It was Mimi Nguyen’s older sister Kim who first modelled the expectation that the children of newcomers should step in as the family’s translators.
Their parents settled in East Vancouver, by a stretch of Kingsway that many other Vietnamese refugees have called home since the late-1970s. Growing up, Kim helped these families too, translating teacher’s notices so that parents could keep up with their kids’ school progress.
Because Mimi was educated in Canada, it was common for her generational peers to translate for their families as soon as they learned English.
Kim once helped their mother with an English question at just five years old, with the help of a cousin on the phone and a Vietnamese-English dictionary in front of her. The well-thumbed volume is still in the family’s possession.
It wasn’t until Mimi entered her preteens that she took over helping her parents, translating at in-person appointments and interpreting documents like bank slips.
“Sometimes it would take the whole community to translate bits and pieces of a document, calling one person and another to verify words,” she said. “Nobody in our network was fluent enough to translate everything confidently, so oftentimes, people felt like they were shooting in the dark.”
Language barriers are an age-old problem for immigrants and refugees, affecting everything from housing to health care, education to employment.
But the pandemic has meant there’s more to translate than ever — and there have been dire consequences for those who can’t read the vital information.
Even for people who do speak English in B.C., it’s hard to keep up with official sources and sort out the bad ones.
But the “infodemic” weighs more heavily on families like Nguyen’s, who don’t get translations of government information as quickly or completely compared to official languages, if at all.
Nguyen is now 25, and with her sister living out of town, she is her parents’ primary translator. Because they do essential in-person work — her father at a warehouse, her mother at a food packaging facility — their understanding of their rights and public health messaging is vital to their safety.
According to Statistics Canada, newcomers are over-represented in high-risk jobs on the frontlines, and the hardest-hit industries like food and hospitality. The country’s largest outbreak happened in an industrial setting, the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alberta, where the majority of workers are immigrants or temporary foreign workers.
It’s a privilege to be able to access information about the pandemic, and Nguyen worries about those who don’t have the language, time or know-how. “Every single day, those inequalities are heightened even further,” she said.
The census has a few ways of examining what languages Canadians use. In Metro Vancouver, people who have no knowledge of English or French total about 136,000.
But in terms of what language people are most comfortable speaking at home, 621,110 people exclusively speak an unofficial language.
That’s up to one-quarter of the Metro Vancouver population that may be struggling to understand official information to stay safe and supported.
The key to good health communication is getting the word out “swiftly, repeatedly and on as many channels as possible,” said Heidi Tworek, a health communications expert at the University of British Columbia.
Tworek says effective messaging is key to institutional trust and keeping people healthy. It can help with vaccine uptake and offer encouragement in the face of pandemic fatigue. If public health messaging is done well and people follow the guidelines, it can save money, too, by preventing hospital visits.
Advocates for newcomer communities in B.C. say that government messaging is missing the mark when it comes to Tworek’s key points.
While health authorities do have some non-English translations and share them with groups like community centres and places of worship, there is often a lag. For example, the Ministry of Health has key messaging in 12 languages with visuals, but as of April 29, the information was dated April 9, missing updates about high transmission neighbourhoods.
In some cases, finding non-English help requires knowing English, such as having to click through Fraser Health’s English website to find multilingual information or navigating an English-speaking phone menu to request help booking a vaccine in another language.
The language gap has so far been filled by non-profits and some non-English media. New organizations are popping up, too. Mimi Nguyen and two of her friends started Bảo Vệ Collective for Vietnamese Canadians.
The group initially thought if it “translated enough information just to help people to apply for CERB, that would be enough,” Nguyen said.
But there seemed to be no end to important new information related to the pandemic, from news of various lockdowns to the vaccine rollout.
“It’s too hard to sustain,” said Kevin Huang, the executive director of Hua Foundation, which has partnered with Bảo Vệ and others to do translation work as part of the C19 Response Coalition. They’ve received funding from a federal “digital citizens” program, UBC and the Vancouver Foundation.
“Every day there are new restrictions, new support programs. There are multiple levels of government, and sometimes, there’s differing information between institutions,” Huang said. “How do you have the resources to process all that and translate it, only to find out two days later that it’s out of date?”
To avoid being overwhelmed, the coalition he’s part of — which offers resources in traditional and simplified Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog — focuses on evergreen content such as how to apply for benefits and how to spot scams and misinformation, especially important because governments might not be aware of what’s spreading through non-English channels.
For example, Chinese language misinformation has spread on messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat, with home remedies like garlic water touted as cures for COVID-19, while Filipino locals have been targeted by cold calls and Facebook ads offering help with applying for benefits, but at high costs.
If governments aren’t fast enough to fill the information gap, people will look for information elsewhere, and may be prey to inaccuracies and predatory sources, said Huang.
Authorities have more often been reactive than proactive about translations.
Vancouver Coastal Health, for example, had said non-English translations would only be available starting in Phase Three of the vaccine rollout. But following an outcry, the health authority made them available earlier.
There have been errors, too. Last fall, the Chinese translations of restaurant dining restrictions were tighter than those in other languages. After two weeks of confusion, the Health Ministry first said that the stricter Chinese-language restrictions were correct, only to say later that they were wrong, angering restauranteurs who lost customers because of the error.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, to fill the translation gap, created a contest that was blasted as a “crude” effort by the Chinese Canadian Collective. Calling the contest a “community innovation challenge,” the agency asked organizations to submit a proposal on how to educate “diverse communities” about vaccines.
Twenty finalists would be given $25,000 each to carry out their campaigns over three months, with the winning organization receiving a $100,000 “grand prize” to “reinvest in support of the health of their community.”
“It shows that we’ve never really had a system for translations, or take them as a priority,” said Huang. “We’re leaving so many people behind just because we’re not recognizing that language is important. This is people’s lives — their autonomy and their right to access health care.”
‘No English? Really?’
I’ve never been a full-time translator like Nguyen, but as an on-call translator for family members, I’ve had some experience regarding what happens when facing systems that don’t use your language.
Accompanying grandparents to medical appointments, we’ve always had pleasant experiences with the doctors themselves. One ophthalmologist, not a native Cantonese speaker, made an effort to learn phrases in the language such as “Is it blurry?” and “Look this way” for patients like my grandfather.
But the gatekeepers are another story. A receptionist at Broadway’s Fairmont Medical Building belittled my grandmother by asking, “No English? Really? No English?” Another time, accompanying a relative who could speak English but needed a ride to a medical appointment, the receptionist, upon seeing us approaching, angrily said, “I can’t help you! I don’t do anything for Dr. Kwon!” We were not there to see Dr. Kwon.
When it was time for my grandparents to receive their COVID-19 vaccines, my mother and I tagged along without question. We went to the Sunset Community Centre in South Vancouver, where the vast majority of the seniors were Cantonese and Punjabi speakers. Not a single one of them went without a child or grandchild to help with translation.
“It’s just assumed that families can do that work,” said Kulpreet Singh, the founder of South Asian Mental Health Alliance and a translator for grandparents himself. “Racialized communities are expected to take on the burden of doing that work when there’s not a political will or budget for interpretation services.”
His challenge for health authorities: “Do we want better outcomes in health care? Do we want better outcomes in mental health? If so, we should make our services more equitable for those who are marginalized.”
Singh, the eldest of three siblings, began translating for his grandparents at age 12. He provided help as his grandfather navigated a lymphoma diagnosis and and a knee replacement. Over the years, he’s noticed things like health-care workers speaking louder and more curtly to his grandparents, or ignoring them entirely in favour of speaking with him or an English-speaking family member.
With as sensitive an issue as health care, messages don’t always come across word-for-word from English to another language, said Singh. That’s why interpretations that focus on meaning, use visuals and take cultural contexts into account are important.
Harjeena Heer and volunteers at the Sikh Health Foundation have applied this to their work translating for Punjabi audiences. To help convey six feet, for example, the non-profit created a graphic of two people stretching out a turban, which happens to be the perfect length.
Heer, 20, also grew up in a household with her grandparents, and began translating for them at age seven, taking on more responsibility as she got older. She recalls, for example, helping renew passports and answering calls regarding finances.
“My grandpa had a stroke, so I went with him for all the appointments,” Heer said. “My mom would come too, but I’d do most of the translation.”
Because most of the appointments were in Surrey — where Punjabi is the most common native language after English — her grandfather was comfortable when the person behind the counter spoke Punjabi as well. He was more nervous if there was an appointment in Vancouver.
But most of all, it was reassuring to hear medical information in his native language from a trusted source like his granddaughter.
“It definitely made him more comfortable to hear things coming from me, especially if it was something scary, asking if it was true.”
It’s not easy for institutions to build the same kind of trust that exists on an individual level. With so many touch points, it’s easier for governments or civic entities to sour a relationship with an individual. “It can take just one time to lose that trust,” said Huang of Hua Foundation.
He understands that it can take governments time to get translation services set up, and mistakes happen. But whether it’s pandemic information or neighbourhood planning, approaching large groups of the population who don’t speak the official language in their native tongue is crucial to democracy, especially in a diverse place like Vancouver.
“You’re enabling community members to become citizens, to participate in the civic agenda,” Huang said.
Falling to the family
Mimi Nguyen’s father often pops into her room to ask what words mean. One phrase he was confused about last year was “social distancing.”
Nguyen tried to think of a way to explain it in a way he’d understand. It turned out the key to interpreting it for him was to compare it to “long distance.”
“I saw the light go on in his eyes,” she said. “It was because he and my mom had done long distance for a while. He was in Vancouver a full year before she joined him.”
It’s not that Nguyen’s father was uninterested in learning English. He did try when he was in a refugee camp in the Philippines. But coming from a fishing family, it was harder for him to pick up another language compared to those who had more schooling at an earlier age.
There’s a racist double standard at work, says Hua Foundation’s Huang: “Why don’t people recognize that not everyone has the opportunity and privilege to learn English? Why is that when a primary English speaker speaks an ‘ethnic language’ it’s celebrated, but for people for whom English is their second or third language, they don’t get the same credit?”
These days, Nguyen’s father can speak conversationally, but he’s shy about getting something wrong.
When she asked him about the challenge of language barriers, he said, “Một khi xãy ra một cái chuyện gì, đụng chuyện, kiểu như tiếng Anh… thì tôi rất là bối rối.” Which translates to, “Whenever something happens in English, I become frazzled.”
Paperwork and appointments have always been “suffocating” for someone in his position, he said. Over the years, he’s feared needing an official translator because of the cost, and he’s also feared having to miss work and lose out on income — a common scenario among immigrant workers during the pandemic that has led to COVID spread.
“Có tụi con thì ăn uổi một chút đỉnh,” he told his daughter. In English, “Having you children gives me comfort.”
While relying on English-speaking family members is one solution, Nguyen said adults like her parents sometimes feel bad for burdening young people like her, and young people also worry about letting their elders down.
“When I’m doing it, I get livid,” said Nguyen. “If [something’s] not accessible, I worry about people who don’t have kids at home, or if their kids are abroad. I think about what if I wasn’t born. I know kids who have planned their futures to be close to their parents because they know that this is inevitable.”
It’s a big responsibility to take on, especially when her generation might already be struggling with growing up as part of a diaspora, “trying to figure out how to fit in, how to get people to accept you.”
The pandemic has been a dramatic reminder that children like her can’t do it all. Various authorities have begun to clue in, with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry herself saying “we can do better” on translations at a recent press conference.
But difficulties during COVID-19 have demonstrated that need for translation services to be there before crises hit to best keep the population healthy.
“I wonder if people in power will finally work to solidify and properly fill in this gap that’s been left gaping for so many years,” Nguyen asked. “Or will our problems be swept under the rug when our traumas are no longer relevant to them?”