How ‘Social Distancing’ Can Get Lost in Translation

Ruth Michaelson at the Smithsonian Magazine: “…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.”…(More)”.