Non-English language

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For some people, information provided in their first language is essential to their understanding of health concepts or services. You may decide to produce information in other languages. The process for this is similar to producing information in English. It’s important to consider your audience; what you want to communicate; and how best to deliver your message. It’s also important to work with native speakers and skilled translators.

Identify need

Reliable statistics on need for information in other languages are hard to come by. There is limited information from the UK on how many people speak a first language other than English, levels of fluency and literacy.

If you’re planning a project, research the audience you’re thinking about creating information for. Consider contacting relevant community groups or convening a user group. If you work in a frontline service, you may have directly identified a need. Find out whether someone else has already produced information in the language you need. You could ask other PiF members.

You may feel confident that a particular group has difficulty accessing existing information or services because of a language barrier, but it is important to unpick whether translating that information is a solution. Sometimes, literacy is an issue and spending time explaining information (in English or with an interpreter), or creating a very simple English text, would be more effective. Find out about language use – for example Sylheti, widely spoken by in the British Bangladeshi community, is not usually written down.

Starting with your user at the heart of the process will not only be more effective, it might also save you the expense and effort of translating unnecessary material.

Consider format

Ethnically diverse group

Working with a user group as well as your translator can help to pinpoint potentially difficult areas and help you arrive at the best solution

Perhaps you want to produce something in print to distribute to local groups. Or, perhaps you want information about a particular health condition to be available in a clinic but the audience is very small and an online factsheet that staff could print off when required would be best. You might consider producing a video, hosted online with a voiceover in different languages.

Your user research will guide the decision on format, but it should also be informed by the method you think will most effectively get the information to the people who need it.

Prepare text

With all of these things in mind, look at the text you want to translate. It may be appropriate to adapt the text – are there other barriers to access you could help overcome, or are there culturally specific issues you should address?  There may be sensitive issues you want to address, or concepts that are difficult to get across because of cultural differences. For example, mental health issues may be understood differently, so that concepts such as anxiety or psychosis are described in entirely different terms. Information relating to sex and sexual health, women’s health and end-of-life care may also need careful handling. Working with a user group as well as your translator can help to pinpoint potentially difficult areas and help you arrive at the best solution. Make sure your language is clear and doesn’t contain jargon or idioms. Format the document in a way that will be clear for your translator and so you can follow it once translated – e.g. mark headings or text that forms part of an illustration. Consider what extra information to include, like contact details, or how to access an interpreter.

Working with a translator

If you don’t have access to a translator, you could look at online registries of qualified translators. Look for someone who lists relevant expertise (e.g. health, medicine). You could ask other PiF members if they can recommend someone.

In some cases, you might consider working with an unqualified translator – if so, make sure your review process is really robust.

Either way, the translator should be a native speaker of the target language.

Be helpful. If you know of other resources in the target language that might help, let them know. Highlight anything that might be sensitive. Be open to your translator giving feedback – they will look closely at the text, so may spot unclear sentences that have so far gone unnoticed.

Top Tips

  1. Thumbs-upIdentify need – what do you want to communicate and to whom? Talk to your users
  2. Consider format – do you need something in print?
  3. If you’re having something translated, consider your audience and adapt the English text to suit.
  4. The document you hand over for translation should be finalised, not a work in progress. Be very careful with version control – it’s much harder to unpick mistakes in a language you don’t understand!
  5. Always work with native speakers, preferably ones with relevant experience (e.g. seek out a translator with knowledge of your subject).
  6. Check with users about the acceptability of any images. Are there more appropriate alternatives?
  7. Give a clear document to your designer, preferably with the English text in the same format. If the language has unusual script or reads right to left (such as Thai or Arabic), check your designer has the expertise and software to handle it.
  8. Have the translated text checked by at least one other native speaker, aside from the writer/translator. Consider a clinician and someone affected, or part of a relevant community organisation, who can advise on tone.
  9. Once the text has been put into the design format, have it checked again (proofed) as it is much more difficult to spot errors in a language you don’t understand.
  10. Include the name of the language in English on the cover, so people who don’t speak the language can easily identify it.
  11. It can be helpful, where translations are available online, to link them to the English text, so that staff or other facilitators can assess the original text for relevance and accuracy.
  12. Don’t forget that translations need to be maintained – each time the English version is updated, the translation will need updating too.
Acknowledgement: Greta Hughson, NAM
Page last updated: 25/10/12