How Translators without Borders Is Fighting COVID-19
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How Translators without Borders Is Fighting COVID-19

Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, an information pandemic (shortened to infodemic) has also made itself known. It first gained notoriety during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and has returned once again during the current international chaos.

The damage caused by the spread of misinformation and disinformation on COVID-19-related topics cannot be underestimated. By creating a source of hearsay and rumors, inaccurate commentary puts under-served communities at great risk.

There is a huge opportunity for language professionals to play a leading role in helping overcome the infodemic, and Translators without Borders (TWB) has been on the very forefront of the fight.

Globally Speaking Radio guest Stella Paris has been leading the charge through the development and implementation of TWB’s communication strategies in her role as Head of Language Services. She believes that global communication and the invaluable language resources of TWB are playing their part in curtailing the infodemic.

What is an infodemic?

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, it was accompanied by a “global phenomenon known as an infodemic, that we believe is just as dangerous and spreading just as fast as the virus itself,” explains Stella. She defines an infodemic as a “surplus of information about a problem that is viewed as being a detriment to its solution.”

Infodemics often emerge in two forms—misinformation and disinformation—both of which flood the lines of global communication and confuse the public. Misinformation and disinformation may seem synonymous, but their difference lies in the intention of the source. “Misinformation is information that is unintentionally false,” says Stella. It’s damaging but good-natured. She continues, “disinformation, on the other hand, is information that is intentionally false. It tends to be spread by individuals or groups who want to create a situation of unrest or actually damage, harm or disrupt the lives of others.”

How language fuels infodemics

When it comes to the spread of false information, language plays a massive role. The reason that misinformation and disinformation can be so contagious is usually a result of rumors—and a total vacuum of reliable, accurate, translated information. These things together foster “a lack of understanding of key issues,” Stella asserts. “If people are lacking reliable or trustworthy, fact-checked information in a language that they can understand, then they are much more susceptible to fake information.”

With the language hierarchy that exists in the media, those who speak dominant languages like English, Mandarin, Spanish and French generally tend to have more unfettered access to credible information. They can form educated, advised opinions about a situation. Stella poses that, “if you imagine speaking a language that isn’t well-represented in the media and that isn’t easily available on the internet, then that’s where you start to have an issue.” People can quickly find themselves misunderstanding important subjects. It is in such instances that hearsay becomes a catalyst for infodemics.

Translating for at-risk populations

Unfortunately, without accurate content in their languages, marginalized language groups are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The combination of inaccurate information, “a low level of trust in institutions and government and multilingual contexts becomes a recipe for disaster,” states Stella.

When such mistrust is coupled with a poor healthcare system, it’s easy to see how this can quickly mount into an atmosphere of confusion, unrest and life-threatening beliefs and practices in the case of COVID-19. People may soon disregard safety instructions altogether, making an already bad situation like the COVID-19 crisis even worse.

The scale of the virus alone puts the number of at-risk populations through the roof. One of the first hurdles is identifying where the most help is needed. This narrows down the hundreds of affected languages to the most vulnerable.

Thereafter, a host of criteria can be used to single out a select few languages to start with based on everything from the state of the local healthcare system to the proficiency of the respective governments.

By identifying the languages most in need, TWB have been able to provide aid in almost 90 languages, according to Stella. But the efforts don’t stop there. She reveals, “the aim is to get this content translated into as many languages as possible, so that we can have this data available and open to anybody.”

Battling the infodemic

The ultimate goal, as with the pandemic itself, is to reduce the spread or flatten the curve of the infodemic.

Organizations like Translators without Borders that are part of the Global Risk Communication Group (GRCP) are on the front lines.

Other members of the GRCP include the World Health Organization (WHO), Red Cross and UNICEF. “They all recognize the importance of language and language tools to help,” explains Stella. They are actively providing resources to deal with the problem, which is crucial to flattening the contagion’s curve.

To start, social media has revealed itself as an ideal conduit “to identify the information gaps,” says Stella, “which could help inform the communication strategies.” By monitoring endless global communications, the people and institutions that are fighting this issue can identify false information in specific regions.

One invaluable language tool for aid workers and isolated communities is the TWB glossary, which is now available in 23 languages. It maximizes the potential understanding of those speaking marginalized languages.

By providing a comprehensive COVID-19 index, Stella explains that these communities have “got a reliable source from TWB of what these terms actually mean.” It allows TWB’s team of 30,000 volunteers and translators to better communicate with people seeking trustworthy information about COVID-19. There’s even an audio feature available that enables users to hear translations out loud for accurate pronunciation.

The role of chatbots

Stella reveals that networks of multilingual chatbots can be a solution that negates the spread of misinformation. They give people who are isolated by language the chance to access trustworthy, fact-checked data. This helps shield them against detrimental unawareness and enhances global welfare.

When you prompt a person down a certain path through dropdowns and pre-configured questions, you may not be exposing the true gaps in information. The unique benefit of chatbots is their capacity to highlight these gaps. “By allowing for a natural language interface with two-way communication, there’s a lot more chance for you to glean some insight into what people may have heard or seen elsewhere that may not be correct,” says Stella. TWB’s current chatbot system is programmed in four languages: Hausa, Comorian, Congolese and Swahili.

The goal of the chatbot is to create a circular model, starting out with a relatively simple bot and curating the content based on the questions asked. So, if people repeatedly ask, “how many cases are there in Nigeria?” the translators can distribute that knowledge, catering to those most in need and opening up a conversation.

The critical nature of global communication

If the COVID-19 response and tireless work of language professionals and organizations like Translators without Borders have shown us anything, it’s the need for open, global channels of communication. They are essential for battling infodemics that are born from a lack of information and understanding during times of crisis.

Multilingual innovation is one of the few good things to come from the COVID-19 pandemic. Exciting and impactful progress in crisis control and aversion is underway and could be the key to controlling future outbreaks.

The language tools and strategies already being developed to control future pandemics are a testament to the power that language has. It can bring people, organizations and nations together for the betterment of humanity.


To hear our full conversation with Stella, tune in to Globally Speaking Radio and subscribe to receive future episode notifications.