their language – or use this to identify and report gaps. Local authorities may not have your linguistic insights into what is happening in social media.
  • Talk to the press. If you have a story to tell, make sure it’s heard by as many of the population as possible. To repeat what has been said frequently during the pandemic: We’re not safe until everyone is safe. News outlets have published human-interest articles about the negative impact of the COVID-19 virus on minority communities. Take this opportunity to make sure the press includes language in the discussion.
  • Volunteer. If you have language skills that meet a local community need, check with the local government and other organizations such as Translators Without Borders to find out how you can help. Be proactive: if you see gaps in how information is being communicated – such as an important language missing from healthcare communications, or information about interpreting services being difficult or impossible to understand, suggest improvements.

Above all, remember that dealing with a worldwide crisis has been something new to everyone. Nobody had all the answers in early 2020. People were learning day by day. As an industry, we know how critical understanding is in the dissemination of vital information – workers in other industries don’t always have that knowledge and may need to be tactfully pointed in the right direction. Just as medical experts and scientists have facts and data for their realm of expertise, the localization industry has knowledge and services for language and communication. Together we can help to create and deliver information that will save lives.