The Coronavirus epidemic has become a pandemic, and — as all events of such importance — it has brought with it a specific set of terms that often make it difficult for non-experts to understand. Even more so if the media, either due to laziness or convenience, use English terms in their reports. In a country like Italy, with a rather superficial understanding of the English language, it is essential to be clear on the most commonly used terms, that — despite being on everyone’s tongues — are rarely understood completely. For this reason, added to our review, in addition to the most read words over the past few weeks, is another crisis that had a profound effect on the global economy in 2008.
The famous global financial crisis that we hear or will hear —increasingly often — compared to the economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus epidemic, gave us all in Italy a new financial vocabulary linked to the now infamous sub-prime mortgages, granted to high-risk clients. If we can justify the use of the English term sub-prime with the category of mortgage’s peculiarities (as we know, Italian banks require much more important guarantees before granting a mortgage compared to what occurred in the United States in that time), it is difficult to explain the media’s reliance on the term default when it corresponds to the commonly known insolvenza, the inability to fulfil one’s payment obligations. In addition to hearing about sub-prime mortgage and default, the average Italian reader also had to deal with complex acronyms, from those related to instruments (MBS, ABS, etc.) to those related to the classification of loans; and thus, we heard about NPLs (non-performing loans) and UTPs (unlikely to pay). Then, who doesn’t remember hedge funds, high-yield but high-risk investments? Not to mention, in closure, credit ratings from the most famous agencies: Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch? In addition to English terms and obscure acronyms, during the financial crisis of 2008, the Italian media often fell victim to huge translation errors: the most striking being the infamous bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Deceived by their resemblance, the Italian media often used the term bancarotta, when there is actually no correlation between insolvency (bankruptcy) and the definition of fraudulent bankruptcy in the Italian legal system.
Back to today, in these weeks we’ve certainly learned about the potential of smart working. To avoid using English terms, the Italian government opted for lavoro agile, an expression already used in 2017 (Law 81/2017) but without any connection to the concept of smart working. Only recently did the Ministry of Labour use the expression lavoro agile as translation of smart working, not a great choice as explained in detail by terminologist Licia Corbolante:
“[…] lavoro agile does not correspond to the English concept of agile working (they’re false friends!), nor does it correspond to smart working. It is most similar to the concept of remote working, which is a type of flexible working.”
Another huge mistake that several media outlets have fallen victim to, perhaps due to the use of automatic translations, is in the medical bulletins on the new Coronavirus: next to the number of cases and victims, the word ricoverati (in Italian: hospitalized) often erroneously appears as a translation of the English recovered.
In addition to both minor and major translation errors, many of us have heard the term droplet or even distanza droplet in Italian newspapers. Fortunately, the Ministry of Health doesn’t resort to an English term, but simply refers to small drops of saliva that could lead to infection. The reason the press has decided to use the English term is unclear. Even less clear is the use of the word cluster to refer to a group of cases in the same area. More precisely, cluster means “two or more new correlated cases in both time and place (in a unit/sector/area) from the same strain”, even if cluster is often treated as a synonym of focolaio (in Italian: hotbed).
Without going into further detail, a question naturally arises: does the average Italian reader have a clear understanding of these terms in English? It is really necessary to use English in texts intended for the general public?
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