The 1998 film Sliding Doors, directed by Peter Howitt and starring American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, follows two parallel storylines, showing the divergent paths the protagonist’s life could take depending on whether or not she catches a train. In the past months, I have been haunted by the realisation that we, just like this character, are continuously asked to make a choice between the real and the virtual, the vigilant and the impulsive, the rational and the absurd. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has certainly diverted our journey; but is there a right train?

Translating Illness: Imagined Design

As a former student of medicine and a scholar of comparative literature, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which the psychical and the mental worlds interact with, and shape, one another. Translation is a vital vector of this exchange; we translate to replicate our cells, protect our life, and communicate to people who could not otherwise understand or being understood. Sometimes, through the invisible paths of contagion and trauma, translation can even make us ill. This is how and why I have asked myself what different concepts and practices of translation have to do with one another, and to what extent translation in the scientific sense (translational medicine, knowledge translation) is different to the way in which we relate to a foreign language.

I created Translating Illness to explore these ideas. Supported by a Laming Junior Research Fellowship at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in January 2020, I inaugurated a College-based seminar series which was turned into podcast episodes (a full programme of the seminars can be read here). On 1 March 2020, I took a plane for New York in order to undertake research at the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Things, however, went differently. As alarming news were coming from China and my home country, Italy, I came to terms with the fact that my project was no longer a theoretical matter; it was, in fact, an articulation of the global crisis we were living through. Coronavirus disease had become the illness we were asked to translate.

Translating COVID-19: Emergency Response

I activated Translating COVID-19 as an emergency response to the pandemic. I designed and hosted a series of five video conversations with world-leading experts in translation studies and epidemiology, with the aim to discuss the translational implications of coronavirus disease. The episodes – which scored more than 3,200 views in five months – touched upon questions of race, conspiracy and (lack of) medical evidence connected with the current health, ethnic, and environmental crises. In the first episode, Nicola Gardini, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Oxford, invited us to reflect on the language we use and the metaphors we resort to in order to capture the ineffability of illness. The second episode in the series featured Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for Translating Cultures. Prof Forsdick highlighted the ways in which translation creates connections that can protect us from isolation both on public and private levels. He explored the meanings the experience of confinement has taken across different linguistic, societal and ethnic contexts, thus tackling issues of mental illness, class, and race. A similar attention towards non-dominant languages and cultures has characterised Prof Karen Thornber’s contribution, which disclosed the role literature in translation plays in retrieving examples of non-Anglo-Euro-American medical practices. Karen Thornber, who is Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, proposed a solution to the health, environmental, and racial issues gripping our society by presenting a model of ‘global healing’. In the fourth episode, I dialogued with Eivind Engebretsen, Professor of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo. Prof Engebretsen offered the perspective of a scientist invested in humanities research that is not secondary, but fundamental to clinical advancements. He pointed out that medical discoveries, policy and practices are culturally determined; despite our common perceptions, science does not provide universal truth, and this is particularly evident in the case of face masks. The final episode was dedicated to the transnational paths of contagion seen through the lens of twentieth-century cinema. Kirsten Ostherr, the founder and director of Medical Humanities Program and the Medical Futures Lab at Rice University, Texas, drew on her expertise as a media scholar, health researcher, and technology analyst to discuss visual culture’s paradoxical power to represent the invisibility of infection.

As emerges from this overview, Translating COVID-19 has been a profoundly collaborative endeavour, one that proved to be as much challenging as enriching. It made me travel to unspecified destinations on a train I did not plan to catch, but on which I was not alone. I would not thank the virus or months of social distancing for this diversion; rather, I would like to acknowledge the support of colleagues and mentors who make academia a place of renewal and transformation, and whose work shows us the many ways in which we, as humanists, can act as medics in the face of the unknown.

Sometimes we have no control over which train to take. Yet, we can decide how and why to wander.

Dr Marta Arnaldi, University of Oxford