Bao Ve Collective was started by 3 Vietnamese youths raised by their immigrant-refugee families. Symbolized in the collective’s name, “bảo vệ” can be translated as “to protect” or “to support” in Vietnamese.
As long-time ‘translator kids’ for their families, the Collective knew the realities that some of their Vietnamese community members faced when accessing information on COVID-19 related information such as financial aid programs, and public health and safety protocols. Since social distancing practices had effectively cut many off from their larger community outside of their immediate households, many found it difficult to share reliable and accurate information. But not only was finding information a great feat in itself, the process of applying for aid programs was often tedious and an overwhelming process. As all applications were now digital, individuals with lower technological literacy skills were further excluded.
The ability to become technologically literate is related to the ability to understand directions and cues written on digital platforms. Some individuals can program their phones to their desired language so that they may participate in our increasingly technologically advanced world, but what happens when crucial documents such as digital government applications do not provide that opportunity?
The Collective knew that their community was experiencing a huge crisis; a crisis that was very layered and too complex to be resolved immediately. However, after watching many of their community members struggle and experience more hardships than necessary, the team felt no choice but to act, and to act quickly.
It’s been over 40 years since the first refugees who were displaced by the Vietnam war have arrived here, and this community is still struggling with language accessibility.
They’ve been let down so many times that they’ve just accepted that this is a part of their reality.
With a team of only 3, who were also facing just as many anxieties as everybody else affected by the pandemic, the members of Bảo Vê Collective realized that their ability to help their community was limited to their own capacities. There was no possibility to provide one-on-one support and operate as a call centre that could walk individuals through every step of the application process.
After exploring various routes, the team realized that application processes needed to be simplified for comprehension in addition to language translations. The team went to work by going through government application forms online and took note of the different rationales behind each process.
The team concluded that the best way to help people to better understand the application forms was to produce step-by-step video tutorials in Vietnamese that would serve as references for when users would go through the application process. By doing so, the team not only provided reassurance that the user was fulfilling the application correctly, but they also provided ample explanation on why certain information was needed (such as social insurance numbers and more).
All of these visuals and translated requirements were hosted on a UX-friendly platform that would minimize confusion to the inexperienced digital user.
A snapshot list of work that Bảo Vệ Collective has created in response to the lack of available language resources for their local Vietnamese speaking Community:
Financial aid forms
(e.g. CERB, BC Recovery Benefit, Fair Pharmacare, etc.)
Health & Safety navigating COVID-19
(e.g. basic info on masks, vaccines)
(fighting misinformation within the community)
One of the key priorities for BVC was to apply plain language principles in their translations. Simplifying technical jargon was key in empowering more people to feel capable in filling out their aid applications.
In working through information bulletins and forms, the Collective found that documents were often full of legal jargon or irrelevant information that did not add value to helping people understand what they needed in order to proceed in the application process, particularly in instances where specific requirements were requested (e.g. income subsidies).
To keep focus within their scope and to ensure that their audience would be served properly, the Collective asked themselves the following questions to determine which information had to be prioritized while filtering through each document:
Which information is most relevant for the audience considering their background and situation within this context?
What are the legal responsibilities of rephrasing certain instructions on specific documents (as a third party)?
What tone will be used so that the message is appropriate for this specific audience?
What strategies and platforms will be used to ensure that as many people as possible are able to navigate this information easily?
Prioritizing clear instruction can alleviate anxieties, especially when dealing with sensitive information. Users did not want to give inaccurate information for fear of delaying their application process or having their application be unjustly denied. In addition, plain language principles support translators and interpreters, especially third-party vendors who may or may not have past experience or familiarity with the information that they are translating.
Translation most often occurs outside of the direct oversight and control of those who are administering the program or policy, and thus the clearer the original documents are, the lower the risk of misinterpretation.
Not only does simplifying the English concepts support on-site and community translators and interpreters by providing a simpler foundation to work from, but this also makes it easier for English speakers to better understand what is happening in their communities. Realistically, English-language fluency is a spectrum particularly in Canada, where many of the largest non-English language groups are from regions within the web of the former British Commonwealth (e.g. Punjabi, Hong Kong Cantonese), and thus some grasp of English is not uncommon.
It is, however, a disservice to assume that those who have some degree of comfort taking part in informal day-to-day conversations in English have the full fluency to understand complex legal jargon as well, when most native speakers of the language may not have this fluency either.
As someone who has worked in marketing, design, and UX, I spent a lot of time—about one third of the work, breaking down information.
Institutions would highly benefit from somebody knowledgeable in information architecture
or have a background in education and/or learning experience design. Educators know how to educate or inform an audience without exhausting readers.
Even for the members of the Collective, as young millennials, filling out forms and applying for the Canada Economic Recovery Benefit (CERB) was stressful and time-consuming.
For many racialized people, legal names do not often match what they use in daily life, and concepts of ‘first,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘last’ names are inconsistent across languages. For example, a common Vietnamese ‘given name’ may include two words, with a space in the middle (e.g. Phi Nhung, Việt Thảo, Kỳ Duyên)
It’s unclear, and often inconsistent how these parts are categorized in the Canadian system. Many enter their names into portals and applications only to be told that their names are inaccurate or not recognized by the system. In some instances, Vietnamese ‘first names’ may only include a single character (e.g. “Y”), which is considered an ineligible name through many online form inputs.
Beyond being a functional headache, this contributes to the many micro-aggressions that people with so-called ‘ethnic’ names face on a daily basis. For those with lower technological literacy, these barriers are compounding. Unsure if they will be understood if they call a helpline, many will simply give up and forgo social supports for which they are fully eligible and entitled.
Knowing that many people within their communities rely on translator kids, BVC developed guided instructional videos, including screen recordings and Vietnamese voiceovers to walk through applications for common programs. However, there are limitations to relying on translator kids: Some don’t have the life experiences required to explain application processes; there are not always specific terminology for certain documents.
In the absence of official policies that accommodate linguistic diversity, the labour of adhoc and emergency translations are often added to the workloads of multilingual staff despite the work being unrelated to their actual duties.
Many of these staff members may feel a sense of responsibility to their communities, as they have a deep understanding of the systemic issues and the gaps that already exist for them to access information.
However, these additional assignments do not always include additional compensation. For CUPE Local 15, the union representing employees of the City of Vancouver, language premiums for these types of activities are not guaranteed, and must be negotiated as a part of the employee’s stated job description.
Multilingual (often racialized) employees carry a disproportionate and inequitable burden over their monolingual (often white) colleagues. Translation is not word for word, and is also cultural and contextual. Knowing how politics and migration patterns affect language is important to know how information is received. This includes recognizing that some waves of migrants from similar language groups speak a different ‘language’ and can hold a different subset of vocabulary than others.
There are reasons that translation and interpretation are defined professions with certifications. Communicating health, taxation, policy, regulatory, or bylaw information requires accuracy and care. Due to lack of budget for these types of activities, the weight of this professional responsibility falls to the side of the desks of racialized staff.
That's how you burn out people with language skills. They go [into] a field, they’re supposed to do the work that everyone is supposed to do, but there’s more work put on their plate just because they speak another language.
A second language is an asset and you need to pay for it.