Some of the countries that have been hit the hardest by the Ebola outbreak include Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea where the use of English is limited to only 20% of the population. The scale of the crisis is highlighted by UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa, Manuel Fontaine: “The vast majority of the children affected by Ebola are still left without appropriate care. We cannot respond to a crisis of this nature and this scale in the usual ways. We need more courage, more creativity and far more resources.”

Several organisations, including UNICEF and Translators without Borders have pointed out that important messages relating to precautions and symptoms are just not getting through to the people most at risk due to the language barrier.

The majority of posters and leaflets that are handed out in the countries worst hit by the epidemic are in English, a language which is understood only by the educated minority. As Gary Muddyman of Translators without Borders points out that “in order for any material to qualify as ‘information’, it must be produced in the language of the intended audience. Otherwise it serves no purpose at all.”

There is a serious lack of knowledge and misinformation amongst the population that is at the centre of the epidemic, with one third of the people believing that the virus is spread by mosquitoes or in the air. It is absolutely crucial to make factual and relevant information accessible to those that need it the most. Although this is not an easy task as there are over 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent, it is still feasible to provide necessary information in those languages that are spoken by the majority.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators without Borders, describes the importance of translating written materials from English to the native languages of the respective populations and
also speaking to those affected by the crisis in their own language as it’s the only way to gain and build trust: “Written information in the context of very few doctors is really important; there are fewer than 50 doctors for Liberia. We wouldn’t go into rural France with posters in English so it’s shocking that in rural Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone there are posters only in English.”

Cost is of course a major factor, although even this can be overcome as Translators without Borders have been translating information on the Internet which can be accessible via mobile phones owned by the majority of the population. Information on the Internet has the potential to reach a far greater number of people and if it is accessible in the target language then there will be a greater chance for people to take necessary precautions which can ultimately help to contain the epidemic and save lives.


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