International Translation Day 2020: Finding the words for a world in crisis

by | Sep 28, 2020

Two months ago I made a promise to Wordbee’s content managerI wasn’t going to mention the words coronavirusCOVID-19, or pandemic anymore in my articles and instead focus on more positive topics. But … 

The theme of this year’s International Translation Day (which, like every year, will be celebrated on September 30) is “Finding the words for a world in crisis”, and the official poster is an illustration of COVID-19. The image is meant to capture the importance of unity and solidarity to counterbalance the current crisis.

So, I am to break my promise. Gladly, I dare say, because, if the 2020 pandemic has made one thing clear, it is that the work of translators, terminologists and interpreters has helped (and will continue to help) immensely in the effort to contain the virus.



There have been many generous initiatives within the translation and localization industry. Starting from the activities developed by Translators without Borders  to the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies project that saw Wordbee’s technological contribution as well as Translation Commons‘ volunteer linguists. Many professional translators donated their time to this project and translated resources for producing needed medical supplies like face masks and ventilators.

TAUS made the Corona Crisis Corpora available for free. It is the result of a collective industry effort: participating companies contributed with their own translation memories covering this domain. 
Argo Translation designed free COVID-19 signage and made it available in 22 languages. The signage can be used for prevention and safety in almost any business setting.

Terminologists did their part, too. At EU level, The Terminology Coordination Unit of the DGT started collecting COVID-related glossaries available online. 


Language in a time of crisis

There is undoubtedly a correlation between language and society. Language records and keeps track of every single social changeWhen we are faced with a new concept, language must change in order to express it. This is how neologisms are born.



Two weeks ago I had the chance to talk to Tony Thorne, a lexicographer and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, about corona-related neologisms, which he started recording almost as soon as the pandemic started using the tag #coronaspeak.

He noticed that the new words came in three successive waves: the first wave consisted of medical and scientific language crossing over into everyday conversation (viral loadherd immunity, intubation, social distancing). Thwords of the second wave were terms meant to illustrate the reactions of people experiencing the new reality of quarantine and working from home (new normalquarantinilocktail hourzoom fatigue etc.). The third wave  still ongoing  has been dominated by government messagingslogans, mantrascatch phrases and the like.

The English language isn’t the only language that flourished during the peak of the pandemic. At the end of April 2020, there were over 7,000 new words in Dutch. Dutch lexicographer Ton den Boon has been keeping track of these neologisms in his Coronawoordenboek (Corona Dictionary). French professor and politician Olivier Duhamel published Les “mots” du Corona, while in Italy the Treccani Institute started collecting the COVID-related neologisms on its website. I am sure new terms have blossomed in other languages as well. How about your language?



Language can influence our way of perceiving reality, focusing on some aspects that, without a word or a reference expression, would remain in the background and would be less perceptible.

In the wake of the #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movements, the hashtags #inclusivelanguage and #inclusivewriting have been appearing on the social media scene lately. 

Linus Torvald, the creator and principal developer of the Linux kernel, has approved a new terminology that bans the use of terms like master/slave, blacklist and so on. His example was followed by GitHub, the Microsoft-owned hosting platform for software development.

The Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary has been working at revising the meaning of words like “racism” and “housewife” as well as cleaning up any sexist stereotypes in their publications. 

On a more technological note,  MIT has taken offline a massive dataset to train AI systems that were “blamed” for using racist and misogynistic terms to describe people.

Both the Linguistic Society of America and the United Nations have published guidelines for inclusive language/writing that include terminology to address mixed groups containing non-binary persons or persons with disabilities.

Whether in time of peace or unrest or health crisis, linguists have always had an important role in recording, using, and encouraging the choice of accurate and factual words. This is never going to change. 

On a personal note, I’ll now stop writing about coronavirus. Hopefully for good.

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