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Migrants receive paper towels and other supplies
Migrant workers in a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Irma line up for donated supplies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Hurricane warnings and advice can get lost in translation, leaving migrants unprepared

Forecasters expect another active Atlantic hurricane season after a record-breaker in 2020, and communities need to be prepared. Clear communications, starting before storms arrive and continuing through the recovery, will be crucial to protecting lives and limiting property damage.

Unfortunately, parts of the population are slipping through the cracks when it comes to hurricane warnings and advice.

Linguistic minorities – those who understand little or no English – are often at greater risk from disasters and have fewer resources to evacuate or protect their homes. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, many migrants didn’t evacuate, in part because storm warnings were broadcast mainly in English. It’s a simmering public health issue, with clear implications for migrant communities.

As part of a new study, we looked at local emergency communication in English and compared it to nine other languages. Our results show how minor deviations in translation could lead to significant differences in understanding. Those gaps could cause linguistic minorities to confuse one natural hazard with another, misunderstand advice and quite possibly lead to the wrong preventive measures.

When direct translation doesn’t work

What forecasters call a “hurricane” in the U.S. might be called a “cyclone” or “typhoon” in other countries. But they are all the same natural phenomenon.

The word “typhoon” has an Arabic origin, “tawaphan,” but the word in Arabic means “flooding.” The word also can be found in Persian as “tophan,” where it means a “rainstorm.” The word exists in Hindi as well, “toophan,” and simply means a “storm.”

The two words “tornado” and “hurricane” are translated into the same word in Arabic, “iiesar.” But this word describes only a circular movement of wind. The term used in Arabic to describe a hurricane is “iiesar bahri,” which is translated back to English as “sea cyclone.”

In the U.S., the words “tornado” and “twister” are used interchangeably in English, but in Spanish, they are not. In Spanish, “tornado” is translated to “tornado,” while “twister” is translated to “torbellino” or “tromba,” which is translated back to English as “whirlwind.” Similarly, “tornado” is translated to “kardbad” in Persian, which also means a “whirlwind.” In both cases, the translations fail to reflect the severity of the event; it makes the hazard sound less dangerous.

Misunderstanding can go in the other direction as well, leading to unnecessary panic. The word “hurricane” assumes a certain cultural context around the world. This is mainly due to media coverage of actions taken by the U.S. government during hurricanes. Because of this, migrants from India might assume that hurricanes are more destructive than cyclones if they compare the U.S. government response to hurricanes to the Indian government response to cyclones.

The knock-on effect is that human behavior in response to the same natural phenomena is altered. This can spread panic among migrants, which can be as hazardous as not being prepared during emergencies.

The problems do not end with “hurricane” and “tornado.” We found similar issues arising with terms used to describe seismic events, monsoonal dust and sand storms. And we are only scratching the surface. Our data are limited to 10 languages out of more than 7,100 spoken languages around the world.

Word art with storm terms in the shape of Earth
Around the world, people use different words for similar – but not always identical – weather phenomena. Created with wordart.com

Creating more inclusive emergency messaging

Our data demonstrate the importance of careful attention to language choices in emergency communications. The gaps that we have observed can cause linguistic minorities to confuse one natural hazard with another, quite possibly leading to the wrong preventive measures.

Writing and translating emergency communications with cultural sensitivity can avoid some of these disadvantages and the potential for unintentional harm.

Beyond overcoming translation barriers, there are opportunities to promote inclusive disaster preparedness that doesn’t leave anyone behind. Emergency communication should be tailored to the needs of local communities. This can happen only when a strategy for action is created collaboratively with the community and is actually followed.

In the U.S., 67 million people speak a foreign language in their homes. Communicating in different languages and understanding the original cultural context might sound like a lot of work, but local communities can and do help support such initiatives.

The institutions that people rely on for emergency communication are increasingly paying attention to diversity and inclusion. Linguistic inclusion can make an important contribution to their broader public health efforts.

This article was update with the start of hurricane season.

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