Google Translate Causes Vaccine Mishap

Last week, MultiLingual reported on a Virginia Department of Health website translation error that incorrectly told Spanish speakers they don’t need coronavirus vaccines. New information from Richmond, Virginia newspaper The Virginian-Pilot now reveals how this error came to be.

“The Virginia Department of Health’s main sources for translating critical covid-19 and vaccine information are three marketing agencies that don’t list translation services on their websites and Google Translate,” Sabrina Moreno reports, pointing out that both translation reliability experts and Google itself caution medical providers not to use the free online tool for medical translations. Google translated “the vaccine is not required” as “the vaccine is not necessary” on the Department of Health’s frequently asked questions website.

In the United States, Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus with higher death and hospitalization rates than white Americans. Ensuring this group has access to covid-19 vaccines is of particular importance in Virginia where — as of January 13th — Latinos only accounted for 9 percent of those receiving a dose despite making up 21 percent of the commonwealth’s covid-19 hospitalizations.

“Immigrant advocates and certified translators said the state’s failure to prioritize adequate translation showed Virginia’s lack of investment in populations already facing a trust gap in the health care system and language barriers that have historically limited access to medical care,” writes Moreno.

Luis Oyola, director of organizing for Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, says he’s been warning the state of what Moreno calls “the desperate need for translated and culturally competent materials” since March. “The government is reaping what they sowed,” Oyola told The Virginian-Pilot

The government, however, continues to stand beside its mistranslation. “Many Spanish speakers do read this form as it was intended — namely, to make clear the vaccine is not mandatory and therefore will not be forced on anyone,” director of communications Maria Reppas told local television station ABC 8News.

Nearly 1.4 million Virginians speak a language other than English at home. More than half of these people speak Spanish.

Terena Bell
Terena Bell is a reporter covering the language industry for MultiLingual, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and others. In a past life, she owned In Every Language, an LSP, and served on the GALA and ALC board.


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