Why the Pandemic Makes Interpretation and Translation Services More Urgent

Translation Services

Part of what makes a pandemic challenging is the danger of physical proximity to patients. Due to the infectiousness of the coronavirus, healthcare staff must be reduced to a minimum and suited up with personal protective equipment. Translation services are necessary in order to facilitate a meaningful dialog between doctors and patients. The vulnerability of the old and infirm to the predators of the outbreak means that healthcare providers will inevitably encounter difficulties when communicating with patients, and when discussing prevention measures with vulnerable populations. All of these factors increase the urgency for accurate interpretation and translation services.

Case in Point: Supporting Hispanic Populations with Limited English Proficiency

This linguistic vulnerability is especially true for those with Limited Language Proficiency – in the US, primarily elderly Spanish speakers. There are estimated to be more than 25M U.S. residents who can’t speak English proficiently. An additional 35M speak a language other than English at home. This creates additional strain on the public institutions and health care providers in a crisis. The United States considers the communication of vital health information to be a civil right that providers need to satisfy. There is an often overwhelming need to translate Spanish to English but a lack of qualified interpretation services available in various locations, especially under a lockdown or limited mobility conditions.

Complicating the problem is the need to be familiar with medical terminology. Medical interpreters are expected to have basic familiarity with the specialized terms related to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis.  Often that means training in nursing, medicine, or emergency services. Medical translation and medical interpretation are advanced skills in short supply since the outbreak began. Add medical knowledge to the need for a Spanish translator, and the pool of available interpreters for medical Spanish to English translation becomes shallow indeed.

Furthermore, a subset of the population has trouble hearing in any language. The functionally deaf percentage of an adult in the U.S. is estimated at about 0.38%, equating to about 1M people. However, U.S. government statistics from 2012 indicate that some 15% of American adults (37.5M) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing.

Translation, Interpretation, and Localization: Coming to Terms with the Distinctions

It’s important to make a further distinction here: the difference between medical translation and medical interpretation. A medical translator deals with documents, while a medical interpreter deals with the spoken word. There’s a further terminological separation that must be made as well: between translation and localization. Translation, and interpretation, deal with language only, written and spoken respectively.

But in addition, especially when dealing with digital communications, there’s a need to localize the content assets. This means converting measurement units, currency, and, perhaps most importantly, adapting communications for cultural factors. It’s not enough just to translate a website or social media or an overall campaign: you also need to localize it. This is a specialized branch of the language services industry and generally requires technical expertise and familiarity with programming languages, not just natural languages.

How Do Public Officials and Health Providers Deliver Medical Interpretation in a Crisis?

Getting back to the current health crisis, traditional site-based solutions have become virtually untenable. Prior to the outbreak, hospitals and public institutions hired translators, interpreters, and signers to assist populations that needed assistance in understanding vital medical information. However, the need for social distancing and often quarantine means that these language specialists have been sent home.  It is more difficult than ever for them to be present when a doctor is conveying essential information to patients or when public officials need to convey the latest updates to assembled media.

Innovation has come to the rescue. For decades, Over the Phone Interpretation has been available, where an interpreter at a remote location is called to translate communications. The problem was that audio-only interpretation is difficult and cumbersome for many people to follow, especially children and senior citizens. And, of course, it was totally useless for the deaf and hard of hearing. The natural progression, as mobile cameras have become ubiquitous, is to upgrade to Video Remote Interpretation. VRI enables the interpreter, or signer, to appear vividly on a smartphone or flatscreen, mediating between speakers who don’t share a common language.

Many companies have arisen to provide OPI and VRI services, often partnering with translation and localization companies to provide the linguistic talent for various language pairs, usually providing on-demand interpretation services in dozens of language pairs, often on short notice. Google these acronyms and you can find a selection of providers and their linguistic partners.

Welcome to the Machines: Translation and Interpretation Apps to the Rescue

Successive technology evolutions in interpretation have provided an impressive array of personal options for bridging the language gap. Some are literally in our hands. Smartphone apps now possess the ability to provide translation and interpretation in health care contexts.  Applications like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator both can deliver instant translation between pairs of more than 100 languages, though not all languages support audio listening and voicing.

For most common language pairs, however, there is now two-way voice interpretation. Simply speak into your phone in one language and your spoken words are converted to text, then translated and voiced into another language. Then your interlocutor can talk back in their language and those spoken words are converted into your own preferred language. In addition, such apps offer camera translation, which would enable you to scan foreign language printed information and then having a familiar language overlaid in place of the unfamiliar one on your phone screen in what is called “augmented reality.”

Even though machines still have a long way to go before they can match the accuracy of excellent human translations, especially on specialized medical subjects, evolving machine translation software is giving flesh and blood interpreters a good run for their money. These capabilities are constantly improving, and the tech giants have the resources to leverage translation memory, which effectively remembers, and puts to use, everything previously translated. Still, in a crisis, there is no doubt something reassuring about having a human being, rather than the voice of Siri or Alexa, mediates the communication of life and death information.

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