Medical Translator Ninjas: Saving Lives One Word at a Time … Or Not

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they’re no good.  – Etgar Keret, Author

Translators who do their job well are just as Keret described, stealthily working under a cloak of invisibility; escaping unnoticed. If they are successful, the translation is spot-on and nothing gets damaged in the process, no one gets hurt. But translations with errors can affect our everyday existence – most especially when it’s a matter of life and death.

In all translations, extreme care must be taken to not change the source material so that it is unrecognizable; high quality should always be the goal, but nowhere is translation more important than when dealing with medical translations. [Tweet it] Translators of medical terminology are linked directly to people’s lives and they can inflict severe harm when they don’t do their job well—when they forget to be ninjas.

It is Hard To Be a Translation Ninja

Why? There is no room for error.

In the ever-evolving medical world, new drugs, medical devices and research are announced daily. Tying medicine to the rest of the world are translators. Medical translation actually encompasses a few areas including: (1) academic translation such as research papers and medical journals, (2) pharmaceutical translation which includes research data, clinical trials and new drugs, and (3) medical device translation which consists of the devices’ product catalogs and user manuals.

Far from easy, medical translation requires considerable knowledge and skill. In addition to being fluent in two languages, medical translators also study medical terminology extensively. Depending on the field, translators may need expertise in numerous areas such as medicine, pharmacology, biochemistry, genetic engineering, chemistry and physics.

Besides knowledge, medical translators must consider their audience. Are they translating for lay people or medical colleagues? They must deal with medical jargon that is not standardized across languages, which requires translators to know multiple names for conditions. For example, Infantile Scurvy has six synonyms and nearly all of them are eponyms, which are difficult to translate. (An eponym is a person, place, or thing for which something is named).

Also, medical translators need to know how formal or informal the translation must be and need to stay abreast of the latest medical terminology. All of this expertise causes translators to be a bit like doctors who take the Hippocratic oath. In their work, translators need to ensure that they too “do no harm.” (Interestingly, the modern Hippocratic oath, “first do no harm” was never translated as such. It is more accurately, “I will keep them from harm and injustice.”)

Medical Translation Ninjas Save Lives

You may have heard of translators saving lives. Take Translators Without Borders (TWB). TWB volunteers worked with the World Health Organization to dispel the myths surrounding Ebola and educate citizens of West Africa. They traveled to Nepal after last year’s earthquake to translate documents and social media messages in an effort to inform locals on first aid, health advice and where to find family members.

Other medical translators are saving lives right here every day by doing outstanding work. We never know, because they do their work well. But what happens when translators create harm and injustice?

Medical Translation Mistakes Cause Harm

There have been medical translation mistakes that didn’t inflict injury. One medical device manufacturer gives a few examples. “Plumbing pipe” was the phrase used to describe “cannula,” a narrow tube that moves fluids from one part of the body to another. Another phrase “solution for a patient,” was translated into “dirty water.” These were misconstrued from context, but what about other times where real damage occurred?

In 2007, British ex-patriot Teresa Tarry underwent an unnecessary double mastectomy while in Spain after a translation error on her medical records caused her doctors to believe that she had a family history of breast cancer. Tarry’s family does not have a history of cancer, so the surgery was needless.  In fact, the lump Tarry had was benign! This 8-year ordeal caused Tarry her job. She describes it as confidence-shattering and devastating. She is suing the hospital for negligence.

In 2006, incorrect medical translation caused botched knee-replacement surgeries in Germany, harming 47 people. There are two different types of knee prosthesis available, some use cement, others do not. The label on the package of the prosthesis included the information that the femoral component was “non-modular cemented,” which was incorrectly translated as “non-cemented” or “without cement.” Thus, over a one-year period, doctors were unaware that they were implanting the knees incorrectly. A very basic translation error caused undue suffering of many who had to undergo this painful procedure and recovery twice.

In France, four men died after receiving radiation treatment for prostate cancer. Apparently the medical staff translated the dosages themselves. The dosages were 20% above the needed amount. Was the software they were using to blame? Perhaps they should have used a translator and a proofreader before administering the treatment.

Besides a real desire to do no harm when in a role that directly affects someone’s life, more is needed. Strict quality control. Cultural sensitivity. Deep understanding of the correct terminology and the languages involved. All of these are crucial when dealing with people’s lives. Medical translators affect our everyday existence – most especially when the words they choose to use are a matter of life and death.

Ilona K‘s earliest memories center around writing. She wrote and illustrated her first novel when she was eleven. Her latest creations include website user guides for the Federal Aviation Administration and blog articles for a language service provider.

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