COVID Stories: Translators: The behind-the-scenes crew of the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Cheryl

It has been almost a year since COVID-19 started spreading around the world like wildfire. In this time, the importance of language services has become more apparent than ever. ICES, a non-profit research institute that focuses on public health-related data in Ontario, published a report in September 2020 showing that, in Ontario, COVID is disproportionately affecting immigrants, refugees and newcomers to Canada. While immigrants, refugees and newcomers only make up about a quarter of those tested for the virus, they do account for almost 44% of all positive cases. This statistic highlights the fact that there are certainly significant barriers for these communities that are preventing them from accessing accurate public health information or from following public health guidelines. And one of these barriers, without a doubt, is the language barrier.

Information on public health guidelines, restrictions, testing, etc., changes rapidly as the situation evolves. Even for a native English or French speaker, it can be hard to understand and keep track of all of this information. To someone who may not be fully comfortable in one of Canada’s official languages, this could be an insurmountable barrier.

Both translators and interpreters have been working tirelessly throughout this pandemic, making sure that the non-native English/French speakers that they represent are able to get the information they need to stay healthy, all while trying to adapt to constantly changing information and working conditions, and trying to stay healthy themselves. Interpreters have very much been on the frontlines, while translators have been working quietly behind the scenes. While translators did typically work from home even before the word “COVID” was a part of our every day vocabulary, they have still had to adjust to a significant amount of disruption in the way they do their jobs. Translators have had to meet very tight deadlines on a much more regular basis and have had to manage documents that are being constantly changed while they are already working on the translation, and often still have to meet the initial deadline while implementing significant changes to the translation.

Thanks to translators, there are webpages on COVID, posters in public places explaining public health guidelines, documents describing safe return-to-work procedures and more available in many different languages. They are helping close that gap and reduce that disproportionate toll that this virus is taking on our immigrant, refugee and newcomer populations.

The ironic thing about translation is that, when it is done well, it is practically invisible. While they are quiet warriors in the fight against COVID-19, translators have played a crucial role in making sure that those who are not fully comfortable in English or French are able to access reliable information in a language in which they are more comfortable. To date, MCIS translators alone have translated over a million words worth of COVID-19-related information into over 50 languages, and that’s likely only a drop in the ocean.

To read more COVID Series blogs featuring organizations in our community impacted by the pandemic, please visit:

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