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How people across the globe are discussing social distancing

Translators and lexicographers are working overtime as new virus-related words and phrases enter our daily vocabulary.

One urgent problem: How to convey “social distancing” in a variety of languages, with all sorts of dizzying cultural contexts, so that everyone can understand how to save lives?

As for what “social distancing” means in English, Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health and coronavirus point person Dr. Allison Arwady says it means “being aware how close you are to other people in order to prevent disease.”

But as the world hunkers down, people across the globe are trying to describe our experience “social distancing” each day. It’s an attempt at global solidarity — and a chance to learn bits and pieces of new languages in the process. The global conversation about translating this life-saving action might be the ultimate example of how language is and has always been a bridge, bringing people together across space and time.

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Arabic: al-tabāʿud al-ijtimāʿī

Dr. Mariam Aboelezz, an Arabic translator and Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of London, shared online an English-Arabic glossary of coronavirus-related terms for her scientific translation class with everything from “epidemic” to “face masks” to, yes, “social distancing.”

Her choices have sparked a spirited global discussion, offering a window into the challenges of translating “social distancing ,” down to the grammar.

Here, for instance, is Aboelezz on which “distance” term is best in Arabic, and why:

Yiddish: derváytern zikh (éyner fun ándern)

“I’m thinking I’d use, in everyday descriptive language to any fellow speaker of Yiddish anywhere in the world, ’derváytern zikh (éyner fun ándern)’ — literally: ‘distance oneself (from each other),’” said Dovid Braun, a specialist in Yiddish language and linguistics.

Other Yiddishists had similar thoughts.

“We’ve been saying ‘dervaytern zikh fun andere’ over here,” said Sebastian Schulman, the executive director of KlezKanada and a translator of Yiddish.

Mindl Cohen, director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at The Yiddish Book Center, said that “the relevant phrase that comes to mind is ‘tsezeyt un tseshpreyt,’ an idiomatic expression meaning literally ‘scattered, dispersed.’”

“It comes us in the Bundist anthem di shvue for instance: ‘ale vos zaynen tsezeyt un tseshpreyt,’ ‘everyone who is spread and dispersed,’ a phrase that could be used to describe the diaspora, but could be repurposed for social distancing.”

After all, what are we now but spread and dispersed from each other?

“Something more literal would be ‘sotsyale dervaytern’ (dervaytern, to make far apart) or ‘sotsyale opgrenetsn’ (opgrenetsn: to border off/apart),” Cohen wrote in an email.

Miriam Udel, associate professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Emory University, suggested “gezelshaftlekh dervaytern zikh”gezelshaftlekh is “social” and “dervaytern zikh” means “distance oneself” — and took to Twitter to see what others thought.

Eddy Portnoy, a historian of Yiddish pop culture, replied suggesting the term “shoymer-negiye” instead; that term, or “shomer negiah” in Hebrew, refers to those who don’t touch the opposite sex until marriage. That’s the original social distancing.

French: distance sociale

All week, French translators have gone back and forth over whether the correct description is one of distancing or confinement.

Interpreter Sylvie Nossereau wrote on Twitter that she had read that “confinement social” was the best option.

Meanwhile, Le Monde ran a moving photo of a handmade sign hanging from a balcony reading “on reste à la maison, faites pareil” — or, “we stay at home, do the same.” That’s one way of saying “stay socially distant.” The Montreal newspaper La Presse went with the classic “distance sociale.” And some French speakers went with “restez chez soi” — stay in your own place — which might be the French equivalent of the saucy English “stay the f— home ,” and has become a popular hashtag.

If you need yet more choices, one translator says he is using “mesures de distance sociale,” or “measures of social distance,” and another, in Winnipeg, observed that “éloignement social” — with “éloignement” meaning, according to the Collins French-English Dictionary, “distance,” “remoteness,” “moving away” or “estrangement” — is being used in campus communications in Canada.

Spanish: distanciamiento social

Barry Olsen, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, tweeted that he had used the phrase “distanciamiento social,” which translates directly to “social distance,” at a conference this week.

But Argentina-based translator Laura Salvatori offered other options, and a pretty fascinating rationale for her choice.

“When interpreting, I will tend to alternate with ‘pausa social’ or ‘recreo social’ to avoid the negative connotations in “distancing//distanciamiento ,” she tweeted.

German: soziale Distanzierung

German is the only language offering bilingual options. In German, you can say “soziale Distanzierung.” But you can also just use English.

“German keeps the English but capitalises it: Social Distancing,” conference interpreter and historian Bianca Walther tweeted.

Dutch: sociale onthouding

“In Dutch it’s ‘sociale onthouding’ (social abstention), although I have also seen ‘sociale isolatie’ (social isolation),” translator Percy Balemans, who translates English and German into Dutch, tweeted.

Italian: distanziamento sociale

“Here in Milan, seeing the death toll in nearby towns and cities, and the exponential rise in cases within the city, what people have long been imploring is to “stare a casa” (stay home), using the hashtag #iorestoacasa,” says Jamie Richards, an American translator based in Milan. “Social distancing simply isn’t enough if you keep going out. Trust me, we tried it,”

The term “distanziamento sociale,” also in use, now has its own Italian Wikipedia page, complete with charts and scientific data.

But perhaps in Italian, words and charts are not enough; the term must be accompanied by music. It must be said that Italians singing on balconies — including a world-famous tenor singing to his neighbors in Florence — have redefined “social distancing” and inspired and moved the world.

Hebrew: lishmor al merchak

Hebrew doesn’t seem to have a term for “social distancing” yet. But Israel’s Ministry of Health has put in strict guidelines to limit contact, including closing schools and cultural institutions. “Lishmor al merchak,” or “keep a distance,” is probably the closest equivalent.

This directive from the Ministry’s website lays out the basic principles of social distancing “lishmor b’chol she’efshar al merchak shel shnei metrim mikol ben adam acher” — or “keep a distance, as much as possible, of two meters from any other person.”

So “lishmor al merchak” — or “keep a distance,” is probably the closest equivalent to the English “social distancing .”

“As much as possible” seems a bit of a nod to Israeli culture, which notoriously favors close contact. In recent days, WhatsApp messages shared on social media have directed Ashkenazim to keep doing what they always do — a dig at the reputation of Ashkenazi Jews for reputedly being “colder” than Sephardi Jews and less touchy-feely.

But joking aside, in family-friendly Israel, which has put thousands of people in quarantine, or “bidud,” for 14 days, telling everyone to stick to two-meters distance “as much as possible” is probably as socially distant as it gets.

Update: March 24, 11 am: This story was updated to include a new phrase in use in Italy to describe social distancing, “stare a casa.”

Aviya Kushner is the Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (2015) and the forthcoming “Wolf Lamb Bomb” (2021). She tweets at @AviyaKushner


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