Developing multilingual communication strategies for CALD communities during COVID-19 vaccination rollout

Monash Lens

As Victoria settles uneasily into its fourth official lockdown, our thoughts turn to the experience of our culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. With 26% of Victorians speaking a language other than English (LOTE) at home, we’re a truly superdiverse (multicultural and multilingual) society, where the need for language services is high.

  • Leah Gerber

    Senior Lecturer, Translation Studies

  • Rita Wilson

    Professor in Translation Studies, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics

  • Jim Hlavac

    Senior Lecturer, Translation and Interpreting Studies, Faculty of Arts

  • Alex Avella Archila

    Assistant Lecturer, Translation and Interpreting Studies, Faculty of Arts

For CALD communities, this may mean being able to access interpreting services, or receiving translated information about the pandemic.

Adequate translations must carefully consider the needs of the target audience:

  • Are they literate?
  • Do they consume traditional media?
  • Who do they usually get their information from?

CALD communities often prefer to access information through their own networks, as their trust of government authorities may be low.

Lost in translation

Following major concerns about the accuracy of translated COVID-19 health information in 2020, scholars articulated the need for “communities of trust” consisting of people who can communicate sensitively and adapt messages to the particular needs of communities”.

Many translations of COVID-19 information were deemed unacceptable, as they didn’t recognise the diversity within ethnic communities, and failed to prioritise communication tailored for specific target audiences.

Ethnic employee in office with colleagues

Rather than focusing on instances of mistranslation in COVID-19 materials and blaming the translators, the public conversation has broadened to recognise the need for intercultural communication grounded in the practice of intercultural dialogue.

A core element of interculturally-competent translators is empathy. The emphasis on empathy is all the more relevant because it runs contrary to the dominant expectation of impartiality in professional translation and interpreting practice.

Moreover, translators and interpreters are both expert communicators and community members; they’re ethically responsible for the impact their translation and interpreting activity has on the lives of people in the real world.

Yet, ethical accountability cannot be solely expected of translators and interpreters – it involves all stakeholders (policymakers, health advisors, communications teams, language service providers and translators/interpreters) who need, together, to raise the profile of the complexity of forms of communication that take place, authentically and spontaneously, in superdiverse societies.

So, as we find ourselves a few days into our fourth lockdown, the question is: Has communication, especially regarding the importance of vaccination, with our CALD communities improved?

Since May 2020, the Victorian government has committed $25.6 million to support Victoria’s multicultural and multifaith communities through the pandemic.

Globally, attention is now focused on communication about vaccines. The vaccination rollout has highlighted just how entangled our activities are with cultural and linguistic literacy.

Combatting misinformation

We’ve witnessed the global circulation of misinformation about the efficacy of vaccines, resulting in a widespread reluctance to be vaccinated.

In Hong Kong, for example, doubt has been cast over the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine Sinovac, indicating that apprehension about vaccination is a “sociological phenomenon”, while in Taiwan, misinformation about the pandemic, including the “inferiority” of the AstraZeneca vaccine, has coincided with a new wave of infections.

As many Victorian CALD community members still consume media from their “home” countries, the potential for such misinformation spreading into local migrant communities is real.

Diverse group of women broadcasting information.

In a superdiverse city such as Melbourne, where many languages and cultures co-exist, we need to develop a multilingual communication strategy – one that does not let urgency dictate translation quality, but instead focuses on the immediate needs of a multilingual audience.

In this area, we can do a lot more.

Successful intercultural communication is difficult to achieve, as it involves verbal and non-verbal messaging. An example of best practice is the regular appearance of sign language (Auslan) interpreters alongside government spokespeople at press conferences, representing an important step in the visibility of sign language and allowing, for the first time in Australia, families with deaf and hearing members to use the same media and to consume it in the same way. Maintaining the kind of positive momentum generated by an increased use of multimodal resources is vital.

One major, noticeable change in the government’s communication strategy has been the availability of a wide range of COVID-related materials in text, image and video form. For example, English source videos featuring elderly Victorians talking about vaccines have been subtitled into key community languages, and multilingual radio ads have been produced.

Translated materials now better reflect the different ways in which people consume media – combinations of online text, hyperlinked PDFs and Word documents are used for instructions, JPEG files and posters for visual demonstrations, downloadable audio files that are more conversational than didactic, and video files with dubbed LOTE audio and English subtitles (or vice-versa), for “how-to” demonstrations of how to wear a face mask.

The communication problems encountered during the pandemic highlight the need for better planning in the coordination of intercultural communication so that vulnerable populations with differing languages, norms, beliefs and practices are not forgotten.

These changes reflect the diversity within CALD communities, where some groups have limited literacy, and messaging needs to be primarily aural and audio-visual. For example, in South Australia, some translators not only translate information into written texts and videos, but also work as bilingual field workers relaying COVID-19 material via phone, video and face-to-face dialogues.

Translations must not only be accurate, but reach those for whom they’re intended. One major barrier is that almost all Australian translated materials are embedded in English-language websites that require users to have English literacy skills in order to access them.

Materials must not only be translated, but adapted to the specific needs of the community. We don’t really know the extent to which translated materials fulfil their purpose of achieving a level of health literacy and effecting behavioural change among CALD residents.

This is a question being addressed in an interdisciplinary project funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health that focuses on the effectiveness of government COVID-19 translated messaging in languages other than English for refugee and asylum seekers, as well as Auslan messaging for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents.

Victorian government regularly updates information

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Victorian government has produced written texts on COVID-related topics in 59 languages.

The Victorian government has a proactive policy in relation to the use of LOTE in government, and is the only state to have regularly-updated guidelines on the use of interpreting services and the provision of effective translations.

In August 2020, the Victorian government established a CALD Communities Taskforce, followed by the CALD COVID-19 Health Advisory Group in April 2021, as a way of supporting the Australian government in coordinating an evidence-based response to the pandemic.

Membership of this group is overwhelmingly representative of ethnic community and health perspectives, but would benefit from informed advice around transcultural awareness, which is essential to ensure effective communication across and between communities.

The communication problems encountered during the pandemic highlight the need for better planning in the coordination of intercultural communication so that vulnerable populations with differing languages, norms, beliefs and practices are not forgotten.

A chain of trust between all stakeholders must be established so that we can work together to be better-prepared for future crises.

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