Lost in translation… No more! - MCAA Magazine March 2020

In the time of COVID-19, the INTERACT project, funded under the H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange Network, explores the importance of accurate translations in crisis management.


Imagine you are on vacation in a foreign country. There’s news of a virus outbreak in the neighbouring country. How should you protect yourself and your family? The local government issues information in its official language, but you do not understand the instructions. If only the information were translated…

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises that “accurate information provided early, often, and in languages and channels that people understand, trust and use, enables individuals to make choices and take actions to protect themselves, their families and communities from threatening health hazards.”

In this context, the EU-funded International Network in Crisis Translation (INTERACT) project has emerged to investigate the importance of crisis translation. According to Sharon O’Brien, project coordinator, the focus is twofold. “Firstly, we are convinced that transparent and accessible messages play a fundamental role in establishing a relationship of trust when communicating risks across languages and cultures. Secondly, organisation of translation (and interpreting) has too often been left to adhoc last-minute options when it could be more efficient and cost-effective to include all forms of language translation in preparedness activities and emergency planning.”

INTERACT has played an important role in raising awareness on the use of translation as a risk reduction tool globally. It released a list of 10 policy recommendations that were published on PreventionWeb, the knowledge platform of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and ReliefWeb, the humanitarian information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The project also designed crisis translation training materials and made it available on its YouTube channel.


Natural hazards such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires cause disruption and risk to local populations, including immigrants and tourists, who may need to act to save their lives or to protect their property. Information in a language and format that they understand enables them to make informed decisions. “Disseminating regular healthcare or emergency health advice – such as how to recognise symptoms in an epidemic outbreak – so that the effects of local risks are minimised and controlled was brought into sharp focus with the COVID-19 pandemic,” emphasises O’Brien. When at-risk populations receive information that is pertinent to them this knowledge diminishes risks to them and to international humanitarian workers, rescuers, or healthcare professionals arrived to alleviate the impact of the crisis.


Nature showing label of emergency


The above scenarios have seen the use of interpreters and translators in the past “from the 1999 İzmit earthquake to the 2019 cyclone Idai, until we reached the ‘biggest translation challenge’ with COVID-19,” says O’Brien.


“COVID-19 is a textbook example of a crisis in which translation is crucial,” says O’Brien. “Information needs were global and multilingual. It made clear to much broader audiences that translated information, in a language and format that is relevant to its recipients, is a crucial risk response tool.”

On 23 January 2020, INTERACT members provided recommendations to the Office of Foreigner Affairs, Municipal Government of Wuhan, China, regarding dissemination of crucial information on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis communication plans in Wuhan were then based on INTERACT’s direct advice. Federico M. Federici, project co-investigator adds: “A local crisis manager adopted our crisis translation training. They needed to fill an enormous gap between the demand of translated information and of public service interpreting and the offer available through the language service providers that were suddenly stretched overnight.”

INTERACT’s work on integrating translation consideration in policies and in crisis management practices showed its best results in New Zealand. Since 2017, INTERACT partnered with New Zealand Red Cross creating community focused resources offering translation training to rare language combinations. INTERACT crisis translation training of rare-language users gradually led to including translators and interpreters as trainers in 2020. Immediately after the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack affecting the Muslim community, INTERACT’s trained speakers of rare languages supported dissemination of information and recovery efforts.

As New Zealand Red Cross integrated INTERACT’s policy recommendations with their standard operations they assisted in national efforts to disseminate mitigating measures against COVID-19. INTERACT has contributed to the country’s success with its COVID-19 containment measures as most language communities were kept informed and all communities have benefitted from the country’s communication success.

“We hope that the funders of INTERACT, the European Commission, and all EU institutions will benefit by embedding our policy recommendations in crisis communication practices. Disseminating trustworthy translation-enabled information in crises does save lives, and it speeds up social and economic recovery after a crisis,” conclude O’Brien and Federici.


MCAA Editorial Team