TFON Translating Health Info for Indigenous Languages

Addressing exclusion of languages in vital health materials, Translations 4 Our Nations (TFON) has translated COVID-19 resources into over 40 Indigenous languages.

As communities across the globe reckon with linguistic exclusion from national government health protocols during the pandemic, one group has formed to mitigate the devastation many have faced due to lack of timely, accessible information regarding COVID-19. Formed by a group of medical and public health students, Translations 4 Our Nations (TFON) has created a global initiative in translating COVID-19 resources into more than 40 Indigenous languages from over 30 countries. Community- and Indigenous-led, the initiative facilitates accessible distribution of health information, and organizers eventually plan to launch a free website.

Reviewed by Harvard doctors, Harvard medical students, and Indigenous youth leaders from the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, the translated materials aim to provide the Indigenous community with important information about health safety and COVID-19 in their native languages.

“I founded this initiative because I saw how my own Indigenous communities struggled with lack of COVID-19 information that was in their language or culturally relevant to their contexts,” said Victor Anthony Lopez-Carmen, founder of TFON and second-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. “The idea was to work directly with Indigenous community members in the spirit of partnership, and make sure the benefits went back to them and their communities.”

During the early stages of the pandemic, the United Nations’ Department of Economics and Social Affairs reported a complete lack of “relevant information about infectious diseases and preventive measures” in Indigenous languages internationally.

For co-founders Thilaxcy Yohathasan and Sterling Stutz, both York alumnae and Master of Public Health in Indigenous Health candidates at the University of Toronto, this initiative resonated with them personally, as they are both settlers on Indigenous lands.

“Many Indigenous scholars have written about the possibility for COVID-19 to exacerbate existing health disparities. This project is international in scope and allows myself, as a student living and working in Toronto, to connect with and build relationships with Indigenous peoples around the globe,” Stutz says.

Since April, TFON has gathered a team of over 120 Indigenous translators from over 30 countries to help make necessary and important information accessible during the pandemic. According to Yohathasan, this is the most diverse group of Indigenous translators ever to unite.

The initiative has provided several documents outlining important COVID-19 related information, including emergency signs, information for Indigenous children, general information for Indigenous elders, and recommendations for traveling to cities and populated areas. The team is also currently working on translating a “Pandemic and Nutrition” document.

TFON has translated the materials into languages including Greenlandic, Hawaiin, Yaqui, and Swahili to Isixhosa, Maya K’iche’, Tok Pisin, and Zambian sign language, to name a few.

The translated materials offer many communities hope, but not without risks. With constantly shifting information, TFON will face pressure to stay up-to-date with new discoveries and to transmit the information to translators, a task which can prove difficult.

“We speak over 70 different languages from coast to coast, many of our communities are only accessible by plane and the majority overall are remote which makes access to technology and connecting to resources a huge challenge,” said Rachelle Naomi Beswick, treasurer and acting co-president for Aboriginal Students’ Association at York.


MultiLingual Staff
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