The Curious Case of Medical Document Translation: Big Answers to Big Challenges



The Curious Case of Medical Document Translation Big Answers to Big Challenges

To say that medical document translation is challenging would be putting it lightly. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most demanding fields of translation.

Technological advances and globalization have long been among the driving forces behind the significant evolution in the field of medicine and science. But today, another thing is pushing for more progress. Scientists, physicians, and healthcare professionals are working together to respond to one of the biggest global medical challenges, COVID-19.

They are conducting a tremendous amount of research and tests, which is leading to new findings and getting us one step closer every day to a potential treatment. These key findings are introduced by global players in the USA, Japan, China, India, Singapore, Europe, and Africa. The thing that carries a corresponding need to provide fast and accurate information in different languages to educate and help guide the entire world through such a predicament. 

To that end, medical translation services – translation and interpretation- are striving to cope with the increasingly incoming demand. And, although medical document translation has always had its own sets of challenges, the need to overcome these challenges is immense and pressing now of all times. Unlike any other kind of translation, this one doesn’t tolerate mistakes. It’s not only the effort, money, or the legal risks we are talking about here. There are human lives that could be at stake.

So, what are these challenges, and what could be their possible answers? 

Challenges of Medical Translation

Challenges of Medical Translation

1. Equivalence

Medical document translation, or medical translation as a whole, usually serves two purposes – to provide informative and explanatory content and to advertise companies, their services, and products. While accuracy is the benchmark, these two purposes dictate fairly different translation approaches and strategies to achieve effective communications that meet each’s requirements and demands.

Here, we are especially exploring medical document translation of an informative nature. Accuracy of this delicate type of translation is established as a strict and standard prerequisite, where equivalence, among other translation strategies, is integral to achieve it.

Equivalence shouldn’t be mistaken for literal translation. It’s not about delivering “sameness”, but rather “similarity”, because naturally, there are no two words in two languages that are identical in meaning. In the medical context, equivalence is more about providing equal value and effect in the translated text, with no omission or addition. An expert medical translator will adequately and faithfully preserve the originality of the source text, in terms of content, context, structure, and function, without taking any liberty that might be allowed and more involved in the promotional medical context.

Minor changes for the sake of comprehension and readability might be acceptable, but they are made with guarded care. For non-experts, this poses a real challenge.

2. Terminology

As a very specialized field, medical document translation demands not only linguistic accuracy but also terminology precision – and that’s another vexing problem.


With medical and healthcare documents being riddled with medical terminology and terms, the translation process can be overwhelming and stressful to achieve the most extreme levels of precision and accuracy that are imperative in the industry.

Here are some terminology issues:

a. Spelling Variations in the spelling of the same terms may hinder the translation process. There are medical terms that may look and sound similar, but they have completely different meanings, such as “ileum” (the last section of the small intestine, between the jejunum and the colon) and “ilium” (part of the pelvic bone). It’s easy to confuse these terms, but only a trained eye can spot the difference. The spelling differences between medical terms in American English and British English can also be a key concern. The choice, for instance, between “anaemia” (BrE) and “anemia” (AmE) is determined by the targeted cultural context. Otherwise, accuracy is compromised.


b. Eponyms An eponym is “any word that is identical with or derived from a proper name ”. These terms could be a disease, a symptom, parts of the human anatomy, or a syndrome, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


c. Abbreviations and Acronyms Both shortened forms of words/phrases are very common in the medical field. An abbreviation is a short form of a word where a group of letters is taken from the word’s full version, such as Dr. and aurist., which is the short form of the Latin “auristillae” meaning ear drops. An acronym, on the other hand, is a word formed from the initial letters of a long name or phrase, such as BP (blood pressure) and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Can you imagine the amount of time and effort it would take for someone who doesn’t have in-depth knowledge of the field and its terminology to precisely render these terms!

Abbreviations and Acronyms

d. Drug Names Voltaren” is an anti-inflammatory drug used for pain relief. “Diclofenac” is also an anti-inflammatory drug used for pain relief. But, these two aren’t different drugs. In fact, they are the very same drug. “Voltaren” is the brand name, and “Diclofenac” is its international nonproprietary name (INN). INN is a drug’s official generic name, created by the INN system and the World Health Organization to avoid prescribing errors. Confusing as this may be, it can be equally confusing that some countries have their own INN. For example, the widely known “paracetamol” is commonly referred to as “acetaminophen” in the United States.

Drug Names

e. New Medical Terms In 2020, Merriam Webster updated its dictionary with a list of new terms that developed during the pandemic. Words such as “self-quarantine”, “asymptomatic”, “incubation period”, and more are included in the list. And with more discoveries, trials, theories down the road, the list will just keep growing, and professional translators have to keep up with this pace.

The point is, when it comes to terminology, medical document translation can be quite problematic. It’s best left in the hands of professionals who are capable of drawing from their years of experience and making a smart use of translation tools to overcome these issues. They should also be able to develop various approaches to face the challenges of medical terminology. These approaches range from coining new terms, adapting terms to the target culture, or just keeping the terms. The choice between approaches is based on profound experience and diligent research, which guarantees accurate medical document translation.

Terminology Issues in Medical Document Translation

3. Culture

You might be surprised to know that culture is part of the deal. Medical document translation requires a thorough understanding of cultural differences and nuances. A translation can be accurate and correct but lacking cultural appropriateness, which jeopardizes the whole project. 

According to VOA: “The culture of the community in which something is being translated will largely determine how words and expressions from the source language…. will appear in that community’s language.” The article also exposes one of the cultural concerns while working on a medical translation, namely discussing body parts and sexual healthcare. It could be burdensome to explicitly discuss these matters, especially for a conservative culture like the MENA region.

The necessity of cultural correctness in medical document translation is also present in surveys; for example, where questions related to ethnicity, race, religion, or even alcohol can be sensitive.

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4. Target Audience

Medical translations have complex target audiences. This audience is classified mainly into two segments: medical professionals and laypersons. The complexity comes from the fact that each segment has a specific approach and requirements while translating medical documents.

If the target audience is professionals in the medical field or an academic setting, such as physicians and researchers…etc., the translator should abide by the strict use of scientific and medical terms and jargon. This is usually the case in various medical documentation such as research, clinical trials, and medical reports. Whereas, if the target audience is laypersons like patients or end-users of a medical device, things differ entirely. Language is less complicated and less sophisticated. More familiar medical language is used to make sure that they easily and clearly understand the content, such as the case with informed consent forms. For example, heart attack is used instead of “myocardial infarction” or nose bleeding instead of “epistaxis” .

Target Audience

5. Regulatory Compliance

The medical field is highly restricted by local, national, and international regulations, rightly and understandably so. Medical materials, especially pharmaceutical documents and technical manuals of medical devices, are extremely specialized, complex, and sensitive. The guidelines that govern these medical materials are meant to preserve the integrity of drugs and devices and most necessarily the safety of users. However, this creates a fair share of complexity when you translate medical content.

Professional medical document translation should be strictly fully compliant with a set of regulations, imposed by regulatory authorities such as FDA, EDQM, EMA, and EU MDR, including but not limited to the following:

– Highly accurate translation in terms of content and design
– Clear and comprehensible communications for the intended audience
– Terminology precision
– Submission of translations in a mandatory selection of languages, as decided by the regulatory bodies
– A solid Quality Management System
– Strict data security

Medical document translation is indeed fraught with challenges, but don’t worry. There’s so much out there that can help make the whole thing less stressful for you. The translation industry is competent to respond. Find out more about that in the next section of our article.

Do You Want a Quick and Practical Guide to the 5 MOST EFFECTIVE Solutions to Medical Document Translation Challenges?


Big Answers to the Challenges

As previously mentioned, medical translation has a crucial role in our lives. And, it’s precisely because of medical translation importance, that industry professionals and language services providers are constantly striving to develop strategies and practices as well as acquire resources dedicated to providing answers to these identified challenges and strict regulations to the extent possible. Here’s how!

1. Language and Cultural Proficiency

This is the starting point. The complex needs of medical text translation can be significantly eliminated if handled by professional native speakers. It’s not just about their ability to speak languages fluently and correctly. Rather, it’s about combining their impeccable linguistic skills, and advanced translation skills, with profound cultural knowledge, which makes them able to transcend any barriers and provide flawless and clear communications.

Such competency is the fruition of years of academic study, thorough professional training, and practice. It doesn’t happen overnight, and that’s why experience is another answer to your concerns. Experience, as well as language and translation competency, is primary criteria for accuracy.

Also, ensuring that translators are residents in the country that your medical text is targeting is also an advantage. It gives them the crucial insider local knowledge that equips them to understand the culture of the country, the nuances, and norms, and recognize the context. With such knowledge, they can deliver medical communications that reflect the cultural and contextual particularities relevant to the target audience. And only then, a translated text sounds original and accordingly effective. For this very reason, machine translation is a no-go in this case. Although it might achieve a certain degree of accurate rendition, it would never bring the cultural sensitivity that only a human expert can provide.

2. Subject-Matter Expertise

Another key answer is subject-matter expertise. It plays an equally crucial role as linguistic and cultural fluency to ensure accurate medical document translation.  It’s because subject-matter experts are deeply involved; they have a thorough knowledge and plenty of experience in the field.

Subject-matter experts are a great asset because, thanks to their sophisticated technical knowledge, they have a full grasp of the matter at hand and can efficiently and accurately use medical terminology. Also, thanks to their research and analysis skills, these qualified experts recognize the variations of these terms and how to appropriately employ them depending on the target audience, as well as decently handle any irregularities and exceptional cases. They always stay on the top, immersed and up-to-date with advances in the field and newly developed concepts and terms.

However, it’s noteworthy to mention that the medical field is extremely broad, with a wide range of subject areas and specialties, and medical translators deal with a diversity of medical content. Each specialty has its own unique principles, practices, and medical concepts, and accordingly requires specific professional training. Just because a translator has a medical background doesn’t mean they can translate any type of content. Specialization is a core and efficient solution here that you should consider. If you have a medical paper about neuroscience, it should be assigned to a medical translator specializing in that field. A translator with experience in gynecology, for example, won’t be an eligible candidate for your neuroscience medical paper. 

Subject Matter Expertise

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3. Translation Technology

We know that machine translation might be the first thing that springs into mind when translation technology is mentioned. However, the efficacy of machine translation is a controversial debate. It has its own perks, but the shortcomings outweigh them in more cases than not, as we’ve alluded earlier here.

So, does that mean that machine translation isn’t an option in medical settings? The truth is, there’s no one answer here. Machine translation isn’t an ideal option to achieve accuracy when it comes to medical document translation. With the previously mentioned terminology issues, what is indispensable is a subject-matter expert with utmost attention to detail and accuracy. However, in terms of consistency, machine translation can meet the expectation.

The answer to this is the integration of translation technologies and human expertise. With automated translation, you can have a huge amount of content translated, saving you both money and time. However, the output will be just raw and will require human intervention to refine and sharpen it, so it’s highly precise, consistent, and polished.  Translation memory, computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, and glossaries also offer an extra layer of quality and consistency to medical document translation. These tools aren’t just a translator’s best friend but yours as well. If maximizing quality and minimizing cost and time is what you seek, then these tools are the answer.

4. Back Translation

Language services providers have worked on a quality procedure known as Back Translation, an essential legal and regulatory requirement for organizations and institutions, like Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Ethics committees. Back Translation refers to a process of translating a document, which has already been translated into another language, back to its original language.

It might sound unfamiliar for many people who may also wonder how this can help. The answer is simple; back translation allows identifying flaws of translation and adding the naturalness of a language, thanks to the fact that it is performed by an independent translator who hasn’t been previously exposed to the original text.

5. Expert Language Services Providers

Because accuracy is paramount in medical document translation, the answer to all medical translation problems is sometimes as simple as to trust an expert. There’s a lot that should be taken into account for this type of translation, and it’s why it can’t be a one-person job.

The best option is to use the help of a reputable language services provider. Here’s a glimpse of what they are capable of offering you:

– Certified and compliant translations
– Large global teams of language professionals, editors, and proofreaders
– Subject-matter experts with experience and specialization in different medical areas
– Reliance on advanced translation software and technologies
– Strict adherence to a rigorous quality management system
– Efficient project management
– Data confidentiality

Don’t underestimate the power of a translation agency with experience in the medical field. Their years of experience, technological capabilities, teams’ proficiency, quality control procedures, and knowledge of the regulatory framework hugely lift any burden that you might be carrying around. They’ll know how to help you and deliver outcomes that meet the industry standards as well as your expectations. 

Expert Language Services Providers

Final Thoughts

Medical document translation is demanding. Challenges are inevitable, but there are always answers to respond to them. With language professionals who are subject-matter experts and with rigorous quality control in place, your medical document can be everything it should be: accurate, effective, and compliant.

At bayantech, we believe in the paramount role of subject-matter expertise in technical translation, and specifically medical translation. Our medical translation team includes in-country native-speaking translators and linguists with subject-matter expertise and excellent understanding of your target culture and audience, relentlessly working to deliver accurately translated documents, while conforming to ISO 9001:2015 and 17100:2015 certification standards as well as the industry’s confidentiality and regulatory requirements.

Contact us to learn more about our medical translation services and discuss your project with our team.

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