Translating health information

Translations tell your culturally and linguistically diverse clients you have a serious commitment to creating services that respond to their needs. They are the first step in reaching out to the communities you serve and whilst translation can never become a one size fits all solution, it should form an important element of your communication strategy. As challenging as translation may seem, requiring a significant level of engagement, dedication and understanding of your target readership, the biggest mistake an organisation can make in translation is not to translate at all.

Today, most health information is written in English and whilst health is universal, language is not. Translated health information is not always just about specific health issues, such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease. Often, it is the associated content, such as privacy guidelines, consent forms and OH&S procedures that gets translated. Translation of such material can be very challenging, as some concepts may not even exist in certain
cultures but also because the information itself is written in a difficult-to-understand way.

Let’s take a short test:

“Where the linkage of health information is undertaken within an organisation using only information lawfully collected by the organisation in the course of providing a health service to the person, and the linkage is used to produce information for the funding, management, planning or evaluation of health services, this question can be answered in the negative”

How much of that did you understand? How easy was it to read? How difficult will this be to translate? The plain truth of translation is that unless the original text is written well, the translation will read poorly. The minimal research that is available indicates that purchasers of translation services are often confused about the process and make many costly mistakes. They include:

  • Writing the original text in poor English
  • Choosing wrong languages to translate
  • Translating glossy brochures and media releases
  • Lack of any quality control procedures in place
  • No translation budget or plan, leading to an ad hoc and misguided effort
  • Lack of understanding of good practice in translation and communication with CALD audiences

To add to the confusion, there is no accurate data on the size of translation market, demand for translation or effectiveness of translation. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that some translations are never read or understood by the intended readers. A pretty grim picture indeed!

So how do you make sure that your translations are correct, accurate but most of all, useful? Unfortunately, there is no magic button that can be pressed, and no one size fits all solution exists. Getting text translated will require engagement, interest and commitment on your part. Questions worth asking before even considering translation are:

  1. Is your message important or critical?
  2. Has this material been requested in other languages and is it available from other sources?
  3. Does the target audience typically receive messages in written format?

When choosing your translation provider, seek referrals from colleagues, get quotes from at least three companies and ask questions. Whilst you may not be able to understand the translated text, you can judge the performance of your translation provider by seeing how well they perform in treating you as your customer. When choosing languages for translation, try to describe desired target audience as narrowly and clearly as possible.
Don’t just go for the top five or ten languages in your geographical region. Think about whether niche communities, although small in numbers, may have little or no access to information in their preferred languages and should therefore be considered first. Local councils, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, community organisations and universities are often a good source of information on the emerging communities.

Make sure your text and design is culturally competent. Use images that reflect the community, and a medium that relies on pictorial messaging. Give your translation company detailed information on how you will use this material. But most of all, talk to your translators and engage in the process. You will learn a lot about the communities you are targeting with your health message through it.