How ‘Social Distancing’ Can Get Lost in Translation

Governments around the world grapple with how to deliver important guidelines on minimizing the spread of COVID-19

Street writing details social distancing measures
A policeman stands over a graffiti drawn to bring awareness to social distancing as a preventive measure against COVID-19 in Chennai, India, on April 9, 2020 Arun Sankar / AFP via Getty Images

For the 11 million residents of Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 pandemic is no laughing matter. But that hasn’t stopped a macabre joke from making the rounds among its residents. The humorous tale plays on the fact that the dialect spoken in the megacity, known for its concentration of universities, has dramatic differences in tone and accent from Mandarin Chinese that can render it unintelligible to non-Wuhan natives, or even others from Hubei province where Wuhan is situated.

It goes something like this, according to Lixian Jin, a linguistic specialist based at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China: A doctor visits the city to treat a COVID-19 patient and asks about symptoms. The exchange falls apart immediately because of the language barrier, leaving the doctor to say “No wonder the education level in Wuhan is so high, you all speak amazing foreign languages!”

To Jin, who grew up in Wuhan, the joke “made [her] laugh and laugh, it doesn’t make sense to other people. It only makes sense to people from Wuhan.”

The joke reflects scenes playing out across the globe. Even as tongue-in-cheek phrases like “avoiding the Rona” abound on American social media, to say nothing of the rapper Cardi B’s enunciation of “coronavirus,” other terms like “social distancing,” or “lockdown,” have quickly entered our daily vocabulary.

But what these terms mean in different countries (or regions or cities within regions, in Wuhan’s case) is a question of translation as well as interpretation. Communities around the world remain under government-enforced lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but few have understood “stay at home,” or liu-zai-jia-li in Mandarin, to mean precisely the same thing. The concept of social distancing, normally indicating a need to avoid contact with others, can mean anything from avoiding public transport to the World Health Organization’s recommendation to “maintain at least one metre distance,” from those who are coughing or sneezing. In one Florida county, officials explained the guideline by suggesting to residents they stay “one alligator” away from each other.

The way that terms like “social distancing,” are adopted across languages provides a way to understand how countries across the globe are coping with the COVID-19 threat. For instance, the Mandarin Chinese translation of “social distancing”, or ju-li-yuan-dian, is interpreted differently in Wuhan dialect, explains Jin. “Instead of ‘keep a distance,’ Wuhan dialect literally translates this as ‘send far away.’”

Through these small shifts in language, says Jin, “people in Wuhan expose their feelings about their own suffering.”

In Sweden, meanwhile, has currently registered more than 16,000 cases of COVID-19, the highest incidence rate in Scandinavia. The government has taken an unusually lax approach to enforcing its pandemic mitigation policies, placing the emphasis on citizens to self-police, perhaps to ill effect. While Swedes do use terms like social distancing, or rather the noun socialt avstånd, these are accompanied by other ideas that are more popular in Sweden. "Herd immunity or flockimmunitet is a very big word around here,” says Jan Pedersen, director of the Institute for Interpreting and Translation Studies at Stockholm University.

“Sweden is famous for being a very consensus driven society, and this applies here as well,” he says. “There’s a great deal of talk about trust.” In this case, he explained, citizens have trust – tillit – in the authorities to make good choices and so choose to take personligt ansvar, or personal responsibility.

Pedersen has also noticed some new language developing as a result. “The word recommendation, rekommendationer, in Sweden has taken on much stronger force,” he said. “Recommendation used to be a recommendation, what you could do or not. Now it’s slightly stronger … We would use words like obey with laws, but now here you obey a recommendation, lyda rekommendationer.”

India, which currently has more than 20,000 reported cases of COVID-19, has 23 official languages including English but at least 121 others according to the country’s census bureau, and 270 languages with 10,000 speakers or more. Ayesha Kidwai, a specialist in linguistics and the politics of language at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says that while translations of social distancing terms exist across the many languages spoken in India, how they are broadcast and understood varies widely.

“The word people are using [in Hindi], saamaji duurii,” she says, adding that the nature of the direct translation makes little sense. “But in Hindi the words mean nothing, and you find this across Indian languages. Sure, to distance oneself exists, but to then qualify it with an adjective? When I first saw it, many of us thought it was an Indianism, something made up.”

The government of Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown with just four hours notice. While a lockdown was necessary for public health purposes, Modi’s leadership style and crackdown on dissent have led critics to label him an aspiring autocrat. With guidelines only issued in Hindi and English at a national level, the challenge is to ensure all of India’s 1.3 billion population can understand them. “I’ve heard audio announcements in small community language which contain some explanations,” says Kidwai. “But generally, this is just an explanation of don’t stand too close together, don’t go out of your house.”

The government’s linguistic choices are inherently political, she said, adding that pro-government television channels have also labeled the country’s 201-million-strong Muslim population "super-spreaders" and spoken of "corona jihad." “‘Flatten the curve’–none of that is happening in India,” she says. “We’re not using those terms at all. There’s no statement from the government about the future cost of the disease. It’s just, don’t get infected. If the message is only to avoid infection, that’s just not going to work. It has to be [about] what to do if infected.”

According to Kidwai, the southern state of Kerala, where the majority speak Malayalam, has its own interpretation of the phrase ‘flatten the curve,’ —the epidemiological premise that social distancing will spread out the burden on public health resources. “‘Break the chain’ exists, but only in Kerala, she says.

Kerala has also succeeded in distributing multi-lingual messaging, a powerful gesture that recognizes the migrant workers who do not speak the state’s official languages. "They literally translate everything into a message for social media, even food supplies. I don’t think that’s happening elsewhere,” she said. “It’s not about what’s official or not officially recognized, it’s about all the languages people speak.”

Across the Middle East, Arabic-speaking nations are also grappling with their own versions of lockdown, or ighlāq.

“There’s a nice expression, il zaman el korona, meaning in the time of coronavirus,” says Camilla Suleiman, an author and specialist in Arabic sociolinguistics at Michigan State University.

Suleiman says that instead of “flatten the curve,” she saw frequent use of the word iḥtiwāʾ, or containment, in the Modern Standard Arabic used in media across the Middle East. “The word connotes control,” she says, adding that it reflects the efforts made by governments across the Middle East such as Kuwait—2,248 cases—or Egypt–3,490 cases–to demonstrate control over the spread of COVID-19 as a sign of their power. “If you contain something you are controlling it, like the containment of a crisis for example. I also see it used in politics a lot,” she says.

"In Jordan, I noticed the use of the word nashāmā plural of nashmī and nashmiyyah in how the people of Jordan are dealing with the coronavirus crisis. It’s a Bedouin word which indicates Jordanian așālah, or authenticity: strength, resilience, integrity,” she says. “This was in articles discussing hospitals or the injured,” she adds, implying a sense of both social responsibility among the population, coupled with reciprocal care and direction from the government.

Al-tabāʿud al-ijtimāʿī means social distancing,” she says. “The pattern used for the gerund implies that it is reciprocal,” meaning that even the Arabic term for keeping away from others points at collective rather than individual action.

To Suleiman, who is Palestinian, this implied reciprocity shows how uncomfortable and abnormal it can feel to those practicing it. “It sounds off to me as an Arab,” she says. “Arabs are a social bunch, so this sounds like punishment.”

Punishment or not, to many public health officials, stopping the spread of COVID-19 through staying at home and keeping distance from others means speaking in the tongues spoken on the ground.

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