Medical language can be difficult to understand, even in English, because it contains clinical terminology and complex subject matter. Because of this, medical document translation requires a special mindset and certain scrutiny.

Medical language employs terminology that is unique and often appears with different spellings in varying target languages. In addition, medical abbreviations can and do mean different things in different languages. Medical translation must be precise and accurate, because any inaccuracy can lead to serious consequences, including injury or even death.

Let’s take a look at three key considerations about medical document translation that may not have occurred to you.

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Medical Document Translation Requires a Subject Matter Expert

Many different document types require translation, including physician notes, surgical procedure explanations, medical regulations, synopses, protocol documents, case reports, brochures, training documents, pharmacological instructions, informed consent forms, and medical device instructions. Each of these contain different terms used for specific audiences and languages.

Because of the complexity of the subject matter, medical document translation requires a subject matter expert. Only such an expert can grasp the meaning of both correct medical terminology and common-use jargon to translate medical terms and use them correctly within context. This work must be precise, considering that the smallest error could lead to incorrect diagnoses or inappropriate treatment.

Consider a clinical trial translation aimed at physicians. A translator with technical training, education in medical science, and experience providing medical terms translations is a much better choice than a general translator who is simply fluent in the language.

While most translators may be able to literally translate words, a translator without subject matter expertise will lack the understanding of what those words mean. That can lead to inaccuracies in how those words are translated, especially given that cultural nuances and regional dialects vary by target locale.

Nothing can substitute for years of training, education, and experience in the medical field. Subject matter experts are well-versed in the content and terminology used in medical document translation because they have worked in the industry.

Medical Document Translation Faces Word-level Problems

Words evolve through use in every language. This is known as the “lexical” meaning of the word.

Those charged with translating medical documents must know the lexical word usage of their source language, as well as their target language, especially how words are used in different ways within the medical community. Words can have varied expressions, or connotations, when used in particular ways.

For example, in English, we use the word “love” in all kinds of ways, and the depth of meaning depends on its usage in context. We love our mothers, snow days when we’re out of school, and French fries. Obviously, our mothers enjoy a higher love than fried foods or free days. Simply translating the word from one language to another is not always adequate; this is especially true in medical document translation.

Consider the difference between the words “smell” and “reek.” The two words share the same propositional definition, but have contrasting expressive meanings. “Reek” is a more expressive term that means “a powerful, offensive odor.” “Smell” does not necessarily communicate the same strength of meaning. And yet, a difference in connotation can be important in medical diagnoses.

Fortunately, translating medical terms is made somewhat easier because many words have the same basic meaning across most languages. After all, human anatomy and disease are essentially the same everywhere. But medical document translation becomes difficult when evoked word meanings do not translate well between languages.

Medical Document Translation Explores Different Registers

Perhaps the most difficult factor affecting medical document translation, above other technical translations, is multiple word registers.

In different medical branches—and across different languages—many diseases and body parts are called by one word in a more elevated register (strictly medical) and another word in a lower register (colloquial use). For example, the same part of the anatomy is referenced as both “thorax” (strictly medical register) and “chest” (colloquial use register).

Different medical registers exist due to historical reasons, mainly because the different fields of medicine evolved separately. Also, certain languages use only one word for both registers, while others may use two or more words for the same item. Therefore, when translating medical terms from a source language into a target language, context and register must be considered in order to choose the most precise option.

Accurate medical document translation goes beyond simply translating word for word. Physicians and patients alike require clear and easily understandable guidelines to ensure safety and health. An inability to comply with recommendations or instructions due to poor translations can produce life-threatening results.

The medical field is required to abide by strict quality controls, and so should the translation company helping you translate medical documentation.

ILS is an experienced translation company with subject matter expertise and a proven quality control process. Our medical document translation professionals can ensure your medical documentation is free of inaccuracies and easily understood by all parties that depend on its use.


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