Skip links

Coronavirus: Interview to Health Translator Paula Tiezzi

Translation in times of pandemic emergency can save lives. And the current coronavirus crisis is no exception. As this article by the US National Library of Medicine clearly explains:

All types of public health emergencies, ranging from infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics to weather-related events and man-made disasters, present national leaders with the challenge of communicating risk to the affected populations while maintaining trust, transparency, and consistency of messages.

We interviewed health translator Paula Tiezzi and she shared her take on the matter. What is the role of linguists in the coronavirus health crisis? Keep reading and let us know your thoughts!

Paula Tiezzi

Hi Paula, thanks for answering these questions. The first one is: what’s the main impact of translation and interpreting during a pandemic emergency situation?

Well, the first thing we need to reflect upon is what the situation would be without translators. In other words, the rapid spread of the virus would have been even faster without the work of interpreters and translators, like it’s happened in past centuries with other pandemic diseases.

Global outbreaks in the past produced deadly and catastrophic results because we didn’t have institutions and policies in place. Translators and interpreters are part of such policies. Think of the World Health Organization, with its massive pool of linguists, who guarantee the distribution and access to information.

You’re totally right. And how does all this apply to the current coronavirus pandemic?

During a virus outbreak, when governments activate policies and protocols, many things happen. That’s what’s happening now with the COVID-19 pandemic. To begin with, several bodies get tasked with analysing, researching, and sharing all of the relevant data with the public. Moreover, medical experts and researchers across the globe work together to contain the outbreak and cure the disease. If a cure is not attainable in the near future, they work to prevent the spread from happening too fast, so health systems can cope.

The public need to stay up to date with the latest developments and recommendations. After all, the successful management of emergency situations depends on all of us. Such updating wouldn’t be possible without translators and interpreters getting involved to bridge language gaps. The WHO has said:

Even if local community service agencies and health institutions have considerable capacity to provide translators, these resources are likely to be exceeded in an outbreak. (…) There are number of service providers that provide immediate telephone access to interpreters with language deliveries for up to 140 languages; these services can assist in supporting the immediate challenges of timely access to interpretation in emergencies.

Could you mention a concrete example where translators facilitate the access to information during a health emergency?

Public health emergency preparedness, planning, and response activities always rely on translators and interpreters. Linguists literally help save lives during a pandemic emergency. For instance, they act as liaisons between patients and the medical staff who have to treat them. The staff can only take the appropriate measures if they know what’s going on with the patient. Language barriers can prevent successful communication between the public and the different health system actors, and we don’t want that!

Another example: when the World Health Organization publishes emergency risk communication (ERC) guidelines, translators are behind their accessibility. They facilitate intra-agency, inter-agency, and cross-jurisdictional information sharing. You can ask our colleague Julieta Pussetto (Social Sciences translator) more about this.

As you can see, linguists make possible the real-time exchange of information, advice, and opinions. Decision-makers, experts, and the general public can communicate thanks to us, translators.

Is it just medical translators and interpreters who play a key role in the context of COVID-19?

Absolutely not. Marketing translators, for example, will make sure that businesses across the globe can keep their customers informed. They need to keep them in the loop about their measures and policies. Think of all the events getting cancelled, for example! Even our conference, The Creative Language Conference, has been postponed. All that requires proper communication. In addition, legal translators will make the content of protocols, bills, and laws intelligible for audiences who speak a different language within the country in question. Also, financial translators will work on commercial reports and international trade documentation to prevent the pandemic disease affecting the economy.

It’s important to remember that a state of emergency affects all areas of life, and translators work in all areas of life as well, so it’s not just us medical translators who play a crucial role.

Thanks a lot, Paula! Any other comments?

I’d like to read our community’s thoughts on this matter, feel free to leave your comments and share this interview!

Leave a comment

two × two =