Our society is currently experiencing a period of radical adaptation. The emergence of COVID-19 has brought about dramatic changes in the way we communicate and build relationships. Today more than ever, language is a vital tool for helping communities face this common enemy.
Language service providers are strategic (and often overlooked) actors that play an important role in disease prevention by quickly getting people the information they need in a language they can understand. Translation and interpreting services allow vital medical information to reach all communities, regardless of language or dialect. Over the past year spent fighting this pandemic, language service providers have had to evolve in order to pursue their mission and adapt to this new reality.
Although the translation industry embraced telecommuting several years ago, the current situation has led us to further change the way we work and react to events. We had to adjust our production deadlines because, now more than ever, our clients need up-to-the-minute information to keep their networks informed of the constantly evolving healthcare protocols and legislation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure effective communication between all players, new terminology relating to the virus had to be created and standardized. Christine Spadafora, Head of Linguistic Services at BG Communications International comments: “We had to start working on a subject that was completely new to us – and pretty much everyone else. New terminology had to be created for new content regarding emerging guidelines, studies, and other COVID-19-related topics.” Over the past year, terms such as “lockdown,” “social distancing,” and “incubation,” as well as more complex ones such as “anosmia” and “ageusia,” have become part of the daily work of translators and interpreters.
Not surprisingly, each language created its own rules for the use of this terminology according to its respective needs. For example, in languages such as French and Spanish, in which objects have a male and female gender, the word “COVID” had to be adapted accordingly. In French, the word is feminine, which is justified by the fact that the French word for “disease” (i.e., “maladie”) is also feminine, but in Spanish, even though the Real Academia Española has stated that the feminine form would be more accurate, the word is usually masculine due to the gender influence of other viruses (such as Zika and Ebola) and the fact that the Spanish words for “coronavirus” and “virus”’ in general are masculine. There is no universal standard across all gendered languages.
The preferred common language of science and technology, English is only spoken by approximately 20% of the world’s population. This means that critical research, studies, and other virus-related documents can only be understood by one in five people, which is unacceptable in a pandemic situation, where up-to-date information is potentially lifesaving. As a result, language service providers have had to process hundreds of medical documents in a variety of languages and dialects that are generally not in high demand in order to keep the global population well informed.
Different types of language services and their content have been affected. For example, the demand for medical translations increased exponentially at the beginning of the pandemic, with numerous documents relating to treatment protocols being translated all over the world. Today, updated research and new procedures are still being translated into multiple languages.
Furthermore, social distancing, as a means of slowing the spread of the disease, has pushed many companies to do business online. The inability to do business “face to face” has led to a growth in the translation of multimedia content related to sales and marketing. Translations aimed at powering digital business platforms like e-commerce websites and portals, corporate videos, and virtual events, have been in higher demand.
Due to the lockdown, there has also been an increase in the demand for the translation and localization of media content such as video games and online entertainment. Content relating to the tourism industry has also been radically updated: translations no longer only include information on magical travel destinations, but also on the healthcare rules, regulations, and protocols established in each country.
The inability to organize international events and activities with a large audience severely impacted companies providing onsite interpreting services. Those who were already providing remote (online) services experienced an increased demand for remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), remote video interpreting (RVI), over-the-phone interpreting (OPI), and sign language interpreting.
Services that were previously not in great demand have become far more common, such as medical interpreting and remote legal interpreting.
Interpreters had to add new technical skills to their repertoire, such as a good working knowledge of modern tele-interpreting software, which is not without its complications. Dafne Romero, specialized conference interpreter, explains: “The cognitive load when working from home is much greater; we have to focus not only on doing our job well, but also on making sure that the technical aspect of everything works correctly, which is difficult when not all participants have the same quality of Internet service.”
Today, interpreters can do their job without having to travel to a venue—which saves language service providers and their clients both time and money, but is not without issues for the interpreters.
The radical changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has forced language service providers to change the way they do business, expand their expertise, and accelerate the widespread adoption of an increasing number of digital technologies to continue providing essential services according to their clients’ evolving needs and the new challenges they now face. As with many other industries, these changes likely are here to stay. Although the future of the post-pandemic world may seem uncertain at times, one thing is evident: the dissemination of clear, concise, and accurate information is essential to slow the spread of communicable diseases such as COVID-19. Translators, interpreters, and other language industry professionals have an important role to play in this regard.
Maryse M. Benhoff is President of BG Communications International Inc., a leading translation services provider headquartered in Montréal. She is recognized for being a pioneer in translation standardization and for championing the advancement of women in business.