Jornadas Internacionales de Traducción e Interpretación Médica de Rosario (6)
Luciana Ramos

Luciana Ramos

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How covid-19 pandemic has shaped terminology base for medical translators and what are the key learnings we should take

Author: Luciana Ramos, professional independent English <> Spanish translator and interpreter


Language experts, encompassing translators, medical writers, reviewers, subtitlers, posteditors, terminologists and any linguist working in the translation/localization field, have been challenged unexpectedly just like many other professionals in the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. In the case of this professional group in particular, neologisms, existing terms and new uses of existing terms have emerged in different types of texts, genres and channels of communication. The purpose of this paper is addressing, retrospectively, twenty (20) COVID-19 related terms and the different possible renderings in Spanish based on the medical text genre where they are used as a pattern for terminology approach in the medical translation arena.

Key words

Covid-19, lexicon, terminology, medical translation, coronavirus

Key message

Showing how terminology should be addressed for the relevant, accurate and appropriate rendering based on the target audience and the situational communication.


Language itself is a curious and dynamic phenomenon that finds its own paths through our lives in peculiar and mysterious ways, painting each culture and society with a unique shade of colour. As professionals in the language industry, translators are aware of the choreographic performance we should swiftly play to rim the language silhouette from the highest scientific spheres to the simplest interactions among lay people. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed an immense challenge on every human being in the world, and translators were not immunized against it. Communication, i.e. language and its channels, was flooded with new concepts, actions, discoveries, uncertainties and all the terms coined or re-used to name and describe the former. Language experts, encompassing translators, medical writers, reviewers, subtitlers, posteditors, terminologists and any linguist working in the translation/localization field, have been found all of the sudden immersed in a complete new environment, just as unexpectedly as almost every other professionals in the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, and their role and responsibility in advancing medical findings, leveraging and sharing information among the scientific communities and alerting and reporting to governments and the civic society have filled their plate with unprecedented hurdles to be surmounted.

As an unavoidable collateral of this pandemic outbreak, neologisms, existing terms and new uses of existing terms have emerged in different types of texts, genres and channels of communication, a series of events which has created new lexical and sociolinguistic changes that have become part of our lives as humanity – except that for translators, apart from trying to fight against all the new battles and adapt and cope with the “new normality”, they have faced the task of transferring them accurately and appropriately into the target language.

Lexical innovations or the massive use of technical or scientific terms by the lay population are a true expression of how language reflects the way we interact with the world. Science and common citizens were unveiling the mysteries and obscurities of this lethal virus almost simultaneously. As a result, the combination of existing terms or technicisms acquired a completely new dimension and were widely used in our everyday communication, such as community spread; contactless delivery; herd immunity, super-spreader, including also acronyms, such as WFH (the English abbreviated form for “working from home”), among many other instances, as pointed by Al-Salman et al (Al-Salman, 2021). As in any other crisis, major stakeholders took action to speed up the spread of information, promote good practice for symptom identification, prevention, and treatment, as well as feeding the data-hungry population with information on findings, advancements and developments. The news, social media, conferences, scientific fora, medical communications to the general public and daily dialogues were increasingly teeming with the different names given to the threating diseases caused by a novel virus, the cascading symptoms observed or potentially expected for those who were actually infected, and the naughty moves the coronavirus decided to make. Language challenges also emerged from the new habits that radically changed basic socializing principles, such as the elbow bump, a slight touch of the elbow bone process to avoid shaking hands, the stay home, etc., that are almost forgotten today. Epidemiology data on impact and infection rates, and a new world of urgently-needed vaccines, became the bread and butter of communication globally. A wide array of diagnostic tests and actions to be taken based on the results were hovering aimlessly all over our heads buzzing complex terminology from the scientific communities into the lay people´s ears.

In such a cross-sectional emergency, where the shock wave blow did not discriminate based on any demographic characteristic, translators had to consider the varied needs of audiences, means of communication, policy contexts, health facilities and availability of services, health literacy level, including the undereducated or underserved populations, where hetero-functional translations were fundamental for effective communication. Even though that for translators working remotely was nothing new, COVID-19´s lexical components have impacted almost all aspects of the pandemic and post-pandemic translation tasks, requiring their critical capacity at its most to identify and shade light on ambiguous or pseudo synonyms sometimes created by mistake when information was transferred from the scientific to the popular language, such as quarantine vs. isolation, as explained by Smith Rogers (Rogers, 2020). The purpose of this paper is unfolding how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped terminology base for medical translators now that those frightening days (months actually) are doomed in the past. Therefore, twenty (20) COVID-19 related terms were addressed as an illustrative sample to assess how they and the concepts they encompass, being either a vaccine, virus denomination or a test or procedure, are approached differently from the linguistic perspective regarding the communicative situation, its purpose or channel, in consonance with the different renderings elicited from the diverse medical text genres where they are used, as a roadmap for terminology practice in the medical translation arena.


Selected sources

Ten online resources (portals/websites/online publications) were selected for terminology assessment. The criterion to select sources was picking the most influential health authorities that became known to people from all over the world during the crisis, meaning official health organizations leading educational and aware-raising campaigns, for the non-specialized facing content; and a collection of reliable scientific publications of validated origin for information addressing the specialized community. Five health portals where the non-specialized reader can find COVID-19 related information were used as source content; and five research papers published in, the US National Institutes of Health’s collection of biomedical literature, where COVID-19-related topics were evaluated from researchers from the scientific community meant to be referenced by specialized readers from such community. All the information sources are listed in the Annex 1 below and encompass health-related information created during and after the COVID-19 global pandemic. User generated content, such as comments or other way of interaction with the reader, was excluded if appeared in any of the sources.

Terms extraction

For the purpose of this manuscript, the author in her role as translator reviewed the texts searching for specialized terminology on COVID-19. Specialized key terms are herein considered those that closely relate to the subject matter, either defining a symptom, virus taxonomy, a health habit or safety practice, a procedure or epidemiological information. Twenty (20) terms/phrases were extracted from all the sources for their analysis. This number was defined to create a minimal illustrative representation of language dynamics around this pandemic. The term selection was made considering the emergence of the terms/phrases during the COVID-19 pandemic, either existing or not before, which may pose a linguistic challenge for translators and interpreters.

Term analysis

Key terms/phrases extracted were defined, classified based on the field of specialization, identified based on clinical relevance (i.e. symptom, test, etc.), and related terms and expressions, either for specialized or non-specialized audiences were also collected from other publications which are similar in nature to those listed in Annex 1 below, aiming at addressing different flavors based on communication variables such as audience, channel, purpose, and target audience.

Due to the nature of this manuscript, no statistical method was approached.


After skimming the cited webpages and publications, and other supporting online sources, for terms which emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic forming a new body of terms present in translation requests, the following words and expressions were extracted and classified to proceed with the relevant analysis from the translator’s perspective challenges. Related-terms and expressions found in the sources were also added to create a broader perspective of the information shared from the linguistic viewpoint. Table 1. Non-specialist facing (NS) content lists the terms and expressions extracted from websites and portals addressing the non-specialized population at large, i.e., non-medical service personnel.

As seen in these tables, matching terminology is used both for the SP and NSP texts and communications, even though the appropriateness of some of them can be questioned. The search showed that different terms are used both to name the virus causing the infection and the resulting disease (severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, coronavirus, corona, covid) undermining accuracy. Due to the wide range of outcomes associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, several terms and acronyms are used to name the condition, and again a mixture of technicisms and lay terms were found in the review process of this study which the translator should sieve to filter out inappropriate renderings, for example: “Long COVID”, “COVID-19 syndrome (PACS)” and “post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC) (Rando HM, 2021). Terms may differ based on the data source, either from electronic health records or patient-reported information collected via surveys, but are included inconsistently in SP/NSP texts. Also, some concepts seem to overlap, when in fact they convey different meaning, such as isolation and quarantine, outbreak and pandemic (Rogers, 2020), and the logical criteria to associate each of them in a pair to a different text type for accuracy, clarity and appropriateness are not followed in the publications searched. Epidemiological concepts were also plaguing everyday reading and information acquisition, and those related to virus behavior were also spotted during term collection for this study, and the example of infectivity and virulence is illustrative of frequent generalizations that translators need to specify for the sake of accuracy and clarity. In this regard, Dr. Poland clearly defines infectivity (or transmissibility) as the opportunity or the risk that the infected person could spread that to another unimmunized and uninfected person, and virulence as the likelihood of disease that would be caused by that infection (Stiepan, 2021). Regarding diagnosis, the umbrella term “test kit” encompasses a wide and diverse set of devices or testing procedures that flooded daily communication without discriminating the health literacy level of the recipient. Terms such as those listed in the tables provided for this study, antigen test, PCR test, viral test, serology test, rapid test, self-test, At-Home Medical Tests, Coronavirus Self-Checker, reverse transcriptase PCR, patient’s sputum analysis, reverse transcriptase (RT-PCR) also require careful attention by the translator as they may come from different categories of testing (Balkhy, 2020). It is also worth mentioning the new meaning that some terms acquired after the pandemic, as the concept of rehoming in reference to the separation of some companions or mates back to each one´s place; social behaviors adopted based on safety measures and fear, such as sheltering in face (Martel, 2021); generation class, the coronials (Kedar, 2021), among many other funny and not so funny examples.

Table 2 also shows that SP texts include a deeper level of complexity in molecular genetics, immunogenetics and symptomatology. By means of a determinologization practice, described as a process when specialized words or scientific terms move into general vocabulary, followed by changes in their meaning (Nová, 2018), terms like tachycardia or fatigue would be paraphrased as a heart rate that is too fast or extreme tiredness, leaving out some aspects that characterize these clinical presentations. However, Table 1 shows that hypoxia, which is actually jargon, is used to describe low levels of oxygen in the body. Similarly and contrary to what the stylistic guidelines would suggest, based on the storm of terminology emerging, acronyms, which are usually left for the highly specialized texts, were also present in many of the web sources reviewed for this study, not collected here for the sake of brevity, but including but not limited to RNA, PPE, OP, ICU, ARDS, etc. (Thacker, 2020).


The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely shaped medical terminology skills for translators, regardless the language pair they work with. Up-to-date communication, global awareness and health education became the main bastions of this fight against the massive viral killing. Language, paired with social media and any available means of communication, emerged as one of the most powerful weapons against this enemy. In what sense has the terminology challenge shaped the role of translators differently from other health-related topics? Urgency, uncertainty, the scientific community, and the lay people learning together, facts and mysteries being unfolded for both worlds at the same pace led to a body of terminology that requires analysis and adjustment to be used in the appropriate manner to convey a faithful effective message. As shown in the Results section of this study and in some previous publications in this regard (Al-Salman, 2021) (María Verónica Saladrigas, Primer semestre de 2020), key terms for governments, field workers, educators, civilians at risk, started emerging with no distinction of classes. Technicisms at the word level, procedural concepts for developing vaccines, life-saving strategies were flooding all types of communications, and health communicators were urged to share any new discovery, development or fear they came across with, without any linguistic screening to make communication effective for non-specialized readers or recipients of any format. Lay people also started coining their own way of expressing how prevention measures were named and adapting the technical terms to their social life and everyday language (Martel, 2021). Information exchange between crisis responders and affected communities was crucial for prevention, remediation and awareness. Those key terms range from epidemiology to molecular biology, including immunology, pharmacology and social behaviors. For translators, aiming at conveying meaning in an impactful and effective way, the translation task goes far beyond the equivalence search at the word or grammar/syntax level. The role of adapting concepts and terminology in a two-way communication channel, from specialists to lay people and the other way round, posed the immense responsibility of processing, dissecting and selecting relevant and reliable information from both sides so as to be duly informed and documented to deploy all his/her linguistic skills so as to create an accurate but appropriate message to bring light in the middle of a misty environment.

The research task performed for the purpose of this article contributes to the translation practice by showing that paying attention to genre, that is, text type, and understand each type´s essential characteristics is the best way to address terminology challenges to describe, for example, what is in the name of a virus, how virulence is measured, how to self-test and how those devices work, how immunocompromise defines populations at risk, and what vaccines consist of (particularly for those with the right to decide whether to accept/reject immunization). Disease manifestations, symptoms, treatments, red flags – all concepts that were erupting from the scientific volcano like boiling lava with no adaptation for the different communicative situations towards where they were heading, with no regard to the diverse communicative purposes. Communicators, being either NGOs, institutional health campaigns, governmental agencies, news presenters, etc., had no time for language tailoring and it shows in the mixture of technicisms (such as hypoxia) and conceptual scientific values (vaccine vs. booster) embedded in their voices. Similarly, affected communities’ concerns and experiences shaped the linguistic manifestations of the pandemic and fed the specialist knowledge portfolio.

Even though the few terms collected for the purpose of this article are limited considering the broad corpus of terminology that emerged during the COVID-19 crisis, we can see that a simple term such as virus may depict and relate to a whole array of names and immunology terms, with different outputs in terms of name formation (SARS-COV-2 vs COVID-19, coronavirus, etc.). The same applies for vaccine development and vaccination schedules, symptomatology description and diagnostic methods. With this limited list, the aim is giving perspective to the reader of how deeply a simple term may take us as translators in our quest for the relevant rendering. Even with the long ago announced end of the pandemic, the wheels of language keeps rolling, and translation efforts should always run in parallel to scientific discoveries and affected people´s experiences.

Author’s perspective based on the findings of this study

Being aware of the wide variety of medical content and formats allows us to design the most appropriate translation strategy that best meets the intended functions of the translation. It allows us to be critical and analytical when considering alternatives and to argue in an informed manner about the choices made. It also opens our minds to different authors’ ways of thinking, writing and arguing in order to build bridges between scientists, physicians, students, patients and the general public from different cultures. The spectrum of communicative situations in the field of medical translation is markedly broad, so it covers numerous textual genres: newspaper reports, advertisements, information brochures and pharmaceutical industry brochures, among many others. Texts that belong to the same genreshare formal conventions: structure, length, terminology, phraseology, tenor, etc. As translators, we often have to rewrite the same message for different readers, either because we are assigned a set of documents created for different purposes and addressed to different audiences, or because the client or initiator needs the target text to respond to a different communicative function than the source text. Therefore, the analysis of the different textual genres is a highly valuable tool for specialized translators both as a self-training resource and as a guide for drafting a text whose message can be communicated as effectively and usefully as possible, and a powerful weapon in the fight against a pandemic.


Al-Salman, S. &. (2021). COVID-19 trending neologisms and word. Russian Journal of Linguistics 25 (1), 24–42.

Balkhy, D. H. (2020, November 27). WHO Episode #14 – COVID-19 – Tests (—covid-19—tests?gclid=CjwKCAiA2rOeBhAsEiwA2Pl7Q6hQh5kfJTSlxQXXumn2tYVot2-O7zKG4e9rMjKp3YR-7iL66jEzkhoCyR4QAvD_B). (V. Gupta-Smith, Interviewer)

María Verónica Saladrigas, L. M. (Primer semestre de 2020). Glosario de covid-19 (EN-ES) abreviado. Revista Panace@ – Vol. XXI, N.º 51.

Martel, J. (2021, June 21). A Lexicon for the late pandemic. Retrieved from The NewYorker:

Nová, J. (2018, August 29). Terms Embraced by the General Public: How to Cope with Determinologization in the Dictionary? Retrieved from Euralex:

Rando HM, B. T. (2021, March 26). Challenges in defining Long COVID: Striking differences across literature, Electronic Health Records, and patient-reported information. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine:

Rogers, L. S. (2020, November 20). Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved from

Stiepan, D. (2021, December 3). Omicron transmissibility and virulence: What do they mean? Retrieved from Mayo Clinic News Network:,that%20infection%2C%22%20says%20Dr.

Thacker, S. B. (2020, October 28). Acronyms used in Science Updates. Retrieved from CDC Library:

Annex 1 – Selected sources

For general audience targeting content, the following portals were consulted:

United Nations COVID-19 response:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – COVID-19:

Medline Plus – COVID-19:

World Health Organization – WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard:

For specialized audience targeting content, the following articles were selected from

Sharma A, Ahmad Farouk I, Lal SK. COVID-19: A Review on the Novel Coronavirus Disease Evolution, Transmission, Detection, Control and Prevention. Viruses. 2021 Jan 29;13(2):202.

Umakanthan S, Sahu P, Ranade AV, Bukelo MM, Rao JS, Abrahao-Machado LF, Dahal S, Kumar H, Kv D. Origin, transmission, diagnosis and management of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Postgrad Med J. 2020 Dec;96(1142):753-758.

Safiabadi Tali SH, LeBlanc JJ, Sadiq Z, Oyewunmi OD, Camargo C, Nikpour B, Armanfard N, Sagan SM, Jahanshahi-Anbuhi S. Tools and Techniques for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)/COVID-19 Detection. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2021 May 12;34(3):e00228-20.

Ochani R, Asad A, Yasmin F, Shaikh S, Khalid H, Batra S, Sohail MR, Mahmood SF, Ochani R, Hussham Arshad M, Kumar A, Surani S. COVID-19 pandemic: from origins to outcomes. A comprehensive review of viral pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, diagnostic evaluation, and management. Infez Med. 2021 Mar 1;29(1):20-36. PMID: 33664170.

Li YD, Chi WY, Su JH, Ferrall L, Hung CF, Wu TC. Coronavirus vaccine development: from SARS and MERS to COVID-19. J Biomed Sci. 2020 Dec 20;27(1):104.

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