And how did you manage to specialise as a medical translator without a medical education? This is the no. 1 question I get thrown at me from all angles on a regular basis. Which is why I plan to retrace my steps and turn back the clock to when I jumped in at the deep end 20 years ago, naturally committing all the faux pas typical of a naive and overeager young beginner. For the sake of brevity, in this blog post I will discuss only three of the most common hurdles in medical translation I have had to jump over in these years, that truly affect the quality of your end-product.
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A few years back, I was faced with the translation of English marketing questionnaires directed at Italian dentists about alternative methods of dental treatment involving the use of invisible and removable teeth aligners. In a number of standard questions vagueness was the operative word, which of course proved particularly taxing in translation.
‘Clear and removable aligners should be replaced every other week.’
‘Should’ is an extremely vague term which could imply anything from ‘must’ to ‘it is recommended’. Was it a suggestion or an actual medical requirement? In the end, after researching the product itself and consulting a few orthodontic specialists, I decided to opt for the latter and translated this sentence as:
‘Gli aligner trasparenti e rimovibili devono essere/vanno sostituiti ogni due settimane’
[Clear and removable aligners must be replaced every two weeks]
My choice left no room for doubt as to the exact standard procedure to be followed. Incidentally, I was later faced by the opposite problem in the translation of a potential clinical trial undergoing evaluation by the Ethics Committee. The research investigator and/or sponsor was requested to fulfil an endless list of bulleted requirements and this time it was the term ‘must’ that posed a dilemma:
‘In particular, the trial investigator and/or sponsor must:’
After much debate, I gathered that although a translation as ‘deve/devono’ might represent a literal solution, on close examination of other clinical study protocols, a different register was called for in Italian:
In particolare si rammenta allo sperimentatore e/o sponsor:’
[In particular, the trial investigator and/or sponsor is/are reminded to:]
So I discarded the ‘must’ option in favour of a more firm definition, able to reflect the formality required in Italian. However, even if it means stating the obvious, unclear or vague source texts are a disaster waiting to happen and ambiguity of the translated text should be avoided at all costs.
As I found out at my expense, another drawback in my profession stems from the alteration of important information. Take something as apparently straightforward as the numeral system. Since commas and dots occupy a different position in English and Italian numerical digits, be sure to bear this in mind when translating medical graphs, charts and statistics in medical articles or research papers. Similarly, always remember that when omitting / inverting / altering any decimal point, number, sign or character in crucial patient dosage information you may end up suffering catastrophic results!
Mistranslation due to misinterpretation of content
It is a well known fact that a number of medical terms may share more than one meaning depending on the context in which they are used. For instance, ‘discharge’ may refer to the emission or secretion of bodily fluids. Depending on the context, it may also refer to the actual act of dismissing a previously hospitalised patient. It follows that to produce an adequate translation you need to have an appropriate understanding of the original text in question. You should be able to distinguish, for example, between ‘arthrosis’ and ‘arthritis’ and between ‘urethra’ and ‘ureter’. Along similar lines, you should sense whether the term ‘osservazione’ (‘observation’) means ‘clinical observation’ or simply ‘remark / comment’, possibly placed as an addendum when drawing up a clinical report. False friends are also misleading and should be identified in the early stages. Please remember that ‘severe’ does not translate as ‘severo’ but rather as ‘grave’ when referring to symptoms, conditions or side-effects. The same applies to ‘recovery’, which should not be translated as ‘ricovero’ (hospitalisation) just because it sounds right! And ‘ricetta’ in a medical context, far from having any culinary references (it also means ‘recipe’!) should indeed be translated as ‘medical prescription’. These are just a few choice examples of how the misinterpretation of the original content may lead to an unusable translation.
Naturally, the learning process is long and may take time. Eventually, issues such as the ones described above will become more manageable. Lastly, a keen passion for any particular medical field will more than make up for the lack of medical qualifications and hands-on experience. And, as budding medical translators, you should keep reading around the subject and try and learn from your many, inevitable mistakes.