Guyana translates COVID messages into indigenous languages


Hubert Devonish

There is a call for the preservation of local and indigenous languages across the region. This call was sounded when some 25 Guyanese were recognised by the Guyanese Languages Unit of the University of Guyana for successfully translating emergency and COVID-19 related messages in several languages. 

These 25 persons would have translated public health and emergency messages into various local languages. These languages are Akawaio, Arekuna, Carib, Creolese, Arawak, Makushi, Patamuna, Wai-Wai, Wapichan and Warrau.

During a virtual award ceremony. Lecturer Charlene Wilkinson explained that the training to translate key COVID-19 health and emergency messages started a year ago.

“We in the Guyanese Languages Unit including our overseas members who belong to the University of the West Indies wondered how we can intervene to turn, as the Buddhists would say, turn poison into medicine,” Wilkinson explained, “We approached the Ministry of Health and said look people have to get information in the languages that they understand and we are here and willing to work with you to translate any advisories that you want to go out to the public.”

The Ministry of Health agreed, she explained. The eight-week training was done virtually with University of the West Indies Professor Of Linguistics, Hubert Devonish. Professor Devonish created a training manual for this particular training. Among the challenges, Professor Devonish explained was translating the “complicated sciences and concepts,” into local languages.

“I felt very strongly that this was one occasion when the world, when we, as speakers of these local languages, needed to be connected via our own languages, because there was stuff going on out there, and that stuff were coming at us.”

The evolution of the pandemic brought different challenges to this project, Prof Devonish explained, as the group navigated how to translate terms like viruses and germs to languages that did not cater for those words.

This makes the manual very important as well as trained persons, some of whom are located in remote indigenous communities in Guyana, “We got something in place, we got people who are aware, who have recognised the importance of understanding what the other world, the outer world people saying, in the outer world style and then trying to integrate us into it,” he said, “Because we have to understand the talk’ because in the end, we have to decide at this critical point whether to take the vaccine or not, what is the benefits, so we got to have a discourse, a discussion in our languages,” Professor Devonish declared.

Professor Devonish recalled that during the training, real-life scenarios of tribes travelling from one location to another for information on pandemics. The Wai-Wai tribe had travelled to the New River Triangle area on the border with Guyana and Suriname to be informed by Guyana Defence Force ranks there, someone had said.  With this translation project, Professor Devonish said there has been the creation of a level of intelligence about “what are the decisions they need to make,” about the pandemic and vaccinations, “they need to understand this in a deep way, not simply take the vaccine, go and tek vaccines, wash yuh hand,” he lamented.