Medical translations

23.05.2013
Medical translations

Medical translations: from linguistic to cosmetic errors

Treatment errors are partly to blame on inaccurate translations.

A report drawn up by health insurances shows that, in 2011, about 4,000 cosmetic errors were committed in German clinics and doctors' practices. However, it is not always the doctors who are at fault. Some of these mistakes are down to incorrectly translated case files and reports. According to a US study, some 1,500 of 30,000 medication errors examined are down to unclear abbreviations. For this reason, translation agencies are increasingly falling back on trained doctors, who have precise knowledge of the numerous abbreviations in the medical field and are also familiar with synonymous designations.

"Every incorrect translation in the medical field can ultimately result in misunderstandings or   serious mistakes can occur," emphasised linguist Dr Anna-Katharina Hüging from the translation agency Alphatrad. The translation scientist works, among other things, as an assistant lecturer at the Seminar for Translation and Interpreting of the Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg and specialises in general language and medical translations. In her dissertation, Hüging discusses, in particular, the translation process in the medical field and shows possibilities of simplifying the translation of such specialist medical texts.

How complex a medical translation is becomes clear from a study conducted by Hüging: On average, every one of the 14 test persons used six research samples and retrieved 14.8 pages during online research. It also becomes clear from the study what kind of mistranslations can arise. As such, in one case medullary thyroid cancer was translated as Rückenmarkskrebs (spinal cord cancer) instead of the correct medulärer Schilddrüsenkrebs (medullary thyroid cancer). Such extreme cases are rare, but they show how fatal a deviation from the original content can be. Hüging also refers to another example that occurred more frequently: for instance, the English term ‘mild dementia’ is often translated as milde Demenz. "The correct translation would, however, be leichte Demenz. This precision is very important in the diagnosis and  subsequent treatment," explains Hüging.

Hüging's study confirms the significance of specialist translators: Graduate students of a translation course with a supplement subject in medicine fared best. Here, it is not sufficient to employ doctors with a certain feeling for foreign languages. "The distribution of mistranslations shows that the discipline of translating needs to be scientifically taught and learned also that a correspondingly trained translator is to be preferred over a linguistically adept doctor," says Hüging.

The international language for medicine is and will remain English. "Typical sources for error are, in particular, synonyms, abbreviations and neologisms," explains Frédéric Ibanez, owner of the Alphatrad translation agency. Hüging also confirms this: "The medical specialist language is characterised by an increasing variety of terminology." In addition to the numerous synonyms, there are also older and newer terms. "Not every synonym is to be used in the same way, and there are also abbreviations with a similar meaning," continues Hüging. According to the linguist, they continue to increase in particular in medical use. It becomes problematic when several abbreviated forms exist for one term. Abbreviations are often also wrongly translated back into the original term. The same goes for neologisms, which are also becoming evermore  frequent and are documented in dictionaries and lexicons.

Serious mistakes can also arise from texts in the area of medical technology. Here, wrong or misunderstood wordings in  instruction manuals can result in damage to the devices or even in an incorrect application. Switzerland's Heinz Stampfli AG sells devices for the area of emergency and medical technology. The company has its product descriptions translated into French, Italian and English by Traducta. "A mistake in the description of a defibrillator can result in a wrong application," explains Claudia Widmer from Heinz Stampfli AG.  . . Engineers with training as translators or, translators who have specialised in medical technology tend to exist here. This is the only way to ensure that the translation is free from mistakes and unclear wordings.

Published in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt, 18 January 2013