5 Characteristics of a Good Medical Translation

January 26, 2023 by
John Widick
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Hiring a translator may seem like the ultimate act of trust. It’s pure delegation: giving away a task to someone who has a skill you may lack entirely. It may seem like there isn’t much you can do to oversee the process, but if there’s one thing we want you to learn from reading our blog, it’s that you by no means lack agency when hiring a translator. Medical translation in particular can have a disproportionate impact on people’s lives for better or worse. It’s important that you be as empowered as possible when hiring a medical translator, and that you know what characteristics a properly translated document should have if it’s going to be of the highest quality. The following are five characteristics that you should expect of any medical translation that you’re going to implement into your practice.

It should be free of transfer.

Transfer, which is when someone incorporates aspects of one language into another in an incorrect way, is one of the most common problems in translation. This is because it is so hard to avoid even for professional translators. All translators will be biased toward one language or the other. People can be “fluent” in many languages, but the majority of people were educated in one language. It’s possible for a translator to translate expressions or even grammatical structures from the source language too literally into the target language. An example might be how the article “the” is used much more in Spanish than in English. An easy mistranslation would be to say “The doctors recommend a yearly checkup,” which could leave an English speaker asking, “which doctors are they referring to?” This is what is meant by transfer. It’s almost impossible to eliminate transfer when someone is translating into the language they are slightly less proficient in. For this reason, BioLingo takes the position that translators should translate into their most fluent language: the one in which they received their education.

It should be idiomatic.

Even if a translator is only composing the final document in their most fluent language, they will still face choices about how literally to translate the original text. This can be best thought of as a spectrum going from too-literally-translated on one side, to too-loosely-translated on the other.

It helps to see an example. Let’s start with the following Spanish phrase:

Se moverán los músculos y tejidos para poner al descubierto la parte posterior de la vértebra torácica.

A one-hundred percent literal translation of this sentence might be: “Will be moved the tissues and muscles to put to the discovery the posterior part of the thoracic vertebra.” Hopefully you will never find a professional translator who offers such a ridiculous result. Even translation software is far better these days. It’s more likely that you will encounter the opposite extreme: translation that takes too many liberties. This can be one hazard of hiring translators who lack medical experience and don’t have a firm understanding of the material being translated.

The term for the proper balance between translations that are too loose or too literal is called idiomatic translation. It’s usually more loose than literal, but not in the extreme. An example of an idiomatic translation of the sentence cited earlier would be as follows: Muscles and soft tissues will be moved to expose the back of the thoracic vertebra.

It should be adapted to context.

Many people are familiar with context in a general sense. It refers to how the audience and environment of a message need to be thoroughly considered in its delivery. But context actually has a huge and often unexpected impact on translation. A well-crafted medical translation will take into account who will be reading the document, what their lowest probable medical literacy is, what emotional state they could be in, and what cultural assumptions they might make subconsciously, all of which are more impactful than we may realize. The more familiar a translator is with the culture they are translating for, the less likely they are to word things in a way that will be misunderstood by the patient or other audience. Cultural context is deceptive in that it seems very simple, but in practice it can be very nuanced and have an outsized impact on outcomes.

It should be accurate.

The idea that a translation should be accurate sounds like a given, but even a well-intentioned and careful translator can translate things inaccurately if they are translating into a language in which they are moderately proficient, or writing about a subject matter they don’t fully understand. No matter how careful they might be, if they don’t have the right knowledge framework, all the hard work and long hours in the world will not create an adequate product. This is why it’s essential to hire the right translator for the job. They cannot simply be bilingual to achieve a safe, effective medical translation. They need to translate into the primary language they live and work in, and furthermore, they must have a medical background in that language.

It should be free of errors.

While being accurate and being free of errors may sound like the same thing, there is an important but subtle difference. A translator with the appropriate knowledge will create a document that is accurate, however, any document will contain human error in its first iteration. This is why a comprehensive review process is necessary for medical translation, with more than one set of eyes looking it over. Having an independent review process is the only way to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of translations that are of a sensitive nature, like medical translations. Medical translation companies understand this, and have safeguards in place to make sure the final product is clear for patients, medical staff, or any other audience that needs to implement the information they contain.

In a medical environment every variable can have an impact on the patient’s outcome. Translation can seem like a mild consideration, but the low-quality translation that is available everywhere online these days allows for plenty of miscommunication as small errors build up and avalanche into big problems. Healthcare translation companies have the experience necessary to avoid errors that clinics make over and over again when they use inadequate translation resources. The knowledge is out there, you just have to find the right people to create your medical translations so that you can rest easy knowing they’re in good hands. That way you can get back to what you’re best at, helping the people you serve.

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