COVID-19 has underlined the urgent need for a coordinated national framework of interpreters and translation services for Australia’s Indigenous languages, say leading experts. 

Indigenous community members, academics and language researchers have raced to translate crucial COVID-19 health messaging into 29 Australian Indigenous languages with a further 50 to 100 languages still to go.  

To help, the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) based at The Australian National University (ANU) has established a resource and information clearing house for translated materials.  

Director of CoEDL, Professor Nicholas Evans said getting correct messages to many Indigenous communities has been an enormous undertaking.  

“While the health messages are absolutely critical, they also have be culturally appropriate and delivered by the right people,” he said. 

“Messaging around restricting numbers at funerals and ‘sorry camps’ – where friends and family gather after a person’s death – have had to be communicated very sensitively.  

“Our race to translate these important messages has shown the vital need for a central communications group for Indigenous communities to be established and built into emergency plans.” 

COVID-19 health warning translated into Yanyuwa language. Illustration: Centre for Excellence in the Dynamics of Language/ANU

According to Professor Evans, ensuring the wellbeing of Indigenous Australian communities in a health emergency also requires ongoing education and the development of new ways of talking about disease and epidemiology in First Nations languages. 

“There’s also a lot of background teaching that has to be done first, like the basics of epidemiology, germ theory, what an incubation period is and why asymptomatic people still pose a danger, that’s so much more than just translating five measures people should take,” Professor Evans said.  

“You can’t simply translate a message like ‘cough into your elbow’ without ensuring people understand the nuances behind such a message.” 

Professor Evans said COVID-19 had necessitated developing local languages in ways that haven’t been done before.  

“Rather than just translating words and phrases, it’s about taking apart a complex concept and rebuilding it using existing aspects of your language to convey the message and its importance. That takes real skill and intimate knowledge of a language and its speakers,” he said. 

“Some aspects of Aboriginal cultural law lend themselves to this. There are traditional rules of physical avoidance running right through Indigenous Australia, like between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law.  

“So there’s often a verb in a language that means to keep a respectful distance from your son-in-law and by using that word you can explain social distancing quite accurately.” 

The translation of crucial COVID health messaging has been amplified by the CoEDL network of four Australian university nodes (ANU, University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and University of Western Sydney), their affiliates, Aboriginal communities, and people working as linguists and in interpreting services.  

The clearing house for translated materials and resources has been managed, maintained and made accessible by the voluntary work of CoEDL and ANU affiliates Ruth Singer and Mahesh Radhakrishnan.  

The resources are now online.  

Visual Collection of resources in Indigenous languages: 

Visual Collection of resources in English aimed at Indigenous communities in remote areas: 

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