Evolving the translation process for life sciences

It’s a pretty safe assumption that if your global presence is expanding, the way you approach translation of your global content must evolve. But for pharmaceuticals, biotech and other subsectors of the life sciences, there tends to be a degree of hesitancy when the word evolve is uttered. Change can be scary, especially in an industry that constantly faces looming liability potential.

From a translation services provider perspective, we hear the argument now and again that any translation process change, even for the better, takes time — which is something that executives aren’t too keen to expend. Any deviation from the status quo seems to present a disruption.

Then again, the cost of not changing a process that isn’t working well can be even more significant. This is abundantly clear from the unsettling anecdotes from clients’ long-spanning careers in the life sciences.

There’s the story of how one vendor assigned a linguist who supposedly had expertise in medical devices to a client’s project. This linguist mistranslated the term canula (a narrow tube that moves fluid from one part of the body to another) into plumbing pipe. As it turned out, the linguist was not a subject matter expert, which the client learned only after the translation hit the desk. That unfortunate language slipup led to a last-minute correction in-house before the medical device and its accompanying documentation went to market. While the outcome could have been much worse — after all, the embarrassing translation mistake never made it into the end users’ hands — the corrective efforts still ate up valuable time for the client.

This is time that deadline-driven life sciences companies can ill afford, which is why making improvements to streamline and strengthen the translation quality assurance process is so critical.

True, change takes time. But it’s time that goes toward increasing efficiency and accuracy in the long run. A major part of a translation services provider role is educating clients about how their translation process needs to evolve in order to support continued global growth.


Source content consistency

Commonalities from product to product are hugely important, and this includes translated product content for new markets. One way to help safeguard consistency has to do with document authorship at the very beginning of the global content life cycle. Each person creating documents needs to follow guidelines around messaging consistency, in effect writing for translation.

If there are certain phrases or words that should always remain the same, such as medical device product and company names, it’s helpful to make a note of these. The same goes for terms and phrases that departments frequently use that could be standardized. Style and tone are also important factors, and these should be set down in a style guide and glossary. It’s much simpler to work with already-approved content from the beginning, across all authors and business units, and it helps ensure optimal translation quality.

As senior manager, document control and global labeling at Endologix, Dawn Fowler says the process for language translation has been much smoother and more predictable within her organization ever since management put into place source document authoring guidelines.

“We follow development processes for how our documents are written,” says Fowler. “We maintain a clear, concise English master version that has been vetted in all areas in the company that have input on safety and the data that goes into it. This way, we can ensure that everything is as it needs to be once we have these documents translated.”

While the various groups at Endologix have centralized and standardized their content authoring and language translation efforts, trying to get all involved departments in sync this way isn’t always easy. This can be a challenge for a company looking to go global or expand its international presence. We often work with the teams that handle translation and then learn that they aren’t in communication with the people who create documents or the regulatory affairs or legal department. For that latter group, any regulation changes not communicated immediately to the content creators and translation managers can have a near-disastrous effect downstream, such as necessitating feverish and inefficient catch-up to meet deadlines.

For these reasons, all appropriate groups should synchronize their efforts, nail down preferred terminology and discuss ways to insert translation earlier into the global content development process. Having a translation services partner that can guide you and manage centralization and cleansing of assets on your behalf across content types is key. Oftentimes your translation services provider will work across groups in your organization and can bring valuable guidance to help you optimize and align.

An important reason why consistent source content is so crucial is that it helps foster a stronger translation memory (TM). For life sciences companies, a stronger TM resource means higher translation quality, faster time to market and keeping to strict deadlines for product releases, clinical trials and other projects. A great place to start is with stock product content, from labels to instructions for use, and making sure the segments from those pillar content projects feed into the TM.

Since the overriding goal in this industry is safety — and thus to bring translation quality to consistently high levels — it makes sense to seek out the best TM technology dedicated to that purpose. When talking with prospective life sciences clients, we explain that a highly beneficial way to manage TM is through a translation management system that centrally manages and centrally stores the data. Both the sophistication of the TM technology and the way it is accessed within the system are key.

It is important to choose a TM tool that is composed of several “buckets” — individual translation memories specific to the company’s various departments, divisions and even translation projects. Any project requestor can specify that his or her department’s translation memory be searched first, followed by the organization’s general TM or any other order that makes sense.

Another critical aspect of TM to look for is the sophistication of the content matching engine. The software should comb through all previously translated content and look at the context of each segment in order to produce a greater number of highly accurate matches. Not every translation provider’s TM tool operates the same way, and software sophistication differs greatly, so it pays to ask for case studies, product reviews, referrals from peers and so forth when shopping around for a translation partner.


Structured labeling and faster linguist reviews

While it is nearly impossible in the medical devices world to standardize packaging sizes because of the plentiful variations with packaging, it makes sense to aim for size consistency when possible to ease the multilingual desktop publishing stage. Consistent layout with labeling is also important.

This makes the task easier for multilingual desktop publishing specialists since they will have to navigate regulations dictating things such as minimum font size. The more standardization there is with layout, the less effort needs to go into the project. If any errors were to occur later in the process, such as failing to include enough space for a German translation to allow for text swell on something such as a product label or instructions for use manual, a company could face design rework, possibly threatening planned launch dates. From a liability perspective, every change you can make toward increasing consistency and standardization decreases the unknowns and risks.

As an extra safety measure, life sciences companies often have their own internal review process in place for language translation. For many individuals acting in this capacity, reviewing translations is not a codified part of their job. Every hour spent on review takes time away from their dedicated roles, so it’s vital to streamline this process step.

Sometimes a life sciences company wants to complete the multilingual desktop publishing step in advance of the review, so the reviewers can see how everything would look in visual context. The problem with this arrangement is that when minor alterations to the translation need to occur, the multilingual desktop publishing step has to happen all over again. Clearly, this results in wasted effort, time and money.

For a faster review process that also helps avoid potential design rework costs, we encourage clients to perform the review online first using technology, get the translation finalized and then proceed with multilingual desktop publishing.


Education leads to an easier evolution

Despite this industry’s extreme risk aversion — or perhaps because of it — life sciences clients are often receptive to process change once we discuss the practicalities and benefits with them. Of course, showing examples of successful implementation go a long way to assuage concerns as well. The stakes simply are too high for these companies not to make process improvements where needed.

Just like with any culture shift, education and data play a crucial role in paving the way for a more evolved, streamlined and effective process for life sciences content language translation. The companies that are on the forefront of localization are leading the charge and serving as success stories to be learned from. In the end, process evolution can indeed be painless with the right approach and partner.