Translation helps quell panic in Sierra Leone

Translators without Borders (TWB) was founded on the belief that information, provided in an understandable language, can save lives in a crisis. In the past few months that principle has been applied to great effect in Sierra Leone, where a dedicated team of TWB translators is making a practical contribution to controlling Ebola.

When the current Ebola epidemic began in early 2014, information and instructions on appropriate responses were primarily available in English. Unfortunately, many people vulnerable to the disease did not speak or read English. For example, although the official language of Sierra Leone is English, Krio, Mende and Themne are used by a far greater proportion of the population, particularly in rural areas.

Dr Fabian Dapila, a linguist who has worked in several African countries, is co-ordinating TWB’s efforts to provide information in those lingua francas. In difficult circumstances (including restrictions on travel and the need to be constantly vigilant against the disease), Dr Dapila is coordinating a team of three translators, all based in different parts of Sierra Leone.

The work done by the three translators has done much to demystify Ebola by ensuring that clear and consistent information is widely accessible. One of the most effective outputs from the team has been a series of simple but informative posters, suggesting ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, describing symptoms of infection and emphasising the urgency of seeking medical attention.

Previously, misinformation, mistrust, fear and panic spread quickly through communities. The availability of translated material has helped to reassure communities, increase trust in aid workers and medical staff and promote more constructive responses.

TWB is proud of its access to dedicated volunteers who apply their cultural and linguistic knowledge to assist communities in crisis. The Sierra Leonean team is an inspirational example, giving up personal time to support their communities.

“They are absolutely passionate about promoting their respective languages, and the need to combat the Ebola threat has been an added incentive for all of them”, Dr Dapila explained. “So, even though they have full-time jobs as a teacher, a literature programme co-ordinator and a Bible translator, they have all happily donated many hours of their own time to ensure that the right messages are communicated”.

The people of Sierra Leone are understandably frightened of Ebola, but when they receive information in a language that they are familiar with, it not only reduces their panic and fear, but also gives them a clear plan for action.

As Dr Dapila noted, “When people understand something and believe in it, they become teachers and advocates in their own communities, so the word spreads”.

Kate Murphy

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