Medical Translation 101

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health “is the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” whereas medicine is the “science that deals with preventing, curing, and treating diseases.” At first glance, these definitions seem simple, yet they encompass such a broad field of knowledge and science that it takes years to master. The same is true for medical translation. It is an art and science all on its own. This blog post will take a look at the requirements of medical translation services as well as the role that is played by a medical translator, giving you a quick overview of the basics when it comes to medical translations.

The role of a translator

A translator’s role is typically to translate an origin language into a target language. While this may seem simple at first glance, after all, we’re talking about translating words into another language, it becomes much more complex when it comes to a medical translation. Such medical translators need to be experts in their fields because one tiny error in punctuation or inaccurate word usage or even an abbreviation could be lethal. This is because we’re not only dealing with the translation of words into the target language. This specialized field also deals with real, live human beings who are facing some type of health crisis and an inaccurately translated prescription or even a consent form to take part in a clinical trial, may lead to fatal consequences. Therefore, the role of a medical translator, who is often directly involved in the medical field such as a doctor, nurse, chemist, biologist, pharmacist, etc., is crucial.

The translation process

The medical translation process is a unique part of medical translation services. It starts out by looking at the source language and identifying all the critical terms, ensuring a completely accurate translation is carried out. However, with terms such as Latin or Greek involved, this may require more than just a simple English-to-target-language translation. What’s more is that punctuation is important. One misplaced comma could mean the difference in a correct diagnosis or an incorrect one. Abbreviations are also paramount in the translation process as they need to be accurately translated for there to be a complete picture of a person’s medical health and history, or the translation of a journal article, results of a medical intervention, etc. As a final point in the translation process, but definitely not the least important, is the concept of eponyms. This refers to diseases which are named after a particular person such as Alzheimer’s disease. The professional medical translator will need to know how to address the critical issue of eponyms, as well.

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Regulations and competent authorities

In the medical field, and in particular in pharmacology, clinical trials for new medication may take between 10 and 15 years to develop. Such trials are often done under very strict regulations by competent authorities such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FAO). When a medical translator deals with regulations and competent authorities, there is absolutely no room for error and simple things like leaflets within a box of medication need to strictly comply and adhere to the regulations for such important documents, which not only list the chemical properties of the medication, but also important side effects and correct means of usage.

Accuracy is paramount

Subjectivity when it comes to medical translations has no role to play in the translation process. This is why it is crucial for the medical translator to make use of textbooks, medical dictionaries, consult experts, and so on in order to provide a truly comprehensive, accurate and objective picture of the document being translated. From a clinical trial consent form, to the results of an x-ray scan, or something more serious, accuracy is paramount. Clinicians, chemists, doctors, and others who are involved in the translation process must not only know the target language expertly, but they also need to know the accurate terminology that’s required for the translation to be effective. The use of precise wording is vital.

Technological translations

medical translation
With the development of our modern world, we have seen a rise in technological advancements. The x-ray machine or various scanners were not invented at the time of the Greeks when medicine really started to take shape. This is why advances in technology are another critical factor to consider in medical translations. Such advances require translation of technical guides on newly-developed machines in the medical field, journal articles by experts in the subject, methods of reading the results yielded by the particular machine, etc.

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Cultural competency

It often happens that nurses and doctors in first-world countries go to developing countries to assist the population with health-related challenges. One example is the medical experts from Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans frontières). However, when they do not know the language spoken, misinterpretations of current medication taken, the patient’s medical history, evaluation of symptoms and other challenges can go awry. Cultural competency is a critical element of a medical translator’s job as well. They will need to know how to speak to a patient properly, taking into account both cultural and linguistic differences, as well.

Avoiding misdiagnosis

As a final, but not a comprehensively concluding point, avoiding misdiagnosis for patients is critical. Looking at all the points mentioned above, it is the ultimate purpose of a medical translation to ensure that no incorrect diagnosis is given to a patient. This could be fatal and lethal and can cause significant harm, which is something that every medical professional has taken an oath not to do. Therefore, correct and accurate diagnosis of patients is a further element of the medical translation process and the medical translator must be able to correctly convey the right symptoms, treatment, medication, and follow-up needs in order for the patient to be correctly taken care of.


While this is not a comprehensive list of all the elements that go into a medical translation, it is evident that accuracy is paramount for a comprehensive translation of medical documents and dealing with real, live patients. Subjectivity has no role in the process and even if a doctor finds that they do not agree with, for example, the findings of a journal article that they’ve been tasked to translate, they still have the heavy responsibility of ensuring that the translation is accurately carried out. Correct wording is vital, too. The use of medical textbooks and medical dictionaries will come in handy for this task. The other challenges that arise with medical translations also require careful attention. With these factors in mind, a more thorough and accurate medical translation will begin to take shape.

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