Critical public health messages by the Commonwealth about the coronavirus pandemic were bungled amid revelations bureaucrats used Google Translate to communicate with multicultural communities.
The decision by the Department of Home Affairs has been revealed in documents obtained by the ABC that show official translators were initially sidelined.
In August, the ABC revealed “nonsensical” and “laughable” language translations of COVID-19 public health messages had been distributed to multicultural communities.
This prompted fears that migrants and refugees would lose trust in the Government’s handling of the crisis.
One of those translations tweeted by the federal government was supposed to tell Chinese speakers where to look for more details about the pandemic.
Instead, it was translated to: “Use your language supplied information”.
In answers to questions tabled in Parliament, the Department of Home Affairs said it understood the tweet contained a version of the “automated translation” of text originally posted on its ‘COVID-19 Information in your language’ website.
The questions were put to government officials by Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff, after the ABC’s reporting on the issue.
The Department of Home Affairs said while official fact-sheets had always been written by certified translators, it had initially used the Google Translate subscription service for the menu and navigation tiles on its website.
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, the chief executive of peak multicultural body the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils Australia (FECCA), said using Google Translate on an official government website was never acceptable.
“We know the automated translated services are not accurate sometimes and they can be very dangerous – the slightest change can completely change the meaning,” he said.
“There are many different languages where omitting the smallest letter or space will give the exact opposite meaning – so instead of saying ‘stay at home’ it might say ‘do not stay at home’.”
‘Embarrassing and beggars belief,’ says Opposition
The department said it used the Google Translate subscription service for its website at the beginning of the pandemic to “ensure there was an easy-to-use repository of translated information available to multicultural communities as quickly as possible.”
Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles said that was a poor excuse.
“This isn’t a community organisation under pressure, this is the Government of Australia,” he said.
“This is incredibly embarrassing and it’s worse than that, because we know a public health response that’s successful requires every community member to be able to access appropriate advice, and everyone in Australia knows we shouldn’t be relying on Google Translate to translate important public health information.
“It beggars belief the Department of Home Affairs would rely on this instead of appropriate translations.”
In June, the ABC revealed concerns about the Federal Government’s handling of high-risk groups such as migrants, with community representatives telling an expert panel of doctors and politicians they were involved in Australia’s COVID-19 response “on an ad-hoc basis or not at all”.
The panel identified groups like migrants and refugees as among those at a higher risk of contracting the virus and passing it on without realising, because they were more likely to have a chronic disease and miss out on important public health information.
Mr Al Khafaji said the incorrect messages risked affecting the level of trust multicultural communities placed in public health messaging even further.
However, he said the Federal Government should be commended for its efforts to engage with community leaders to communicate with diverse Australians since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The government has come a long way in how it does its translation and the quality checks it has now built into the system,” he said.
“I’m very satisfied now they’ve listened to some our concerns and the community’s concerns and they’ve built in checks and balances.”
The Department of Home Affairs said to date, it had spent more than $2 million on translating COVID-19 materials, using certified translators.