Preparing Translations for Emergency Situations

While the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to slow down in the United States, natural disasters are beginning to pick up across the nation: a tornado in the Chicago area, tropical storms across the Atlantic, and a smoky wildfire season forecasted on the West Coast. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that language access services are imperative in times of crisis — natural disasters are no exception. A recent report in Grist highlighted the importance of providing accurate and human-developed translations of public safety warnings, in order to ensure that we don’t leave behind individuals with limited English proficiency in our response to natural disasters.

With climate change exacerbating the frequency and intensity of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, it’s more important than ever to ensure that information about these events is accessible to everybody, regardless of their proficiency in the English language. 

“Recent research suggests that hearing emergency warnings in a non-native language can make it more difficult to process what’s happening in a situation where time is of the essence,” writes Grist’s associate editor Kate Yoder. “To make matters worse, the changing climate has been making many natural hazards even more hazardous.”

Despite the fact that about three in ten Californians speak Spanish as their primary home language, many local government agencies have failed to provide their Spanish-speaking population with high-quality translations of public safety information regarding the state’s all-too-frequent and destructive wildfires — according to the Grist, a state audit found that in 2017, Butte, Sonoma, and Ventura counties did not provide adequate warnings in languages other than English. At the time, those counties were home to some of the most severe wildfires in the state’s history (though more recent years have seen even more severe and extreme effects).

Just as automatic translations hampered the COVID-19 response in some areas, they’ve also been shown to negatively impact communities of individuals with limited English proficiency during natural disasters as well — for example, in 2017, an automatic translation of a wildfire notice in California’s Ventura county mistranslated the word “brush fire” using the Spanish word for “hairbrush” in place of “brush.” Thus, the importance of human-evaluated translations is clear — when lives are at risk, Google Translate simply does not cut it.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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