“Nonsensical” and “laughable” language translations of COVID-19 public health messages are being distributed to multicultural communities, prompting fears migrants and refugees will lose trust in authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
One federal Health Department campaign aimed at encouraging Arabic speakers to wear face masks was so poorly formatted it “doesn’t make sense”, according to the Refugee Council of Australia’s Deena Yako, a native Arabic speaker.
“It’s gibberish and it’s nonsensical,” she said.
Another image, tweeted by the federal government, is supposed to tell Chinese speakers where to look for more details about the pandemic.
But the text instead translates to: “Use your language supplied information”.
The translation errors have occurred on a state level as well.
In Victoria, one poster about using face masks when leaving home featured information in both Farsi and Arabic – two entirely different languages that share a similar alphabet.
Ms Yako said those were just some examples of bad language translations during the pandemic.
She said the errors risked eroding both the authority of the health messages, and trust in all levels of government.
“It is almost laughable when you look at these translations and these publications used by the federal government or even our state governments,” she said.
“Communities have a lot of trust in their government and when you do come across these publications that are incorrect, inaccurate and have the wrong information on them, it becomes questionable, and of course the community will lose that trust.”
In response to the ABC’s questions, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Health said the error in the Arabic translation was fixed quickly, and the mistake happened when the document was uploaded to the website.
The department said it intended to have translators check material once it was posted online to avoid future problems.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Health Department said it also fixed the translation error as soon as it was made aware of it.
‘We’ve seen quite a lot of variability in translations’
Migration Council Australia chief executive Carla Wilshire said there had been issues with translated materials throughout the pandemic.
“In the rush to get a lot of information out to migrant communities, it has been a little bit hit and miss,” she said.
“Some of the translations have been of a particularly formal nature, or have grammar mistakes or have syntax errors.
“We’ve seen quite a lot of variability in translations coming out.”
She also said it was important for governments to build relationships with community leaders and members, to ensure the messages got through.
“Most of us don’t necessarily check a government website regularly as a source of information, so part of the process of getting the information out is not just translating it, but also making sure those translations are being pushed out properly to communities,” she said.
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 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 health information.
Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network Australia (MYAN) spokesman Andrew Duong said the coronavirus crisis had exposed a gap in the way governments engaged with culturally and linguistically diverse Australians, with translation issues predating the pandemic.
He used an example of a home bowel cancer screening test kit his mother received from the federal government.
“As my dad was reading the Mandarin version – this is a test that has been out for a while and would have been used frequently – he told me the Mandarin version was poorly translated and there’s key information, that’s literally life and death information when you’re going to a bowel cancer test, about what you can and cannot eat before the test.
“So it’s showing clearly not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but translation across the board is a serious issue that’s not treated the same as other documents that might be written in English and that are reviewed as part of correct processes.”
Shadow Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles has written to Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge about the errors, saying it is important the government ensures messages are not just delivered – but received.
“We feel there’s more that can be done to get the translations right but, more importantly, to listen more effectively to the voices of multicultural Australia to make sure everyone is getting the right information,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be satisfied when people clearly aren’t getting all the information they need to keep themselves safe.”
Both the Victorian and federal health departments said their governments had been working with community leaders and stakeholders to tailor messages to all Australians.