Tag Archives: health care

Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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Fear of Foreign Languages, Hospital English, and Garifuna Music

Some US Presidential candidates seem embarrassed by their ability to speak a foreign language. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speak at least some French. Romney picked his up while on Mormon mission in France. Gingrich acquired his as a teenager while his father his US serviceman father was stationed there. Yet Gingrich made fun of Romney in a TV ad because he  “speaks French.” The implication seems to be that speaking a foreign language muddies your 100% all-American vision.

No wonder Jon Huntsman didn’t catch on as a Presidential candidate. Huntsman speaks some Chinese (those Mormon missions come in handy for something). And, unlike the rest of them, he didn’t shy away from showing off his Chinese while campaigning.

For his part, President Obama has oscillated between a populist boast of ignorance (“my French and German are terrible!”) tempered by chagrin (“I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”).

The Obama Administration has tried to make funding more available for foreign language learning. (Part of the problem has been the “No Child Left Behind” law which leaves languages behind. The law’s relentless testing in English reading and  math offers teachers little incentive to stray from the subject of the next exam. Instead, they teach to the test.) In recent years Congress has cut federal foreign language learning grants.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this list of the languages spoken by each American president since Washington,  but it makes for fascinating reading.

Going to the Idiomatic Bathroom

Also in the pod this week, we hear from a hospital in King’s Lynn in the English county of Norfolk. Foreign nurses there are expected to speak and understand English, and just to make sure they understand British-English hospitalese, they now take an additional course.  They learn some of the many variations for going to the bathroom, especially the ones favored by the mainly elderly patients who like to “spend a penny” or “go to the lavvy.” Other key colloquialisms: “jim-jams” (pajamas), “tickled pink” (delighted) and “higgledy-piggledy” (in a muddle).

As well as those British English terms, there is the regional Norfolk dialect. Among the pertinent (and not so pertinent) words  the nurses may learn are: “blar” (to cry), “mawther” (young woman: somewhat derogatory), “mardle” (chat, gossip) and “bishy barney bee’ (a ladybird/ladybug).

Those nurses might have got more than they bargained for.

Garifuna Revival Through Song

 Finally, reporter Nina Porzucki profiles Belizean singer James Lovell who is trying to keep the Garifuna language relevant.

The Garifuna people come from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. But no one speaks Garifuna there any more. No one has since the 18th century, when the Garifuna were exiled by the British to Honduras. The diaspora is now spread throughout Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The Garifuna language has survived but over time, Spanish, English and several creoles have become more dominant. The pattern is familiar: parents speak in their native tongue. Kids answer back in the language of the adopted country.

As a child,  Lovell would hear his parents and grandparents speaking Garifuna, and though he understood it,  he spoke Belizean Creole. It was only when he heard local musician Pen Cayetano singing in Garifuna that Lovell became interested in the language.

Cayetano sang about contemporary social issues. And his music was part of a new sound called Punta Rock.

That inspired Lovell to learn to speak and sing in Garifuna, which eventually led to his current project. With backing from the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, Lovell is translating popular English language songs into Garifuna. He’s also helping Lovell raise money for an after-school program to teach Garifuna to kids in Lovell’s Brooklyn neighborhood—kids who, like Lovell, came from Garifuna backgrounds but don’t speak the language.

Lesson one for these kids: the pre-school hit I Love You as sung by Barney, the giant purple dinosaur.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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