How Professional Translation Services can Help the Health Sector

Last Updated On: February 7, 2018

inTranslation Tips

Professional Translation Services

A prominent medical journal recently outlined a worrying aspect of informal translation and interpreting that probably goes on all the time in many hospitals today, especially those that serve multicultural and, more importantly, multilingual communities.

The issue of Medical Care basically made the case for spending more money on professional translation services rather than trying to save money using untrained staff. In the long run, according to the article, the benefits mean that far fewer mistakes are made with diagnosis and treatment and this translates (no pun intended!) into far fewer lawsuits and an overall long term saving for hospital budgets.


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The article described how a use of informal translator and interpreters, rather than professional translators and interpreters, led to important and deeply worrying clinical mistakes. The article was based on a cross-cultural study made not just in a single country’s medical system, so presumably the problem is widespread.

Who are the journal’s article writers referring to when they mention “informal translators and interpreters”? They are just about anyone who happens to be around and who claims to be bilingual or multilingual. Just imagine the ward orderly who has been to Thailand a few times on holiday suggesting that he or she is capable of understanding the symptoms of an elderly Thai patient in an Australian or U.S. hospital!

Or it could be a genuine bilingual relative whose language ability is quite sound, yet does not have a solid familiarity with medical terminology. That is a reminder that when Medical Care is describing the need for good medical document translations to be done by professionals, they should be well experienced in the medical field as well.

The figures are certainly disturbing. It seems that the researchers found that the main problems with both translation and interpretation lied with pre-emptive dialogue. While professional translators made around 23 – 25% mistakes with these sorts of text documents, the amateur translation mistakes hit the 54 – 60% level. This means that using the cheaper alternative resulted in twice as many mistakes as the supposedly more expensive option of using professionals. It is hard to estimate the long term cost of these levels of mistakes, but it is certainly not insignificant. For many patients, clinical errors due to informal translation could be personally very costly indeed, even fatal.

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