10 Hallmarks of a Superior English-to-Spanish Medical Translation

August 16, 2021 by
John Widick
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Spanish is a foreign language to most people living in the United States, but that’s not to say it isn’t familiar. Most Americans who don’t speak Spanish have still been exposed to it in all kinds of ways while growing up, whether in the media, school, or when spoken by their neighbors. It’s just another part of our everyday lives. For this reason, if you are ever in a position to hire a translation service, and especially if you need to create medical translations, you may feel inclined to look over the finished Spanish-language document yourself. If you choose to do so, it’s worth making yourself as informed as possible about the sticking points of medical translation and translation in general. There are some surprising differences between a finished product in English or Spanish, and understanding the following particularities may help you to avoid incorrectly identifying errors, and to ensure you have a professionally prepared medical translation that will best serve your patients.

1. Spanish does not use the word “please” as much as English.

Many people are surprised to find the word “please” removed from various parts of their Spanish-language medical translations. We all want to be polite with our patients, but the word “please” is simply used less in Spanish than in English. This is because politeness is already implied in the imperative form, especially when used in the “usted” conjugation, which brings us to our next point…

2. Using usted or tú. Here’s one you’ll recognize if you took grade school Spanish.

The Spanish language has multiple versions of the word “you.” There’s the formal you, “usted,” and the plural you, which in Spain is usually “vosotros,” but in the rest of the world is “ustedes.” In most medical documents it will make sense to use the polite “usted” form, but some materials are meant to strike a more personal tone, in which case “tú” might be preferrable. The key is to make your tone clear to your medical translation team and stay consistent within a document. 

3. Capitalization of titles.

The rules regarding capitalization of titles are much different in Spanish, and in fact are much simpler. In Spanish, the first word of a title is capitalized and the rest are not unless they’re a proper name. That’s all!

4. Capitalization after a colon.

While we’re on the topic of capitalization, in Spanish, the word after a colon is almost never capitalized. You may have noticed your word processor autocorrecting the first word after a colon to capitalized in English, however even in English it should remain lowercase if it forms a dependent clause. The few cases in which the word after a colon is capitalized in Spanish are when it comes before a quote, begins the main body of a letter (traditionally colons are used instead of comas to start letters in Spanish), or in an official document when the purpose of that document is being stated, which is usually done with a verb in all capital letters followed by a colon.  

5. Commas in a list.

In Spanish there are no commas before “and” and “or” in a list (these words translate to “y” and “o” respectively) if the previous items on the list are separated by commas. There should only be a comma before these words if the previous items in the list are separated by a semicolon, or if there’s an “and” or an “or” in a phrase within a list itself, in which case a comma separates the final conjunction. 

6. In Spanish the use of “and/or” is not correct.

Writers in English will sometimes want to cover their bases by writing “and/or” instead of simply “or.” This is to avoid creating a belief in the reader that the word “or” expresses a binary choice in which only one option is available and not both. It’s always implied that both options are available when the Spanish version of the word “or” is used. You should not see “y/o” which would be the translation of “and/or” in Spanish, in your medical translation.

7. Spanish rarely starts a sentence with “This.”

In English it’s common to start sentences with “this” in reference to a concept in the previous sentence, but in Spanish it’s considered better stylistically to connect the two sentences and use a connecting phrase such as “lo cual,” which roughly translates to “which,” or another word that connects the sentences. Run-on sentences are not discouraged in Spanish! 

8. Sometimes an accent, sometimes not.

You’ve probably noticed that, unlike English, Spanish uses accents. They generally clarify which syllable takes emphasis in a word, which is a big help when learning the language, but some words actually only take an accent in certain circumstances. For example, the words cómo, cuándo, and dónde, which mean “how,” “when,” and “where” respectively, only take an accent when forming a question or an exclamation, but do not when forming part of a statement. 

9. The passive voice.

The passive voice is hotly debated in English. Fiction writers hate it and academic writers love it. In general, it’s when the subject of a sentence is left out, for example “the kids were taken to school,” or “The topic was disagreed upon.” In these examples we don’t know who disagreed or who took the kids to school. In Spanish you have the option to translate these phrases word-for-word using the verb “to be” or “ser,” but in Spanish it’s much more common to use a reflexive pronoun such as “se.” This is a more obscure part of Spanish grammar, but when in doubt, for passive voice use “se” not “ser.”

10. Cognates are tricky.

Cognates are words that sound similar in two languages, like “program” and “programa.” They can make learning related languages much easier, until, that is, you stumble across a false cognate. One of the most common of these false-friends for learners of Spanish comes when they try to say they are “embarrassed.” The word “embarazada” sounds like a probable cognate, but in reality “embarazada” doesn’t mean “embarrassed,” but rather “pregnant.” Embarrassed indeed. There are many other such false cognates, and in a medical translation they can be dangerous rather than embarrassing.  

Translation, naturally, is one of those jobs that just has to be delegated. In order to create a good result, you will have to hire an expert. As with choosing any expert, however, the more you inform yourself going into it, the more likely you are to choose the right people, especially when providing medical translations that your patients need in order to feel informed and comfortable at your practice. Furthermore, if you make the understandable choice to read over a Spanish-language medical translation, the above tips will spare you some confusion, and give you a better eye for what a polished document looks like. 

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