image of a laboratory to illustrate translation and ebolaAs life-science specialists we are exposed to a lot of suffering in the documents that we translate. Fatalities are often mentioned in journal reports on chemotherapy treatment, severe adverse reactions to antibiotics in the young and old and also upsetting details about people with several illnesses and complications. However, this is mostly in black and white reports where names and dates of birth of the patients redacted. It is easy to remain isolated and immune to peoples’ suffering in such instances. However, no one could have remained unmoved at the plight of those struck down by Ebola. To hear stories of people who survived but who lost all other family members, to see children who have lost their parents and all of their siblings. To hear about local workers who went out into the community to collect the victims, both living and dead. All of this was sobering stuff.

However, we wanted to find out about the language issues faced in such an epidemic. Clearly there are language issues with most of the affected countries only having a small elite minority that can use English. Also ignorance about the actual cause of the disease and how to prevent infection are major issues. Most of the solutions once an epidemic escalates are high-tech such as clinical trials using new expensive drugs, field hospitals and hazmat suits. But effective communication as to how to prevent infection and what to do if someone may be infected is obviously a key strategy to preventing the epidemic. However, most communities did not have access to this information in their languages.

UNICEF highlighted this problem in a report about Sierra Leone where nearly one-third of people thought Ebola could be spread by mosquitos and almost 40% thought that a hot salt-water bath would provide a cure. Most people did not know how to prevent the spread of the disease. Most of the information produced was in English, which was not much use to most of the population. Translators without Borders (TWB) is an organisation that works to use translation to spread knowledge and assist humanity. They say, and we agree, that the translation industry should be working more effectively to help aid workers become more effective. Translation of important information saves lives in crisis situations and this was brought home in the Ebola epidemic.

Although English is the official language of Sierra Leone, it is really the language of the elite and in reality is only used in the capital Freetown. This city remained mostly unaffected by the outbreak that was confined to areas distant from the capital. Most of the deaths were in districts where Krio is the main language. Other affected areas were predominantly Krio or Mende speaking areas. Also, it is reported that only 13% of women speak English in Sierra Leone. Therefore, providing information only in English was not going to be effective at all.

It is clear that crisis and epidemics in the developing world can be quickly mitigated through clear and effective communication in the language of those affected. Therefore, better use of translation should be an important approach for national and international health organisations. There is the feeling that this is being overlooked and this is leading to unnecessary loss of life. We have plenty of admiration for TWB and one of our underlying aims is to assist aid agencies during crisis by providing pro-bono translation and interpretation whenever possible.