When an Incorrect Translation Can be Detrimental

November 25th, 2013

Translation is often regarded as a harmless academic discipline, but it has real-world life or death impact around the globe every day.

When an Incorrect Translation Can be Detrimental  | One Hour Translation

As a translation professional, there are a few conversations I have repeatedly with people when they hear what I do with a living. One of these conversations centres on the esoteric nature of my work and how it has no impact on them whatsoever – the idea being that I’m locked in some language ivory tower, and my work has zero effect on them.

This is crazy, of course, and I can never resist telling them in no uncertain terms that they are not only wrong, but very wrong, and that translation work done by me and people like me very likely affects them every day of their lives, whether they’re aware of it or not. In fact, they shouldn’t be aware of it, because a good translation doesn’t scream ‛translation’ when you read it.

A Matter of Life or Death

Translation work is not strictly the work of taking obscure old tomes and translating them so five or six people can read them, or of constantly grinding out localised advertising copy for mega-corporations – though both of those scenarios do make up a small portion of what we do. But translation comes into play in matters of safety and health all the time.

Consider, for example, a major medical instruments manufacturer. They build a machine that can help diagnose patients or test for certain results, and they’re based in the U.S. A Russian hospital wants to buy ten of these machines, and so a translation professional must go through and translate every aspect of the equipment – the labels on the machine, the instruction manual, and work with the software maker (hopefully) to translate the readouts and operating system etc.

Now imagine you’re going into this hospital and they use this machine on you, but the low-paid translator has made a grave error and multiplied a single number – and you are harmed or misdiagnosed as a result. You can see very clearly in that scenario how translation not only affects health, but can even be a matter of life and death.

Goes Both Ways

It used to be that English dominated almost all the sciences and medical fields. The major drug and equipment manufacturers were all based in English-speaking countries and their materials were all created in English. This is no longer always the case; other countries have been rapidly growing their science and health sectors and often originating research, which means that increasingly the best equipment and prescriptions are starting off in languages other than English – and may wind up being imported into the English-speaking market. I like to urge everyone to consider the possibility that the next time they are strapped into a machine in a hospital the operators may be puzzling through a translation from the original Russian or Mandarin. That’s usually when the power of translation hits them.

Image courtesy canopyapps.com

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