The Challenges of Medical Translation in Today’s World

It only takes a pandemic to highlight the challenges and importance of medical translation. Never before in human history have so many medical professionals and biomedical researchers been involved so much in an international attempt to slow down and stop a disease in its tracks; one that has already in a short 6 months killed over 600,000 people, virtually brought international travel and tourism to a standstill and decimated economies, including some of the worlds’ most buoyant.

International medical cooperation depends on rigorous, efficient, professional medical translation as much as it does good science and good medical practice and research. Medical translation is a niche field in the burgeoning global translation industry. Medical translators require a background in science and medicine, not least because of the need for an understanding of medical terminology, but adherence to scientific rigour. 

There are no shortcuts or room for error in medical translation. Medical translators are entrusted with some of the most important communication outcomes in human endeavour, that of communicating how to keep people healthy and alive. Mistakes and miscommunication can cost human lives. 

One of the reasons why medical translation has become so important is that globalisation has broken down barriers of trade and human movement. The development has allowed humanity to intrude on to the world of nature in devastating ways. The proximity of humanity and nature and the incessant movement of people all over the world have allowed pathogens to jump between species much more easily and ultimately into the human species. Viruses that co-exist quite happily and relatively safely in populations of African primates, migrant waders or horseshoe bats, create havoc when they find a new host species as has been devastatingly demonstrated in increasing incidences of zoonotic diseases, such as AIDS, Ebola, Zika virus, SARS, MERS, swine flu and now Covid-19

It’s now not possible for a disease to be ‘eradicated’ in a single nation-state. New diseases find ways to hitch a ride into new population centres. Nations have to cooperate to beat each new disease. Cooperation means scientists, medical professionals, vaccine developers, drug researchers from many different points of the globe communicating, sharing ideas, research findings and ultimately ways to contain and defeat each new invading pathogen. Politicians and bureaucrats in charge of health portfolios and agencies also have to make decisions which are dependent on medical professionals. Lessons learned in Europe or Asia are discussed and dissected in North America and Australasia. The constant communication flow is enabled, at least in part, by professional medical translators.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the importance of medical translation has not been acknowledged before. Every new breakthrough in medical research is normally shared world-wide. Drugs manufactured in the United States or Germany are sold and used all over the world. The correct use of those drugs depends on information being precisely translated by medical translators.

Medical technology is another area where each new advance soon becomes shared across the globe. New treatment techniques and tests are announced every year. Medical breakthroughs in China or Australia don’t stay in those countries. They are picked up and utilised in Sweden and South Africa. Japanese medical research is critically examined and compared to that taking place in Russia and France. 

One of the most challenging aspects of medical translation is the naming of drugs, pathogens and diseases. Many diseases have colloquial names that are difficult or impossible to literally translate. Medical translators have to differentiate between text that is aimed at other health professionals or the general public. The translation of pharmaceutical products, for example, could rely on using agreed international nomenclature, but health information that is to be relayed to the community in a health crisis such as the one that the world is experiencing at the moment must avoid being overly technical and use words and phrases that non-scientifically literate people would understand.

The medical translator, then, has a dual challenge. On the one hand, the translator must be medically literate and be familiar with the medical principles and terminology involved in the subject matter that is being translated. On the other hand, the level of fluency in each of the two or more languages that are involved in translation must often transcend the narrow scientific jargon, and be conversant with colloquial understanding

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