Along the Knife Edge: The Dangers of Imperfection in Medical Device Translation

Medical Device Translation

Of all thfriendly doctore areas of translation, the medical field is quite possibly the most daunting. Whether it be instructions on how to use a particular medication, the manual for a certain medical device, or the history notes of a patient, a translator theoretically holds a person’s life in their hands. With every word comes great responsibility. It is therefore essential that the translator fully understands the text and is particularly precise in their translation. There can be no room for error, nor generalization, and consistency is essential. It is for this reason that images can often be found on drug leaflets, acting as very useful clarification tools and leaving little possibility for misunderstandings.

Primum Non Nocere

It may first appear that medical translation is more straight-forward and perhaps even simpler than other fields. After all, medical terms are usually made up of a Greek or Latin root, with words sounding very similar in either language. Surely once translators have mastered the terminology, translation should be a clear-cut task? Not exactly. There is a danger concerning some terms where one language chooses a Greek prefix, and another Latin, to discuss the same illness or procedure. In French, for example, both mastectomie and mammectomie exist as the term for breast removal surgery, the former using the ancient Greek root mast- and the latter the prefix mamm-, deriving from the Latin. However, speakers of English would be rather confused (as well as alarmed!) if told they had to undergo mammectomy surgery as this term is not widely used. In this case, the English language adopts the Greek and ‘mastectomy’ is the correct translation. Even where the same root is used in medical terminology and the same word exists across languages, there is always the chance of error with minor spelling differences. A medical translator can perhaps never be too much of a perfectionist in their field.

 What’s Your Poison?

There are further pitfalls for a medical translator to fall into when working on medical device translation. ‘False friends’, where a word is assumed to translate directly into a similar-looking word in the target language, commonly lure translators into a false sense of security. Just because words may appear to have the same meaning, this is not necessarily the case.  After sustaining an injury in Spain, for example, you wouldn’t want to turn up at a hospital exclaiming that you had an injuria, as the staff would understand that someone had made a slanderous allegation against you. Instead, in order to tell them about your injury, you would need to use the word traumatismo. These ‘False friends’ occur in most language pairings so be careful when speaking in German if someone offers you a Gift. Rather than the delightful present you’re imagining, you’ll actually receive poison!

Figure this One Out

It’s not just words that can cause problems; medical translation requires meticulous attention to detail in all areas, from abbreviations to figures and even punctuation. The serious consequences of 200g appearing on a translated prescription where the doctor had written 200mg do not have to be explained. An error that may appear very small, such as transcribing 1.50ml instead of 1.05ml, is actually hugely significant. Similarly 1,005 is a very different figure to 1.005, and that’s before we even begin to take into account the effect of someone not realizing the difference between the usage of a comma and a decimal point in English as opposed to many other European languages. For example, 4.358 in Spanish (four thousand, three hundred and fifty-eight) is not the same as 4.358 in English (four point three five eight). Mistakes and mistranslations carry grave consequences in medical translation, and can even be fatal.

Know Your Field

It is for these reasons that translators must be experts in their fields, knowing the ins and outs of the source language the best selection of words to use from their native tongue, and the area of medicine that they specialize in. With such a vast topic it is imperative that translators choose an area of expertise and it cannot be assumed that a linguist who is accustomed to translating within the dentistry domain would be equally as knowledgeable on orthopedics.

Global health care markets have implemented extensive translation requirements for the translation of user documentation, safety documents, and supporting material for medical devices. The demands for each country, market, and product need to be carefully researched before translation begins.

At MO Group International we understand the sensitive and consequential nature of medical device translation and our localization department is committed to finding the most experienced and suitable linguists in the necessary field. Our professionals are tested thoroughly before selection, based on experience. We will work with you to find the most comprehensive solution for your medical translations and are particularly experienced in the translation of instruction manuals for professionals and patients, medical texts and brochures, medical equipment, software, glossaries, and packaging. Your medical device translation will be safe in our hands.

Contact us today to receive a free quote for your medical translation needs.

Zoi Vitsentzou, Localization Project Manager, MO Group International

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