It’s been revealed that part of the Australian government’s public health messaging around the coronavirus pandemic was initially issued to multicultural communities using Google Translate.
The government uses Google Translate for COVIDSafe
It was revealed earlier in the year that the Federal government’s messaging around COVID-19 was being poorly received by non-English language speakers, as a result of translation errors.
The government was put under further pressure back in May as the COVIDSafe app was only made available in English. After a series of updates in the following months, the app expanded to include other languages, but not without early translation issues.
The ABC first reported on documents that showed official translators were initially sidelined by the Federal government.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told Gizmodo Australia that it has always used certified translators for official COVID fact-sheets. However, it admitted to initially using subscription version of Google Translate subscription during the set up of its COVID-19 website.
“Google translate subscription services were only used to translate menu and navigation tiles in the initial set up and rapid deployment of the Department’s Information in your language website in April 2020,” the spokesperson sain in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
In the ABC’s report, the department said it used Google Translate at the onset of the pandemic to “ensure there was an easy-to-use repository of translated information available to multicultural communities as quickly as possible.”
The spokesperson told Gizmodo in a response that “once the website was up and running, the Department engaged NAATI-certified translators to review the website, including the menu and navigation tiles, and made amendments as necessary.”
Google Translate isn’t reliable enough
Google Translate is often unreliable when converting information, as it tends to translate only direct words and misses the grammatical nuances and structures of each language, often resulting in a loss of meaning.
“We know the automated translated services are not accurate sometimes and they can be very dangerous — the slightest change can completely change the meaning,” Mohammad Al-Khafaji, a chief executive for the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils Australia, told the ABC.
“There are many different languages where omitting the smallest letter or space will give the exact opposite meaning — so instead of saying ‘stay at home’ it might say ‘do not stay at home’.”
The decision not to use official translators for such critical early messaging around the pandemic received plenty of backlash. Studies conducted by the ABC revealed groups such as migrants and refugees are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus. This is due to the likelihood of them missing out on important public health information and unknowingly passing the virus on.
The poor translation of such public health messages makes this situation far more challenging for non-English speaking communities. Particularly when the federal government has access to certified translators.
The Department of Home Affairs said that to date it had spent over $2 million hiring official translators to translate COVID-19 materials.
The spokesperson said that between March and November 2020 the department has translated 95 documents in up to 63 languages for publication on the Department’s website and dissemination to non-English speaking community members.