Re 39 Mistranslations

  • Pou Auaha / Creative Director
    Shannon Bell
  • Ringatoi Matua / Design Directors
    Sumita Maharaj, Jane Duru (Copy Director)
  • Ngā Kaimahi / Team Members
    Annabel Cook, Michelle Mondel, Chantelle Micallef

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, good communication was critical, yet miscommunication and misinformation were rife. In Australia, media reported that some official COVID-19 messaging had been translated using Google Translate instead of accredited translators. Nonsensical messaging for non-English speaking communities resulted, disempowering already vulnerable people.

39% of Australians are culturally and linguistically diverse (Diversity Arts Australia) and this group is more likely to suffer chronic illnesses and miss out on important health information due to low engagement. We wanted to bring awareness to this critical issue, which is one that unfortunately predates the pandemic.

Using Melbourne Design Week’s brief ‘Design the world you want’ and the theme of ‘Care’, we set an open brief to engage linguistically diverse creatives to reimagine COVID-19 messaging in their own language. Our vision was to amplify vulnerable voices with a public poster exhibition. We asked participants to consider cultural and linguistic nuances that could help communicate COVID-19 information to their communities in a thoughtful way. This grassroots approach actively engaged those impacted by messaging blunders to help create a solution and bring attention to the issue.

Our identity for the exhibition playfully engages with the concept of mistranslation. In motion, the Mistranslations wordmark becomes impossible to read as symbols and letters from different alphabets tick over, while sticker icons pile up to reference the overload of confusing messaging seen throughout the pandemic.

We created a microsite and Instagram account to house our brief and shared it with design studios, creatives and community organisations working with linguistically diverse creatives. We briefed Graphic Design students at TAFE NSW where 19.4% of students speak a language other than English at home (TAFE NSW). TAFE incorporated our brief into their curriculum and we took part in a workshop session with the students.

The brief encouraged collaboration between creatives and non-creatives. One submission saw a collaboration between an English speaking designer and an Indigenous park ranger who speaks Djambarrpuyngu. The ranger noted that in her community, 1.5m social distancing was very difficult because people often live between multiple houses at any time. This reinforced our understanding of the need for tailored messaging for multicultural communities, not a ‘one-size fits all' approach.

We received 48 poster submissions spanning 26 languages including Cantonese, Assyrian, Tagalog, Arabic, Macedonian, Urdu and Thai. 18 posters featured in the exhibition, with the remaining posters included in a zine. In the lead up to the exhibition, we interviewed the designers and showcased them on our Instagram. 150 people attended the opening, including some of the artists. Every poster was for sale on the night and afterwards online, with proceeds going to Connection Arts Space who work with creatives of asylum seeker and migrant backgrounds.

Mistranslations received national press attention with two articles appearing on SBS online. Many attendees of the exhibition engaged with our Instagram on the night with one artist commenting that being a part of the exhibition was ‘one of the best moments of (their) life.’