During crises, language and communications play a significant role. In crisis communications, it is crucial that information is available in the languages of all the people who need it, so that important messages are understood correctly. The coronavirus pandemic, which has shaken the world this spring, has vastly increased crisis communications. Governments, organisations, employers and schools now have to think about how they communicate in a situation that affects everyone’s safety. In the international #LocFromHome online conference in April, the flood of communications caused by the coronavirus pandemic was one of the topics discussed. In the conference, Stella Paris, Head of Language Services at Translators without Borders, talked about the organisation’s work at the heart of the crisis. Since January, the organisation has translated approximately 1,700,000 words related to the COVID-19 pandemic into 95 languages. The top languages have been French, Arabic and Spanish and they’ve also done extensive work in more marginalised languages.
Fighting an infodemic
Right now, it is crucial that there is reliable, accessible and fact-checked information available in different languages and formats so that it reaches everyone. This was also pointed out by Stella at the start of her conference presentation. Health should not run into a language barrier. In addition to having a crisis information bulletin available in a certain language, it must also be considered whether the message should be disseminated as audio content as well. Stella noted that, in addition to the number of languages spoken in a region, it should also be taken into account how many of the region’s population are literate, or whether written information is enough. In her presentation, Stella used Bangladesh as an example: 45 different languages are spoken in the country and the literacy rate stands at 71% for women and 77% for men. In this case, you should consider the dissemination of information also as as audio or video content.
As the coronavirus is a new phenomenon and there is not yet absolutely certain, scientifically proven information available concerning its behaviour, rumours are spreading like wildfire. As the situation evolves, we are gradually accumulating knowledge about the virus. Unfortunately, rumours that trigger strong emotions and make good headlines are the fastest to spread online. Stella also quoted Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization: “We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. The UN has also stated that solving the infodemic is key to solving the virus itself. Rumours related to a cure or treatment of the virus spread online in particular. In addition, various conspiracy theories regarding the cause of the virus as well as the stigmatisation of an infected are widespread.
Social or physical distancing?
Translators without Borders has created an open COVID-19-specific terminology database covering key terms and their counterparts in different languages. This helps both translators and health care professionals. At the moment, the terminology database is available in 23 different languages in text and audio format. The appropriate translation of terminology is extremely important for ensuring that the target-language community understands the message correctly. A particularly problematic term is the one that we have all heard of: “social distancing”. A clearer term, “physical distancing”, has been advocated as an alternative to “social distancing”. The aim is to emphasise that it is a question of a safe physical, not social, distance.
According to Stella, in India, for example, the concept “social distancing” has been misunderstood, reinforcing existing class hierarchies. In Swahili, it made much more sense to use a longer, more meaningful term, which means “keeping a protective distance from other people”. In wrapping up her presentation, Stella noted that, in general, you should pay attention to the texts you write and their clarity. Why do we need to write in an overly complicated way, using lots of big words and really long sentences, when clear terms and wordings exist, she pointed out.
Delingua has supported Translators without Borders since 2011.