Adventures in Medical Text Translation

Adventures in Medical Text Translation
The translation of medical texts requires medical knowledge as well as language fluency – even the most experienced translator may not be qualified.

We all like to think of ourselves as experts in our field, I think. Certainly I think of myself as an expert in language translation – at least in the sphere of my primary language pairing. People take understandable pride in their accomplishments, and training and experience certainly count and are things you should be proud of.

But life enjoys tweaking our pride, and no matter how smart and expert you are in something there always seems to be another layer to it that shows you how little you actually know – because we’ve long past the time when you could be a literal Renaissance Person like Leonardo DaVinci, someone who is an expert in several fields at once. There is simply too much to know in the modern world for any one person to learn.

Case in point: The translation of medical texts, which I’m not in any way qualified to perform – even in my primary language pair.

The Tower of Babel

You might think that translating medical texts is just a matter of reading a sentence and translating it, like in other forms of translation work. But medical terminology is not so simple – or even in one language. Even if the original text is in Spanish or Russian, there will be terms from several other languages in there – primarily English, Latin, and Greek. This is due to two factors: The historical use of the latter two languages in the sciences, and the dominance of English in medical and scientific spheres all over the world.

The practical result for a translator is that when you encounter an English term in a medical text, you can do a lot of damage by translating it, because medical terms have very precise meanings. If you alter a specific term, it may no longer mean what people expect it to, and errors can be introduced to treatment and diagnosis. In short, an English word in a medical text is not really English. It’s a specific scientific term.

Amateur Translators

At the same time, what about medical students? Young people just beginning their training in another country may have no prior experience of English or other languages, and when they encounter these terms in their studies they may have no clue what they mean. Wouldn’t a translation into their native language be beneficial? But if so, at what stage do you think confuse the matter entirely by doing away with the translation and introducing the ‘correct’ term?

Many medical students wind up acting as amateur translators when they encounter these terms in their texts, rendering them inexpertly into their own language, and this is a very dangerous practice. That’s why I can’t do medical translation – you need someone that not only understands the language pair, but also the medical science it’s describing. It’s the only hope that students have of comprehending these ‘foreign’ terms.

Translation is a humbling discipline – it always shows you what your limitations are.

Image courtesy salon.com