A study made headlines recently when it revealed that press releases about medical discoveries and news are often exaggerated or misinterpreted. The study’s gotten me thinking about the complicated job of medical translation. Whether they translate medical articles and texts, or work as an interpreter, a proper medical translator is not only fluent in two languages; they’ve also extensively studied medical terminology. But even with these qualifications, their job is far from easy. Here are five of the biggest challenges medical translators face:
- Knowing what your audience knows.
As I mentioned in a previous post, according to the CDC, 90% of American adults have difficulty understanding medical terminology. This means medical translators can’t simply translate jargon from one language to another; if they’re going to be dealing with the general public in some way, they also have to “translate” it again, so that it can be understood in layperson’s terms.
- Medical jargon isn’t standardized.
Jargon in general can be a major challenge for translators, but in the medical field, the problem goes from being a still image, to a kaleidoscope: Medical terms aren’t standardized in most languages, Adrian Năznean reports. This means, among other things, that many diseases and health problems have multiple names. Translator Jiayi Huang cites infantile scurvy, a condition that has no less than six alternative monikers in English. Huang also shares that there’s no standard vocabulary for the administrative side of healthcare, either. A hospital might use certain terms to designate, for example, types of patients, but a clinic might have a totally different way of doing this.
- How to put it.
As if these vocabulary and audience-related issues weren’t enough, there’s also the fact, as Năznean points out, that medical articles and texts have different levels of formality in different cultures and when you’re writing for different audiences. Not to mention that in some cases, a text has to be completely re-formatted; for example, English-language academic medical articles have to be organized into Introduction, Material and Method, Results, and Discussion sections.
- New words.
It might seem like medical terminology is all long-established Latin and Greek terms, but if you sit down and think about it, that really isn’t the case. Not only do living languages and lingoes evolve and change; technology and medicine do, too. And since the language of medicine today has shifted from those ancient tongues, to English, there’s no standard structure for how each term will be expressed. Translating new vocabulary can even be a wild goose chase; in many cases, other languages will just borrow new English terms, rather than inventing their own linguistic equivalent.
- How information is interpreted.
In addition to the problem of press releases being misinterpreted, there’s another, similar issue that can cause even the best medical translator to stumble. American Translators Association co-founder Henry Fischbach reports that not all languages present medical study results in the same way. For example, in some cases, the phrasing of an American study or press release might not come off as credible or polite to foreign medical professionals and scholars.
Many healthcare providers think it’s enough to ask a bilingual layperson or a general translator for help. But hopefully studies and reports like the ones I’ve cited, and posts like this, will make people see how important it is to have a trained medical translator who can think on many levels to correctly interpret information – even if that’s not always easy.