Africa, where translation can save lives



Imagine you are travelling to the other side of world, in a country whose language you don’t speak, nor understand at all. Imagine then that you may need to get medications, or a medical consultation.

How would you do it? What if there were no translators to help you?

Imagine. And think that this is what happens on a daily basis in most African countries. Except that in this case, when it comes to health, who has language problems is, ironically, the local population. But, you know, bad translations of food labels may not be such a big deal, however when it comes to health problems, language barriers may cost lives.

Western countries have done a lot in the past years to help Africa. Hospitals have been built, doctors have been trained, medications have been donated, sent and distributed all over the continent. But, unfortunately, that is still not enough. There is still one more step to take, and that is training translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate the instructions that come with medications.

Just think about the recent Ebola epidemic: aid workers report that people do not have the knowledge they need to cope with this deadly disease, and that happens because most of the communication about Ebola has been made in English, in a continent where only 15 to 20 percent of the people speaks English. Ironic, isn’t it? Not that much, considering that we are talking about thousands of lives that we have lost and we will keep on losing, and it is all because of language barriers and miscommunication. No other recent crisis highlights more poignantly the gap between the languages of aid and the languages of the affected population.

But, as you can figure out, Ebola is just the tip of the iceberg. Truth is that people in Africa die every day because of really “silly” mistakes due to misunderstanding.

What really happens in Africa – tells Mathias Kauke of Translators Without Borders – is that a mom who is having trouble producing milk for her child goes to the hospital, and is given drugs she is supposed to take. But she doesn’t understand that because the prescription is in French. So she thinks it is her baby who is supposed to take them, and that’s what she does. She goes home, she gives those drugs to the child, and then her child dies.

How can we accept that to happen? How can we let that happen? The translation industry must help aid workers be more effective. That is our job. That is our role. Translation does matter. And it can save lives, for real.


By Sabina Grixoni

Editor and Social Media Strategist

Communication Trainee at TermCoord