Coronavirus for Translators and Interpreters

By Gloria M. Rivera

We are currently living in strange times in which a very tiny creature is endangering our lives and changing life as we know it. Many entities including schools, banks, hospitals and courts have had to change the way they communicate with the people they serve to help them deal with this unexpected coronavirus situation.

This is why we, translators and interpreters, must familiarize ourselves with the coronavirus and understand many things we may not have thought about since studying biology in high school. As this is a new virus and disease, there is not much information known about it; in addition, by the time you read this article, most of the information will have changed.

But, worry not, here is a summary of the basics.

Is a virus a bacterium?

There are many different organisms in nature. Some, called pathogens, cause disease in humans; some don’t. The most common ones are bacteria and viruses. A bacterium is a living organism that has the necessary components (i.e. genetic material, organelles, etc.) to reproduce, live, and survive by itself. A virus, on the other hand, is a much smaller organism that is not alive; it is genetic material (DNA or RNA) inside a protein envelope.

What is a coronavirus?


Coronavirus is the name of a family of viruses and, as any family, it has many members. Of the seven types that affect humans, SARS-CoV-2, or novel coronavirus, is the one that causes COVID-19. It is called novel coronavirus because it was first identified in December of 2019 in Wuhan, China.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 stands for COrona VIrus Disease 2019, which is the official name of the disease announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) on February 11, 2020.

Of the seven types that affect humans, SARS-CoV-2, or novel coronavirus, is the one that causes COVID-19.


How is SARS-CoV-2 transmitted?

SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets. The little drops that come out of your upper respiratory system when you talk, sneeze, or cough can contain this virus, which can then infect another person who either inhales the respiratory droplets through the mouth or nose and into the lungs, or touches a surface that has the droplets with virus on it (a handrail, for example) and then touches his/her mouth, nose, or eyes.

It was thought that only symptomatic people (people who have symptoms) could transmit it, but now it is known that people who do not exhibit any symptoms (asymptomatic) can also transmit the virus.


When do the symptoms of COVID-19 start?

COVID-19 can either cause no symptoms or lead to severe illness and death. The incubation period (time between the virus invading the system to when it starts causing symptoms) is estimated to be from 10 to 14 days


What are the main symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms of this disease are mainly of the upper respiratory system: fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Some people also exhibit aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, and diarrhea.

Can symptoms get worse?

Yes, symptoms can be more intense in people 65 or older and those who have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or asthma or are immunocompromised (for example, people undergoing cancer treatment or who suffer from immune diseases).

What are the warning signs?

Warning signs are observable features of the virus that indicate that the person needs to seek medical attention immediately. Some of these warning signs are trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, or bluish lips or face (cyanosis).


How is the disease diagnosed?

The disease can be diagnosed through signs (objective evidence of disease) and symptoms (subjective evidence of disease). Epidemiological evidence, such as travel, exposure, location, can also help with diagnosis.

For an exact diagnosis, a respiratory specimen is obtained by a sample from a nasopharyngeal swab. Testing is usually at a medical provider’s discretion.

What is the treatment for COVID-19?

Treatment of this disease is supportive, which means that the symptoms are treated. Currently, there is no vaccine, no antiviral drug or any other specific treatment available. If you are diagnosed with the disease you must stay at home until you are no longer at risk of infecting others. Severe cases must be treated at the hospital level.

How is this disease prevented?

We know that this virus


spreads from person-to-person. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.

The CDC recommends the following:

  • Wear a mask, whether you have symptoms or not. The virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
  • Do not be in close contact with other people. Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet (2 meters). Remember that some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus.
  • Clean your hands often. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touchingyour eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

[Gloria M. Rivera is a physician/surgeon in her native Peru and currently is an English/Spanish translator, certified court and medical interpreter, conference interpreter, and trainer. She holds a Professional Certificate of Translation and Interpretation from UCSD Extension and taught for said Professional Certificate.  She is Core Faculty of the National Center for Interpretation (University of Arizona) where she teaches medical translation and interpreting. Gloria is the recipient of 2018 CHIA’s Instructor of the Year Award. Also, she is the owner of Blue Urpi, a company focused on providing medically accurate training for certified and aspiring medical interpreters.]

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

2 thoughts on “Coronavirus for Translators and Interpreters”

  1. Vicki Bermudez says:

    This was an excellent explanation! Now, I wonder, could you provide a Part 2, and give us your rendition of some of the common terms? Recently NAJIT made available a glossary of terms provided by Eriksen Translations, which was wonderful to see. However, since you are not only a translator, interpreter and trainer, but also a physician, it would be valuable to have your input, as well as your rendition of the terms we are most likely to come across.

  2. Alcira Salguero says:

    Dear Gloria.
    Great and simple but informative article! Thank you for doing this .
    A Salguero

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