Professional medical translation saves lives

“This form of translation may be no less difficult
and challenging than that of poetry”
– Peter Newmark

medical translationMedical translation is a crucial factor in the dissemination of new knowledge and discoveries in the medical field, but it can also be a critical factor in the provision of global and foreign health services.

Medical translation is the translation of clinical, technical, regulatory or marketing documents for medical devices or software, as well as articles or research related to pharmaceuticals, medicine or health. Most countries in the world require that medical documents and labels related to medical devices and drug prescriptions be translated into the national language of that country in order to ensure the safety of patients and doctors who use them — because there is no room for errors and misunderstandings.

Medical translations include a range of scientific papers in a wide variety of medical fields. Papers range from general medicine to surgery, ophthalmology, pharmacology as well as clinical trials and research papers, technical or usage information on medical equipment or devices, instructions for prescription of drugs and much more.

Translated texts include publications of textbooks for medical students, popular science books on medicine, research papers, conference proceedings, case studies, case histories and reports. Some texts are for patients: information leaflets, medical forms and medical marketing brochures. All texts are essential, necessary and equally important.

Accuracy is of utmost importance in medical translations 

This is a field where precision is vital. Thus, accuracy is of utmost importance.

Medical translations, as with other specialized translations, must come from highly qualified translators who are knowledgeable in each specific field. Medical translations deal with human health and safety and the smallest mistake in a translation has the potential to cause undesirable consequences because of serious misunderstandings. On the one hand, medical translators must have a proven track record of efficiently translating medical documents with an exceptionally high degree of reliability and knowledge. Rich general medical knowledge is important, and personal interest in the text almost automatically increases the text’s quality.

On the other hand, translators can’t always find the right word in their language, perhaps because of new terms or esoteric expressions that they have never heard of. In this case they may need to search for hours to find a reliable source known globally or to consult with their colleagues.

No room for mistakes and errors

Unfortunately, there are many examples of how a bad translation in the medical field and the smallest mistake in even a single word by a nonprofessional can result in tragedy as well as millions of dollars in medical malpractice compensation.

In 2007, 47 patients had to go through a second knee replacement surgery as a result of inaccurate translation. A painful procedure that requires months of recovery was done twice, all because the translator translated “non-cemented” or “without cement,” instead of “non-modular cemented.”

Just one single word caused months of unnecessary discomfort for these 47 people, not to mention untold financial consequences for the company concerned. But, at least this was one of those cases where the problem had a solution.

Then there is the well-known case of Willie Ramirez. In 1980 Willie was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His family, who only spoke Spanish, described his condition to the paramedics as intoxicado. The translation was provided by a bilingual staff member who translated intoxicado as intoxicated. Among Cubans, intoxicado is an umbrella term that means there’s something wrong with you because of something you ate or drank, a meaning closer to the term poisoned. A professional translator or interpreter would have known this despite the similarity of the two words. The Spanish word is not equivalent to the English word intoxicated, which implies alcohol or drug use.

The patient’s family believed he was suffering from food poisoning, while he was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage. The doctors believed he was suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in his treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic.

In medical translation, every word matters and any change of a word can change the meaning of the original sentence, so it’s critical that the translation is accurate. Remember, there are languages that share the same words but these words might have very different meanings, such as Spanish spoken in Spain can be very different from Spanish spoken in Chile or Argentina.

There is no doubt that medical translation is a complex and interesting phenomenon in which linguistic, sociocultural, scientific, economic and other factors are at play. Therefore, it is very important to choose a translation service provider that works only with experts in a variety of medical fields and has a proven track record of consistently high-level medical translations.

Ally Gilboa
Ally Gilboa is the CEO of AQ Group-Language Solutions, and has over 20 years of experience in the translation industry.


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