'COVID-19 has raised the stakes': Young Australians on translating for their parents

Translators Helen Guliana (L) and Muhadissa Haidari (R) Source: Supplied

Mariam Akoba told The Feed how challenging it has been to keep up with the changing COVID advice - and fears this could impact her parents’ health.

Mariam Akoba and her parents settled in southwest Sydney in 2015 after fleeing war-torn Syria. 

The 20-year-old told The Feed none of her family spoke English on arrival, but as she’s become fluent she’s helped her parents navigate life in Australia by translating everything from rental inspections to filling out complex forms for her father’s NDIS claim.

The family is based in the epicentre of Sydney’s current COVID-19 outbreak. To ensure their safety, it’s crucial for Mariam to make sure her parents understand COVID-related information. 

“COVID has made (translating) super stressful, if I’m out at work or uni I can’t translate the press conference for them and they don’t get the updates,” Mariam said.

“I’m worried they'll go out and break the rules without knowing and end up with an expensive fine or COVID.”

Mariam told The Feed how challenging it has been keeping up with all the changing Covid advice.

It’s a position Helen Guliana is familiar with as well - her family are based in Sydney’s southwest, having migrated in 2014 from Iraq.

Helen and her family
Helen and her family

Helen told The Feed her Arabic-speaking parents sometimes struggled to comprehend Covid advice in English

“I have to correct the (misinformation) my parents read about COVID-19 online. Things about the vaccine not being safe and how far they can travel from home,” she told The Feed.

Helen said there are different ways to translate medical advice and it can make her feel an extra sense of responsibility for her parents' health. 

“It can be really hard to translate and sometimes I feel they don’t believe what I’m saying and it can be frustrating.”


Parents doubting or challenging their children's translations is fairly common practice, according to the associate dean, engagement and international at the school of Psychology, Western Sydney University, Renu Narchal.

“There is a sense of authority that parents have in collectivist cultures where they could question the advice children provide from translating and say, ‘no I’ll do that anyway’,” Renu told The Feed.

In the context of medical advice, this can lead to children withholding information from their parents for fear of upsetting them or worrying them.

Renu Nacharl
Renu Nacharl from the University of Western Sydney

Renu told The Feed this can have immense mental health impacts on the children.

“It is an additional responsibility children have for keeping their parents safe, the children have to guard and protect their parents. It puts them in a position that most young people don’t have to experience.”

Renu told The Feed that in some cases there are migrants who come from backgrounds where they have low rates of literacy in their host language.

“If they can not [read in] their own language it is certainly going to be harder to do another language.”

Muhadissa and her mum
Muhadissa and her mum

Muhadissa Haidari migrated with her mother and three siblings from Afghanistan in 2013.

“When I arrived in Australia I couldn’t speak any English, I quickly learned and had to translate everything for my mum, rental leases, appointments and inspections,” said Muhadissa.

The Dari-speaking 26-year-old told The Feed her mum never had an education, and can’t read the Dari translations of COVID-19 health advice they receive from Cumberland council in Sydney’s southwest.

“I watch the updates and translate them for her, explaining to her where you have to wear a mask. 


“I’ve worked in translating Dari to English for a lot of people in community work including kids, refugees and women so I am very confident in my translations,” Muhadissa told The Feed.

New South Wales on Thursday recorded 1029 cases of COVID-19, with more than 80 per cent of those cases coming from western and southwest Sydney.

As NSW grapples with the surging outbreak, the work of these family translators will continue to be vital.

“I have to do it for my parents, they deserve the world,” Mariam said.

SBS is providing live translations of daily New South Wales and Victoria COVID-19 press conferences in various languages. Click here for more information.