How Translation Can Save Your Life


Posted on: 25 April 2017 by Sean Hopwood

It’s no surprise that for men aged 50 and over, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in England.

It’s no surprise that for men aged 50 and over, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in England. You’re prepared for the health issues that can arise in the autumn years. But what happens if those health problems pop up unexpectedly while you’re abroad? A medical emergency is complicated enough---it’s not a time you want to deal with a language barrier as well. But for retirees, expats, and frequent travelers, this is a real possibility.

Language can save lives. That’s why Yorkshire ambulance crews are now equipped with phrasebooks containing basic clinical questions in 41 languages. It’s why the NYPD speaks over 75 languages. It’s why the University of Colorado School of Medicine has been teaching the Spanish speaking public to say “heart stopped, Spanish interpreter” when they call 911. And it’s why it’s such an intelligent move to have your medical documents translated if you’re traveling or living abroad.

Translation in Disaster Zones

Nobody knows the lifesaving power of translations better than humanitarian organization Translators Without Borders. In 2015 they responded on the ground after a 7.8 earthquake injured tens of thousands of people in Nepal. TWB helped search and rescue by translating terms into Nepali, Newari and Hindi. They supported the teams monitoring inbound messages from ground zero, and helped the Red Cross search for missing people. They even created an Android app specifically designed for first responders that translated Nepali text to spoken WAV files.

It’s in the Details

But supposing you’re on your own when an emergency strikes, and a relief organization is nowhere to be found? That’s what happened to Ali Jaffe when she encountered a translation SNAFU in Beijing. “My parents used cards printed in Mandarin to communicate with waiters about my nut allergy,” she wrote in the New York Times. “Something got lost in translation, and I ordered a chicken dish that contained hidden crushed peanuts.”

Luckily, Jaffe had an Epipen handy, and she lived to tell the tale. But it wouldn’t be the last time that mistranslation would cross her.

“I was on an airplane flying back from Santiago, Chile, and asked the flight attendant, in English and Spanish, whether a dish had nuts in it. He said, ‘It’s cheese ravioli. There are no nuts.’ I never eat on airplanes, but it was such a long flight. I was hungry. It was cheese ravioli. What could go wrong? It had walnuts in it.”

Being Smart

There’s no reason to live in fear and worry, but clearly one can’t be too careful. A simple precaution like carrying an Epipen for your allergies, or having your medical documents professionally translated can be of vital importance should an emergency arise. It’s natural not to think about emergencies until they happen; but it’s prudent and intelligent to plan for them ahead of time.

That way you don’t have to worry about what ifs. When you travel with translated copies of your medical records, you have freed up your mind so you can rest easy and enjoy your time abroad.

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