Minority Languages and Medical Translation: How to Save a Life?

Medical Translation

Over the past few years, linguists and institutions alike have called for the protection of so called “minority” languages. Minority languages are languages that usually include indigenous, aboriginal and less-used languages and constitute about 90% of the world’s 7000 languages. Minority languages tend to coexist with majority languages and different country-level policies sometimes lend official status to some minority languages. For example, India has implemented a policy whereby Hindi and English are official national languages, while it has left the decision to recognize other languages to the individual states. Mexico, with Spanish being the “majority language”, has 238 living languages and 68 indigenous languages that have been recognized as official languages under the 2003 Mexican Law of Linguistic Rights.

Lack of Access to Medical Information in Minority Languages

Speakers of minority languages in most areas of the world lack access to medical information in their native language. What are the consequences to people that lack of accurate translation of medical materials or simply lack access to medical information? India, for instance, has a myriad of languages and often times medical information is not available in minority languages. This hinders the chances of people in need of medical assistance to survive in those areas, and can mean the difference between life and death. Translators Without Borders (TWB), a non-profit organization providing translation services for humanitarian organizations, was established in 2010 to try to close the language gap between majority and minority languages and build language translation capacity at the local level. So far it has donated over 30 million translated words, with a dollar value of $6 millions. TWB cofounder, Lori Thicke, interviewed Peter Kamande, project manager in Kenya for TWB. Kamande recalled the story of a friend, whose death was caused from complications following an unsafe abortion.

As Kamande explained, the reason for the death stemmed from information about birth control methods available only in English, and not in the local minority language. Kamande’s friend was given pamphlets of information in English from the medical center, which she couldn’t understand. She tried to ask for help from friends but, due to their limited English language proficiency, they mistranslated the medication instructions and this resulted in her tragic death a few days later, at the age of 18 years.  Common Sense Advisory, a market research firm specializing in the translation and localization industry, surveyed African translators in 2012 and found that 63% of them believed better access to translated medical material in minority languages would have avoided the death of a family member or a friend.

How to Save a Life?

To address this information gap TWB is collaborating with Wikipedia, Wikimedia Canada and major cell phone service providers in an effort to deliver essential medical advice and materials in local minority languages via mobile phones. The top 80 Wikipedia medical articles in English have been identified and are being reviewed by a team of doctors for accuracy and then rewritten in simplified English by a team of editors. Once the simplified version of the articles is approved, a team of volunteer professional translators translate the articles into their native languages. The project focuses mainly on languages with almost no reliable online content available, and works with volunteer translators who are speaker of languages such as Bengali, Macedonian, Dari, Gujarati and Tamil, to name just a few.


90% of the worlds 7000 languages are considered minority languages, however each individual minority language lacks the market share to make it profitable to translate essential materials, such as medical information, into that language. This leaves millions of people in a knowledge vacuum that can have dire consequences on these minority languages’ speakers’ lives. TWB and other socially-minded organizations have teamed up to begin addressing this issue. TWB’s initial goal is to translate the top 80 Wikipedia articles in 80 local languages, which is a first step toward bringing essential information to the many hundreds of millions of people who lack access to basic medical facts.

This article is written by a professional writer, Ilaria Ghelardoni, associated with Ulatus.

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