Yulha Lhawa

Banner image (above). The COVID-19 pandemic was suppressed quickly and early in Khroskyabs-speaking communities, and so villagers were able to successfully undertake the year’s farm work. Here, Aunt Xiang Sijie and her three nieces pose in front of a rack full of harvested barley.

Tibet is commonly perceived as a monolingual region. However, linguistic research is increasingly showing this to be a misconception. This is particularly true if we take a broad view of Tibet to include not only the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but also all the administrative areas recognized as Tibetan autonomous regions within China, and a few adjacent areas that consider themselves Tibetan, as shown in the following map by Roche and Suzuki (2018).

Tibet beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Minority languages on the Tibetan Plateau are languages that are linguistically distinct from Tibetic or Sinitic (Chinese) languages. They are also mutually unintelligible with one another. These minority languages are often unrecognized by the state and within Tibetan communities, under the assumption of a one-to-one relationship between language and ethnicity. Therefore, the transmission and translation of public emergency information (such as coronavirus information) into these minority languages has not been a priority for the government and the mainstream Tibetan media.

Translating Information

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in early 2020, there has been a lot of coronavirus information circulated in both Mandarin and literary Tibetan. Although many people can access this information, barriers to understanding still exist within communities that speak minoritized languages. Particularly, many elderly and monolingual populations struggle to get comprehensible information. As a result, self-organized and community-based translators gradually emerged and translated virus-related information into these Tibetan vernaculars. The following links are examples of such community-initiated translation projects into local tongues that occurred during the pandemic.

A still image from a public health video in Minyak, with captions in Tibetan and Chinese.

The first video is in rTau (道孚语).

A second video, in Minyak (木雅语).

A third video is in the rGyalrong variety of Shili Township (十里乡).

A final one includes five Tibetan vernaculars:  U-Tsang, Nagchu, Kham, Amdo and rGyalrong Situ (卫藏方言(拉萨话)、藏北方言(那曲话)、康巴方言(德格话)、安多方言(牧区)和嘉绒语(四土话).

Much of the information presented in these videos has been translated from other languages. Most public health information is accessed on TV, in Mandarin or Tibetan (Kham, Amdo, and  U-Tsang), or on social media, mostly in Mandarin or Amdo Tibetan, but also, as we see here, in local languages. The content of these audiovisual resources about COVID-19 range from basic information such as symptoms and classification of the virus, to preventative measures such as do’s and don’ts, and transmission prevention from both scientific and traditional Tibetan medicine perspectives. The volunteer translators are all native speakers of the target language and are from various backgrounds, including students, teachers, self-employed businessmen, and monks.

Digesting the Information

In many remote communities, the majority of permanent residents are elders, fifty years and above, whilst younger people spend much of their time in towns and cities for work and study. Such elders are often illiterate and have limited capacity in spoken Mandarin and Amdo Tibetan. For these elders, who are also particularly susceptible to the disease, these translations are very valuable. In addition to aiding monolingual elderly people, people have also said that hearing this information in their local languages reinforced the seriousness of the event, even if they already knew the content being shared.

A survey that I carried out, and another survey by a Tibetan professor, Dawa Drolma, at Minzu University of China, affirm that there is generally positive feedback on these audio and video in local languages. “Easy to understand,” “relatable,” “realistic,” “useful,” “valuable,” and “trustworthy,” are the words people used to describe the translation of coronavirus information into their languages.

Professor Drolma’s survey showed 50% of a pool of 1,000 participants throughout Tibetan areas didn’t think that they would be infected by the coronavirus. Therefore, reaching people in languages they understand and trust, including minoritized languages, plays a significant role in supporting better outcomes for an epidemic crisis like this.

My article “Fighting the coronavirus in local languages” further emphasizes the impact of translating information about coronavirus into local tongues. When people have information that they understand and trust, they are more likely to actively contribute to containing the pandemic.

This Khrokyabs-speaking community sits above the Dadu River. Photo by Yulha Lhawa.

Many of the translations are adjusted for local contexts, despite many parts being direct translations. For example, Tibetan people go visit their local monastery to pray during difficult times like this, and it’s almost incomprehensible for them to stop doing something that they think will benefit them. The screenshot image above, from a video in Minyak, shows such localized information as “stop going to teahouses” “stop going to monasteries,” in order to limit human contact. Translators’ careful incorporation of local cultures and customs makes the information more relevant to these communities and thus creates a sense of familiarity. When we “speak the virus” in local Tibetan languages, is when people will take the information into their hearts.

Long-term Impacts of Translation Projects

The creation and circulation of videos in different languages has also raised people’s awareness of linguistic diversity in the region. I have seen at least 15-20 such translations in minoritized languages between January 2020 and the present (November 2020). To some extent, this reflects the recognition of different linguistic communities among the creators, as well as among those who watched the translations. Consequently, such awareness and recognition contribute to efforts to revitalize minority languages, by expanding new language usage domains.

With a similar goal, I produced a series videos through the Mothertongue Film on Mobile Social Media project, which aimed to utilize social media such as WeChat to provide a platform for language use for unrecognized and under-resourced languages like my mothertongue, Khroskyabs. One elder from the Khroskyabs community explained the importance of hearing his language in the video by saying, “We are up to date,” meaning that we are no longer a ‘backward’ or excluded community. Therefore, making public health information available in minoritized local tongues not only helps boost trust from the people but also helps foster positive attitudes towards minoritized languages, thus contributing to their conservation.

Despite the pandemic, life has been able to continue as normal in this Khroskyabs speaking community. Here, barley and wheat are drying on the roof of a village house, waiting to be threshed. Photo by Yulha Lhawa.