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How do you translate a pandemic?

‘If it’s in your own mother tongue, you can relate to it better.’

(TNH)

Every word matters in a public health emergency. But how do you distil essential pandemic information for a nation of 1.3 billion people who speak in thousands of different tongues?

India has 22 official languages, and more than 19,500 languages or dialects spoken as mother tongues, according to census data. Of these, 121 languages have more than 10,000 speakers. The most widely spoken Indian languages include Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu, though all academic scientific work takes place in English. 

With millions packed into dense urban pockets faced with water shortages and poor healthcare facilities, minimising the impact of an infectious disease was always going to be a challenge in India. Bringing accurate, accessible coronavirus information in local languages has been a crucial part of the battle. 

“There are two extremes with COVID-19: either people are very confident nothing will happen to them, or they are unduly worried,” said P. Rajamanickam, the general secretary for the All India Peoples Science Network, which works on science outreach. “Besides that, there are misconceptions about the disease and a fear of stigmatisation.” 

While India’s national and state governments have been making announcements and issuing guidelines in multiple Indian languages, a range of scientists and groups like Rajamanickam’s have also volunteered to translate COVID-19 resources and create explainers, fact-checks, and hoax-busting information.

Advocates for clearer communication in emergencies say the work is essential. 

“People need information in a language and format they understand to keep themselves and their communities safe from COVID-19. Without this information, they are left to fill in the gaps, often with dangerous misinformation,” said Stella Paris, head of language services at the non-profit Translators without Borders, which provides translation support for aid agencies. The group has worked on Indian-language translations for organisations including Save the Children, Internews, and the Red Cross. 

Rumours and misinformation have torn through social media, including unverified remedies like cow urine and cow dung, and dubious claims that Indians have better immunity. Some misleading stories have resulted in the stigmatisation of patients and doctors, suicides by those afraid they had COVID-19, and the hospitalisation of people who followed bad advice. In at least one case, language usage caused unintended confusion: according to media reports, a man in northeast India who was asked to buy a mask instead returned with a fish, since the Assamese word, maas, sounds similar. 

“Reliable communication and resources, provided in the right language and format, can help people stay healthy and save lives,” Paris said. 

English, with 128 million-plus speakers, is the second-most spoken language in India after Hindi, which has 660 million-plus speakers. Both often work as a bridge language. But mother tongue communication is irreplaceable, experts say.

“If the resources are in English or Hindi, it feels like a distant danger; something that is not relevant,” said Biplab Ghosh, who works with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, a science communication organisation in India’s northeast. He said that when the pandemic began spreading in India in mid-March, people in Manipur and Nagaland – states with several tribal groups and dialects – didn’t take it as seriously. 

“If the resources are in English or Hindi, it feels like a distant danger; something that is not relevant.”

“Once we brought out material in the local dialects, people understood the threat of COVID more clearly,” he said. “If it’s in your own mother tongue, you can relate to it better.” 

The organisation works in widely spoken languages such as Bengali and Assamese, as well as dialects like Mizo, Chakma, Ao, Sumi, and others. 

Demystifying the virus across language borders

Acutely conscious of the magnitude of the task at hand, India’s scientists and translators have been weighing every word, vetting them closely to ensure the clearest possible version emerges. 

“You are giving people information that their life depends on, so you cannot take liberties,” said Divya Oberoi, an astrophysicist coordinating the translation efforts of the Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC), a voluntary group of 500-plus scientists. 

The work has brought with it a host of practical and linguistic considerations: will the more technical, Sanskrit-based word be better than the easier, colloquial one? Should a phrase be used to explain a concept instead of a direct transliteration? Is “quarantine” now a universal word that crosses language borders? 

The pandemic has enlarged the English lexicon to include “quarantine”, “social distancing”, “PPE” – short for personal protective equipment – and “coronavirus” itself. These words may not have equivalents in other tongues. And even if they do, should they be used? 

“A word like quarantine is so much in the media that people would understand that more easily than any technical Hindi word,” said Oberoi, who has been translating coronavirus information into Hindi. 

Will the more technical, Sanskrit-based word be better than the easier, colloquial one? Should a phrase be used to explain a concept instead of a direct transliteration? Is “quarantine” now a universal word that crosses language borders? 

While announcing India’s initial lockdown on 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his televised Hindi address chose to say both “lockdown” and “social distancing” in English. With constant repetition on news broadcasts, such words have already infiltrated Indian languages.

“Quarantine is practically a Bengali word now!” laughed Anindita Bhadra, a behavioural biologist in Kolkata who has been translating into Bengali. However, the word is said with a different emphasis – the last syllable rhyming with “mine” rather than “mean”. 

Languages mix easily, so abstract ideals of perfect language purity are not the main concern. Oberoi pointed out that sometimes it makes more sense to use the more colloquial Urdu word than the formal Hindi one. 

Similarly, Mayank Vahia, a retired professor working on Gujarati translations, debated with colleagues whether the Gujarati word ordo, for “room”, would be more or less effective than the widely understood English equivalent in explaining isolation procedures. “One has to maximise ease of understanding, precision of science, and clarity of meaning,” Vahia said. They ultimately chose the English word. 

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Sometimes, an identical word does not exist and approximations or phrases may be more effective. For instance, Oberoi and his colleagues looked at the word “virus”, and opted for vishanu, a generic Hindi word for “germ”.   

Even within languages, there are dialects and levels of literacy to consider. “In urban regions of Gujarat, many English words are commonly used, but that might not be so for semi-urban or rural areas,” Vahia said. “The most important thing is to understand the content and context. If you are not sensitive, you may translate it crudely as Google does.” 

Often, a longer explanation or definition becomes more important: explaining the concept of self-isolation rather than simply transliterating it, for instance, or harnessing local knowledge to creatively bring a text to life. “Technical words are not a stumbling block, but we need to appreciate the cultural milieu, proverbs, and possibilities of the language,” said T. V. Venkateshwaran, a Tamil translator and senior scientist at Vigyan Prasar, a government body focused on science communications.

Then there is the crucial question of address. Many Indian languages have multiple ways of addressing a person, depending on level of familiarity, age, or perceived social standing. Figuring out which form of the pronoun “you” to use is critical. 

“The most important thing is to understand the content and context. If you are not sensitive, you may translate it crudely as Google does.” 

For instance, when Bhadra was translating an English document on DIY mask-making into Bengali, she had to choose between one of three forms. There is aapni (for elders, strangers and those one respects), tumi (for family and peers), and tui (for friends and children). She eventually picked aapni

“The respectful address felt more appropriate because it was an advisory to unknown people,” she said. “But with some of our audio material that felt like talking to someone informally, we used tumi.” 

The more practical challenge is ensuring that translated materials reach people in rural and remote areas who need them most. The All India Peoples Science Network, which has 40-plus member organisations, often does its outreach through street theatre and public meetings. But in a locked-down world, they have improvised by uploading short clips on YouTube. 

The ISRC, the voluntary collective of scientists, has posted all their content online, while Ghosh’s organisation debunks rumours through a network of connected WhatsApp groups. 

Experts believe the most effective work results from collaborations between translators and scientists, creating glossaries to ensure consistency – and actually listening to the communities that ultimately have to use and understand the information.

“Feedback mechanisms can help strengthen COVID-19 translations and two-way communication to ensure that the voices and concerns of the community are being heard,” Paris said. 

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