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Translators Bridge Communication in Kenya Healthcare

The U.S.-based, non-profit Translators Without Borders connects community groups with needed interpreters.  In Nairobi’s informal settlement of Kibera, the group is creating Kenya’s first-ever Healthcare Translators’ Center to train new translators to adapt English-language health information into Ki’Swahili and other local languages. Kibera community peer educators recently attended a training session.

Peer educator Susan Mwangi explains the finer points of reproductive health. The secret to Mwangi’s successful counseling is her ability to make her message understood.

"It is very important to know the language that the client speaks," she said. "But if the client understands Kikuyu, Sheng, etc., then the client can get the information that she requires in the language that she understands."

The use of accurate, clear language is essential in healthcare. A phrase translated wrongly could, in a worst-case scenario, cause a patient’s death.

That is why Mwangi and about 29 of her colleagues have just finished a translation training program in Kenya’s capital given by Translators Without Borders.

"It is true that people do not think of translation," said Lori Thicke, who co-founded Translators Without Borders in 1993. "It is absolutely not on the radar, but it is so critical if you think about it, for people to get information, whether it is how to take their medication, whether it is where to find supplies in a crisis situation."

The peer counselors work at the Family Health Options Kenya drop-in center in the Nairobi informal settlement of Kibera.

Mwangi speaks Kibera sheng and five other languages on a daily basis. But, she says, until now she has been interpreting - rather than translating - health-care information.

Translator and course instructor Paul Warambo is teaching the peer counselors how to put precise sheng subtitles on an English video about cholera.

"You are supposed to avoid translating word for word as much as possible because there are no two languages that look exactly the same in form of structure and the way the sentences are created. And so, we often encourage a translation that is majorly based on meaning translation," said Warambo.

Founder Thick says that understanding - and using - language is key to peoples’ empowerment.

"I really never have seen people so excited about translation," she said. "I think they are seeing it as a way of getting their message through, so it is not just words, it is not just translation, it is actually the heart of communication with the people here."

Communication that Mwangi and her colleagues have taken to heart.

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