The role of linguists in our Covid-19 response

As you read this article, chances are we don’t really need to explain anything about the COVID-19 virus. You know all there is to know: official advice, typical symptoms, statistics, and figures, wash your hands, health information and advice, stay at home – you’ve read it all a hundred times over.

But what if you couldn’t access this information? What if you couldn’t understand it, or if it simply didn’t exist? To put it simply: a gap or even a delay in translation of official resources can leave some communities at greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus, through sheer lack of information – something we already see happening in the US for example, where the Spanish set of COVID-19 resources seems to not offer as much information about the nature of the disease than the English one[1].

Besides the virus, another thing we need to collectively stop is the rapid-spreading flow of inaccurate information that is out there plaguing social media. Gaps in communication can only lead to speculation, misinformation, and panic. Right now, citizens need to be able to rely on official channels for guidance and to avoid making a bad situation worse. Translation is a key part of this group effort: an amazing initiative from Doctors of the World has been to translate critical public-facing content in languages and formats that people understand. Translators Without Borders have started building a multilingual glossary to support public information translation efforts. In Australia, the government has now released their official guidance in 236 languages and dialects.

In times of a global pandemic that spread through the entire world like wildfire, nations are – now more than ever – collaborating, and all channels of communication are open. Academic research is translated in record time so scientists can collaborate without language barriers. Information from China, as the virus first came to light, was published and translated by the Centre for Medical Language Service of Guangdong University of Foreign Languages before being disseminated via the WHO to make sure the whole world would learn from China’s experience. For the scientific community to have information available in their native languages instead of one they’re less familiar with can help them work better and faster. Working in tandem with medical linguists also allows for the communication of their studies results without limitations.

The role of the linguists is not limited to the global or national level – within our own communities and our own hospitals, we must also ensure that health care workers and other professionals can communicate information to their patients regarding treatment and prevention with the help of medical interpreters. Healthcare professionals being able to efficiently communicate facts and information to the people, and people being able to understand the causes, cures or even basic precautions, are both factors contributing to reduce the spread of the disease and to diminish the detrimental impact of any outbreak.

Let us take a moment to celebrate the work our interpreters and translators are doing, in close collaboration with national healthcare providers, local authorities and central governments, to make sure our citizens have access to vital information at all levels.

If you would like to know more about our services email and we will be more than happy to see how we can help.

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