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How do you say “Wash your hands” in enough languages? March 16, 2020

Posted by P, J, or J in Uncategorized.
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(Updated March 25)
There are over 7000 languages in use on the planet, and probably more than you thought spoken in your own community. Despite the pandemic it might not be necessary to say “wash your hands” in every single one of them. The aim would be to say it in a language that people understand regardless of whether it is the one they most identify with. But, it might also help to personalise and drive home the message if you do use people’s first language, so here are a few translations, links to a few more, and then some comments as to why even this simple phrase isn’t as easy to translate as you might think!

  • English – Wash your hands
  • French – Lavez-vous les mains
  • Polish – myć ręce
  • Welsh – Glanhewch eich dwylo
  • Dutch – handen wassen
  • Czech – Umyjte si ruce
  • Malay – Basuh tangan anda
  • Russian – Помойте Ваши Руки
  • Tok Pisin – Wasim han bilong yu

I’ve taken these from a few trusted sources and where possible have checked them by seeing how Google translates them back into English. (Google often does quite a good job between an increasing number of languages). Please do add other languages in the comments section on this blog or when shared on social media).

The Minisota department of health has a poster created in 2010, which says wash your hands in 24 languages (English, Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Karen, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Nepali, Oromo, Ojibwe, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Thai, and Vietnamese).

PDF poster available at https://www.health.state.mn.us/people/handhygiene/wash/languages.html

I’m hoping that having been around for ten years that any errors have been found and corrected. It replaces an older version in just 18 languages.

Once I’d found that list Google decided I’d also be interested in this list with 80 different languages. I hope they are all accurate but I can’t be sure. https://www.indifferentlanguages.com/words/wash_hands

Meanwhile, http://bible.com/ and http://www.bible.is/ might have the phrase in up to 1600 languages between them as part of a Bible verse.

Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.

James 4:8 NLT

As so many people are being told to keep their distance from others I like that this starts off by reminding us that God doesn’t want us to keep our distance from him. Even the bit where the writer is calling people sinners, comes across as harsh it’s worth noting that this was written to people who already considered themselves to be Christians. The writer is urging them to recognise their problem and do something not condemning them.

The much older King James version phrases it as:

Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.

James 4:8

However the Contemporary English version translates it as:

Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Clean up your lives, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you people who can’t make up your mind.

James 4:8 CEV

All are valid translations providing you recognise that the original meaning wasn’t about hand hygiene and reducing the spread of a virus.

In the Éwé language the verse is translated as:

Mite ɖe Mawu ŋu kpokploe eye eya hã atsɔ ɖe mia gbɔ. Mi nu vɔ̃ wɔlawo miklɔ miaƒe asiwo, eye mi ame siwo nye dzime eve susulawo la miklɔ miaƒe dziwo me.

https://www.bible.com/en-GB/bible/1613/JAS.4.8

I did’t know which bit is about hand washing so I thought I’d see if Google could help by translating it back into English. Sadly Éwé isn’t one of the languages Google recognises and suggested the text might be in Igbo or Yoruba, offering me a translation of the phrase from those languages as “Mite Threatened Birds are very popular. If you have heard me say it, my eye will give it to my dzime eve.

Getting the best translation involves understanding the meaning of the message in the language you are translating from and understanding the language and culture of the person you are trying to communicate to.

If you don’t speak the language then just pulling the verse off the web and making a best guess as to which bit of it might say “wash your hands” won’t always give you the results you want.

That “best guess” gets better and the process can be quickly repeated with the aid of sophisticated machine learning that runs multiple checks to identify and compare the use of words in a larger body of text. This, together with collaborative input from people around the world has enabled the phrase to be quickly translated or identified in 273 languages (as of March 25) with many more on their way and an invitation for people to submit the phrase in missing languages.

“Wash your hands” in Éwé, is apparently “mi klɔ asi”.

As Ethnologue’s article highlights, “Wash your hands”, while a vital and key message, isn’t enough on it’s own to combat the pandemic but in making that one phrase available they are both highlighting the need for yet more information and promoting new resources that are already being translated.

explore the map, share the list, and help spread the message

Find out more and as the article concludes, “Spread the word, not the virus.”

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