Australia

Artists in Australia are redesigning poorly translated government coronavirus advice


Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities have faced various challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, including contending with poorly translated health advice.

Federal and state governments came under fire last year when translation errors were uncovered in official COVID-19 messaging.

Those language mistakes are the subject of Mistranslations, a new poster project exploring the intersection of language and design by branding and design agency Re. 

The project, part of Melbourne Design Week, asks people to reimagine the government’s COVID-19 messaging “with care” and in languages other than English, as part of an effort to “demonstrate how design can support our most vulnerable communities”.

One of the project’s organisers, Re’s Annabel Cook, said the idea for Mistranslations came while she was living through the months-long lockdown in Melbourne last year.

“I saw the poorly translated COVID messages in news articles and sometime that week, my director raised with the studio how it could be good to think of ideas for Melbourne Design Week,” she said.

“We all came together and everyone was bringing ideas to the table, [but] this poorly translated COVID messaging, it really stuck in my head.

“Eventually we landed on this idea of a poster exhibition, where we would engage with the wider design community and people who were affected [by the mistranslations].”

Ms Cook said design has the ability to transcend language barriers such as those that have been highlighted during the pandemic.

“Finding culturally-relevant visual motifs is a cool kind of way of approaching something like this,” Ms Cook said.

“Having an instruction that might say ‘cough into your elbow’, there might be people who don’t really understand why they should do that, so being able to unpack a message better, and with the aid of official languages, we were really interested in that.”

The poster submission period is underway, with 23-year-old Sammara Woolrich-Vazquez, who grew up in Mexico, among those who have already made an entry. 

She said she was shocked to find out there were translation errors made in Australian government health messaging.

“I was surprised. There are so many different cultures in Australia, there are people from all over the place,” she said. 

Ms Woolrich-Vazquez, who has been in Australia for four years and finished her marketing studies in 2020, said she thought Mistranslations was “a really cool idea”.

“There are people in Australia that maybe don’t speak English as well as me and [visual] projects can really help them,” she said.

“By making communication like posters much more visible to people that speak other languages, we can create a more inclusive community.”

Ms Cook said she has been excited by the submissions so far, which have come in various different languages and from people of different backgrounds.

“We didn’t really have any idea of what people would submit and so far the submissions have been great,” she said. 

“We’ve got one in Spanish and another in Mauritian Creole – so it’s really nice to see we’re already getting a diverse array of languages. We’re excited to see more.”

Mistranslations is part of Melbourne Design Week, which runs 26 March – 5 April. 

People, particularly those who speak a language other than English, are invited to make submissions. The deadline for submissions is 15 February.

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