The Australian community translators fighting coronavirus one word at a time

Munira Mitho speaks Arabic and Assyrian. Source: Supplied

Bilingual and multilingual Australians have never worked harder after stepping up to become translators, interpreters and more during the pandemic. On International Translation Day, SBS News meets some of those helping to support vulnerable communities.

May Khalil was looking at an official health pamphlet on COVID-19 in what was supposed to be her native Kurdish when she noticed something wasn’t right.

The sentences didn’t make sense. The grammar was incorrect. There were words that just shouldn’t have been there. And the English translation was just plain wrong.

“I was shocked,” the radio presenter and producer tells SBS News. 

The pamphlet appeared to be trying to communicate the importance of social distancing and maintaining hygiene, but clearly failed. Ms Khalil was surprised that the translation had been deemed fit for print.

Ms Khalil works for SBS Kurdish and is also an official Kurdish translator for legal matters. As a radio presenter and producer, she’s been translating daily pandemic news, data and crucial developments for months to a growing community of Australian Kurds. It’s a big responsibility, she says.

“When you are a translator, it is your duty to do the best that you can to translate the information to get the right message to the community.”

But sometimes it’s not that easy. 

Lost in translation

The pandemic has brought with it its own slew of new phrases and terms that aren’t simply transferable to other languages. Take for example, 'social distancing' or 'travel bubble'. Two words in English can often require many sentences in another language.

For Ms Khalil, 'pandemic leave payment' - the government payment offered to those who don’t have paid sick leave - has been tricky. She has to go into a lot of detail in Kurdish whenever it comes up in a news story.

May Khalil
May Khalil works for SBS Kurdish.

Another problematic term has been 'lawful excuse', in reference to those exempt from wearing a mask.

Anthony Pym, a professor of translation studies at the University of Melbourne, says the phrase sounds like an oxymoron to some of his students. 

“My Chinese students don't understand this idea of having an excuse that can be lawful,” he says. 

“It just doesn't enter into the cultural frame because the law doesn't allow excuses, right? The English text could be written in a much clearer way.” 

The theme of this year's International Translation Day, which is marked this week, has been framed around the virus: ‘finding the words for a world in crisis’. 

At the 2016 census, 820,000 in Australia people reported speaking English “not well” or “not at all”, so translators have become a crucial part of its coronavirus health response.

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State and federal governments have been throwing money into official translations of health advice, aware of the importance of getting the message across, but it hasn't always gone far enough.

For many minority groups, it’s the unofficial community translators and interpreters who are making the difference.

Carers-turned-bilingual guides 

Professor Pym and his university colleagues are undertaking a research project to track how effective official agency translations about the pandemic have been for those in Victoria’s Greek, Italian and Chinese communities.

He has found many carers of the elderly - who have been among the worst affected in the pandemic - are finding themselves inadvertently becoming mediators for official health advice. 

“Many of those people are not trained as translators or interpreters, but they find that they're forced to become translators and interpreters and nobody's given them any real guidance about how to do that,” he says. 


Professor Pym says community translators are becoming the key to communicating health messaging in the pandemic.

“Many of the older people … are only going to trust what they hear in Greek from somebody who is Greek close to them.”

“Official communication happens if it's in print. It's on posters, it's on websites, but that doesn't mean that gets to people, and it doesn't mean that they get trusted. 

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“What really works is people going around door to door, who speak the languages of the community. And [those who] can speak directly to the people involved and can speak with community leaders in the many linguistic and cultural communities.”

“People trust a human face, they trust a voice, they don't necessarily trust a website or something on the television, or something that's a long way from them.”

The community guide

That’s exactly where Sydney resident Munira Mitho has found herself. 

Ms Mitho provides Arabic and Assyrian translations and interprets official health advice for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers in her role as a community bilingual guide for Settlement Services International.

Not only has she been helping vulnerable communities in Sydney’s west understand rapidly-evolving and complicated government health directives, she’s also been fighting misinformation about COVID-19.

Munira Mitho
Munira Mitho works to combat misinformation about COVID-19.

Many of her clients are seeing Facebook posts downplaying the severity of the virus.

“I've seen a lot of people who say, like, 'this is just a joke and this can’t be serious, it's just a normal flu',” she says. 

“I try to do my best to explain that 'this is Facebook, you can find anything in it. It doesn't mean that if it’s in Facebook, and it's published, it means it's right'.”

Ms Mitho regularly calls individual clients - even if they’re part of a family unit - to explain concepts such as social distancing, social gathering limits, and avoiding virus hotspots when they spring up nearby. 

“Especially the new arrivals, they are affected by overseas media, so we try to get across to them with the resources, the trusted resources, not to follow up whatever they hear or see on [unverified] media.”

One of the challenges she's been facing though is not being able to use body language to convey messages. 

“Through the phone sometimes they say, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ but you're not sure if they properly understand you or partially understand." 

Like Ms Khalil and Professor Pym, she's working hard to keep getting the right message across. 

International Translation Day is marked on Wednesday 30 September. 

News and information about COVID-19 is available in 63 languages at

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