Translating Medical Documents Can Mean Challenges for the Translator

Medical Documents

The challenges of translating medical documents are many. Unlike legal translation, it might seem that the one uniting element of medical terminology is that the human body is the same the world over, while the legal world and its laws are usually country specific.

The problem with medical documents and the translating of medical documents is who the audience is. There are often 2 or more different terms used for the same medical meaning depending on who is talking to whom. This is most noticeable when using medical terms for the parts of the body. A doctor talking to another doctor might use the term ‘thorax,’ for example, when the same doctor may simply use the term ‘chest’ when talking to a patient.

Now multiply that complexity by the number of languages being translated. For example, when a Spanish doctor needs to translate a message to a German-speaking patient about the use of a certain prescribed drug, the terms must be well known to the translator, or there could be considerable confusion.

One of the advantages of medical terminology is that it is not a transient phenomenon. Terms that have been used have been around for a long time and are unlikely to change over time. That means that glossaries and registers can be developed which can provide consistency when translating medical documents from one language to another.

The three main registers will provide translated medical terms for:

  1. medical professionals communicating with other medical professionals
  2. medical professionals communicating with patients or non-professionals;
  3. non-professionals communicating with other non-professionals.

An example of the latter would be a news report or magazine article about the prevalence of a particular disease, a new treatment method, or drug being developed. The audience would be non-professional (mostly), while the author would most likely also be non-professional (from a medical point of view, even if he or she was a professional reporter).

An example of the first register would be a G.P. providing a report to a foreign hospital about a mutual patient’s condition.

Medical translation can be made even more challenging when it is recognised that a particular term may have different versions in one language and therefore can be used in one specific register as above, but there may be only one or two versions in the language in which the document is to be translated. This is a reflection of the fact that medical translators do need to be grounded in the medical background of both the two languages they are translating so that mistakes in translation are not made.

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