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February 10, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

The Critical Nature of Medical Translations

The specialized translations in the field of medicine, pharmacy, and clinical studies, often contain information that can literally mean the difference between life and death. Absolute precision is necessary, both in terminology (which can be vastly different from language to language), but also in dosages, medical interpretations, case reviews, patient instructions and health reports.

Medical and Pharmaceutical translation is a highly specialized discipline and should only ever be carried out by suitably qualified translators. These specialist translators are usually doctors or biomedical engineers, have experience in a particular medical field and have language degrees.

Furthermore, it is often necessary to create a specialized glossary, which standardizes the nomenclature used by all parties involved. In the absence of an approved terminology glossary, the translators and users may have differing opinions on what “correct” translations of key terminology are.

Sometimes it is necessary to translate medical device software. Instruction manuals in local languages allow the users to learn their operation faster and use them more efficiently. These manuals and on-screen tutorials need to be accurate, using locally-approved language and terminology.

Adequate knowledge of specialist terminology is essential in translating medical texts. Direct dictionary translations may not fit the proper style of the target language. That’s why it’s very important that a text is translated by a linguist, who is thoroughly familiar with the medical industry in the selected language,  is thoroughly familiar with the culture of the selected language, and knows which words to use, so that they are appropriate in the cultural and medical contexts.

Knowing a foreign language alone is simply not enough. The plain truth of translation is that a text must be understood before it can be translated. We are all confident of our knowledge of English, aren’t we? Let us take a small self-test by considering two short sentences sourced from a medical text:

“Tympanites and atony of the gastro-intestinal tract are often the first indications of parenteral nutrition, necessitated due to faulty utilisation of oral feeds.

Distention of the congested intestinal layers is possibly a contributory cause of blocked anastamosis or its dehiscence.”

Honestly, how much of that did you understand? How easy was it to read? You can speak English well, but understanding a medical text is a very different matter.

You can now see how a translator without a scientific or medical background would feel when faced with this text. Translators translate from a foreign language into her mother tongue. In other words, a translator should ideally be a native speaker of the language she is translating into. Somebody may possess excellent bi-lingual skills, but hiring him as a translator is a sure-fire recipe for disaster in translation, unless she is also an expert in her field.

Medical and scientific writing has its own turn of phrase. In medical texts written in German, for example, “Anamnese” is a commonly used word. Dictionaries give anamnesis as the English equivalent – and a translator who relies solely on dictionaries is looking for trouble. Why? Well, medical practitioners the world over never use the expression “anamnesis”. They just call it “case history of a patient”.

By the same token, hiring a translator with specialized subject skills to the exclusion of language skills is no less prone to pitfalls. For instance, a subject expert may spend many a sleepless night over the English equivalent of “Patientengut,” a German word best translated as “patient records.”

Style, we all know, is the way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed. Have we ever observed that scientific-technical writing has its own style? To illustrate the point, let us take a concrete example. Faithful to the style of the source language, a translation would read:

“Owing to improvements in medical first-aid and rescue services, a steadily increasing number of severely injured accident victims reach clinics in a condition in which intensive therapy may be started.”

After correction for style by a qualified subject and language expert, the same sentence would read:

“Advancements in medical first-aid and rescue services have made it possible to immediately administer intensive care to an increasing number of severe cases of accident victims who are brought to hospitals.”

Some of the types of medical documents that regularly require translation include:

Test results
Patients’ hospital records
Clinical test protocols
Medicine leaflets
Medical articles
Autopsy reports
Electro diagnosis

As you can see, the importance of getting the translation correct the first time, is vital.

For more information on Medical and Pharmaceutical translations, please feel free to visit:

Translations Washington DC

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