When, on February 11, 2020, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) announced that the name of the novel virus would be “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) ”and the World Health Organization (WHO) indicated that the name of this new disease would be “COVID-19” (short form of coronavirus disease 2019), the whole world started talking, writing and reading those words every day.
The pandemic brought with it many technical terms that originated in English, the language in which most scientific discoveries are described. At the same time, and given the unprecedented nature of the event, public demand for information increased exponentially. What was the role of translation in the midst of this global pandemic?
An Unusual and Alarming Context
As several investigators warned, the COVID-19 pandemic generated a huge amount of information —not always scientifically sound. The urgency created by such a context and the size of the impact resulted in a whirlwind of scientific papers trying to explain what was happening, almost in real time, hoping to adapt the response capacity of our healthcare systems.
More than 87,000 scientific papers were published on the coronavirus between the start of the pandemic and October 2020.
This academic and scientific scenario was replicated in the society at large: the pandemic was the only topic discussed across the media and news kept getting old really quick as the days went by.
Translation was key in these uncertain and upsetting times: we needed to spread information about the virus characteristics, its symptoms, sequelae, mutations and variants, as well as information on the new health-related measures implemented globally.
Mistakes that Hinder Multilingual Communication
In the midst of it all, it was really challenging to keep up with all the information and rely only on trustworthy sources, and not everybody managed to avoid missteps. As weeks turned to months, unverified content from doubtful sources started to abound, which in turn increased the anxiety and stress of an already strained population.
News originated in English and, many times, reached their end readers in other languages with errors or inaccuracies. The irresponsible use of machine translation proved to be inefficient and unable to replace professional and experienced translators to handle critical COVID-19 information: spelling, lexical, grammatical, semantic and sense errors abounded.
These errors, and the inconsistency among different translations during the pandemic even affected several countries. The spokesperson for the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYAN) Australia, Andrew Duong, stated that the coronavirus crisis highlighted the gap in the way governments related to cultural and linguistic diversity.
Almost 6 out of every 10 Hispanic adults in the US have had some difficulty communicating with a healthcare provider due to cultural or idiomatic issues.
Source: The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research
Multilingualism is key when it comes to informing the world about current events, and at the same time tapping into the rich cultural diversity of our societies.
Translators and interpreters also proved to be essential for patients and caregivers, particularly those with very limited English skills. In fact, language barriers were an “additional load” for those who got COVID-19 and their loved ones.
The pandemic was —and still is— a period when the public learned, to a certain extent, to differentiate trustworthy information from fake news, as well as the difference quality translations make. In addition, the pandemic unveiled the significance of quality translations and the ability to sieve huge amounts of information to pick out trustworthy content and leave out the rest.
Professional linguistic services are our best ally to disseminate and provide free access to crucial information, at a time when doing so has a direct impact on global health.