Translation in a Pandemic

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What’s the role of translation in a pandemic? Shared knowledge and information are essential to scientific advancement. That’s especially true today, as the world looks for answers in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, scientists and physicians are pooling research, information and experiences to try to find effective treatments. Here are 3 ways that translation and translators are playing an important role in the fight against the disease.

Translation in a Pandemic: Helping Doctors Learn From Global Peers

As the virus spreads, translation helps doctors learn from their peers in areas that have already experienced outbreaks. Medical, life sciences and pharmaceutical translators are skilled specialists, capable of understanding the nuances of this information and accurately translating them into different languages.

In fact, during the early days of the outbreak in the United States, a lack of translated materials from China proved to be a significant barrier to treatment. The first coronavirus patient in New Jersey was a physician’s assistant. He reached out to Chinese colleagues to better understand the treatment he needed. According to the New York Times, the patient’s boss, Dr George Hall, who was originally from China, had to translate the latest treatment guidelines from the Chinese National Health Commission to ensure that the patient got the most up-to-date treatment:

“It was no small task, but he was not aware of any other translation, and he believed it was important. “No one had any experience here,” he told me. He opened a Microsoft Word document and started translating: the symptoms, the signs of mild cases, severe cases, the course of the disease, the methods of oxygen delivery, the recommendations for follow-up. Just before midnight, having worked for close to 12 straight hours, he sent it off…”

Treated in accordance with the guidelines, the patient survived.

As the epidemic has become a true pandemic, more resources have recently become available. For example, Evidence Aid has a collection of research materials translated by the wonderful people at Translators Without Borders.

Translation in a Pandemic:  Combatting Misinformation

Of course, the nature of the Internet means that misinformation goes viral (if you’ll excuse the pun) just as often as accurate information, if not more so.

Everything from Vitamin C to garlic to saltwater to drinking bleach has been hailed on the Internet as a “silver bullet,” and the phenomenon is not bound to any specific language or culture.

Translators can help track and combat misinformation as it travels across social media, as Translators With Borders and the BBC are doing now. For example, the BBC Media Action team has created an animated PSA video in various languages urging people to fact-check before they share information online.

Translation in a Pandemic: Providing Reliable Coronavirus Information To the Public

Translators are also helping to provide reliable information to the public, translating tricky concepts like “social distancing” into a variety of different languages. As this article notes, that’s more easily said than done – even most English speakers only became familiar with the term over the past month or so.

Meanwhile, Translators Without Borders is also working to ensure that accurate information from the WHO and other reputable sources is translated for developing countries. They are taking into consideration not just language, but also which formats will ensure understanding by the widest variety of people in these regions. Their data on language and literacy is now freely available to help public health organisations design inclusive communication strategies for COVID-19.

How to Source Reliable Information About COVID-19

Accurate information is essential. But how do you find it? Here are a few tips to help you stay well-informed in any language.

Be Cautious with Automatic Translation

The ubiquity of automatic translation services like Google Translate has made it possible for people to consume more coronavirus-related news and information from around the world.

Sometimes, the information is reliable. For example, a Facebook post from Daniele Macchini, an Italian doctor, went viral in English and Italian thanks to Google Translate. The post provided a stark warning from the front lines. It was a strong counterpoint to those who were dismissing the virus, at the time, as just another flu.

But automatic translation can introduce errors, too. Sometimes, they’re minor, but they can also cause significant misunderstandings. Additionally, services like Google Translate make it possible for misinformation to break through language barriers with just the press of a button.

Understand That “Research” Does Not Mean “Cure”

In the United States, President Trump has touted the combination of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial, and azithromycin, an antibiotic, as a “game-changer” in the treatment of the coronavirus.

Online, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, some people have latched onto this drug combination and have been promoting it heavily, as well, to the point of accusing doctors who treat COVID-19 patients of incompetence for not embracing this “miracle cure.”

The truth, of course, is far more nuanced. There may indeed be some benefit, but trial results have been mixed, suggesting that it’s no silver bullet.

Other treatments, like IV Vitamin C, have also been aggressively touted online as miracle treatments for the disease.

This leads to the question: Where do these treatment recommendations come from? In some cases, people appear to be assuming that if doctors are researching a treatment, it must be a cure, or something close to it. For example, the rumour that high doses of Vitamin C could prevent and cure the coronavirus appears to be inspired by a trial in progress in China.

Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are also being researched in China, France, and numerous other countries at this point. They may well have some benefits. Anything that reduces death rates is a welcome addition to the arsenal. But more research is needed, and it’s important not to oversell the benefits in the meantime.

Choose Authoritative Information Sources

Yes, the World Health Organization has taken a lot of flack online for their evolving stance on masks, among other things. However, they are still a better source of information than someone’s uncle with a medical degree who may or may not exist.

Major international organisations and government sources are much more likely to start with the correct information. They are also more likely to vet their translators, use proper quality assurance procedures on translated material, and not over-rely on machine translation without proper human post-editing.

For more multilingual resources about the novel coronavirus, see How to Find Coronavirus Information In Different Languages.

The bottom line is this: Accurate information saves lives. With that in mind, we’d like to give a shout-out to all of the translators who are working diligently to make sure the entire world has the information needed to slow the spread of the virus and work towards more effective treatments and vaccines.