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Importance of accurate translation in healthcare settings

As we mentioned in our earlier posts, not just anyone can be an efficient translator or interpreter in a medical/healthcare setting. The very livelihood of mass amounts of people relies on this service, which needs to be accessible and accurate to provide any real help. In the third and final section of our focus on the importance of accurate translation in healthcare settings, we focus on what it takes to be a professional medical translator and/or interpreter.

In addition to being certified, a professional medical translator needs:

  1. To fully understand the message, tone and context of the original message or text
  2. The ability to accurately convey the meaning of the translation in the target language
  3. Comprehensive knowledge and judgement-making abilities in relation to the medical topic

Ensuring that a translator or interpreter meets all three requirements is crucial – if one isn’t met, it can easily render the other skills useless or even lead to medical error.

Medical Terminology

Familiarity with medical terminology requires a great deal of time and energy, hence why errors in translation in this field are so common. Especially when the audience isn’t considered, messages can be misconstrued easily. For example, in the United States most people are familiar with the term “chicken pox” and know what that entails. The English medical term for this illness, however, is Varicella. This would be an instance where the same condition should be relayed in different ways to different audiences (patients versus doctors).

Drug Nomenclature

Anyone who has ever had a prescription knows that the real names of these drugs are long and hard to pronounce. Despite many drugs going by different brand names, the World Health Organization has assigned every generic drug an International Non-proprietary Name (INN), so as better to eliminate confusion. However, on top of that, the United States assigns each drug a United States Adopted Name (USAN). Even the attempt to keep drug names simple can make it confusing.

Translators and interpreters need to keep these options in mind when communicating with various audiences.


  • N-acetyl-p-aminophenol (Chemical Name) =
  • Paracetamol, Acetaminophen (INN/USAN) =
  • Tylenol (Trade Name)

Cultural Context

One of the most commonly referenced differences in medical cultural context is the word “surgery”. In the United States, it’s often a scary term associated with a major medical procedure, inherit risks and possible pain. In England, “surgery” is merely the doctor’s office and much less daunting.

Another critical factor of cultural context is cultural belief around illness and the process required to heal.  For example, some cultures do not rely on biomedical methods of problem solving and instead rely on popular, folk modes of problem solving. They may be more inclined to pray for healing and associate their condition to their mind, spirit or home. For the doctor to conduct a full assessment, an interpreter or translator must be well-equipped and knowledgeable about these backgrounds.

Why This Matters

The Huffington Post published an article featuring the following tragic events that resulted from poor translation:

  • After a doctor failed to communicate to her Vietnamese-speaking parents, a 9-year-old girl was misdiagnosed with the stomach flu, prescribed a drug that could have dangerous side effects, and ultimately died.
  • A 78-year-old stroke victim had to have her leg amputated after doctors and nurses didn’t understand her when she complained, in Russian, of pain and numbness.
  • A 7-year-old boy suffered organ damage because his pediatrician couldn’t communicate with his Spanish-speaking father and grandparents and mistakenly diagnosed him with strep throat.

An article published in Health Affairs stated that a quarter of the hospitals with the greatest need for language services did not provide such services in a systematic way, and nearly a third of all American hospitals didn’t offer any language services.

This is an ever-growing need, which will certainly become more integrated into our healthcare systems in time.

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