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As the world becomes a big global village, and language barriers become more prominent in daily interactions, professional linguists help individuals overcome gaps in communication, no matter which language they speak. Nowhere is this more important than in the medical industry where clear communication can save someone’s life, but also endanger it when it is unclear.


Let’s start with an example. You are translating a patent application for a new drug. “Potassium channel blocker” is a term used throughout the document. Should it be translated to mean a potassium substance that blocks channels, or a blocker of potassium channels? Without the relevant background, the translator is left to his or her own devices, guesswork and a lot of internet research.


Now, if the translator were to choose the first option, the patent would be rejected, costing the pharmaceutical company millions of dollars and significant time. Only a person with a background in neurobiology would know that the second version was correct.

This example shows that simply knowing what the individual words mean is not enough if the context isn’t understood.


Medicine and life sciences are two of the most demanding translation fields. Understanding the source materials and translating them into the target language correctly is of critical importance in order to guarantee that people’s lives are not put at risk.

Whether you are a freelance translator or a translation agency specialising in medical translations, you need to make sure your translated document fulfils two important criteria – accuracy and compliance. For this reason, healthcare companies rely on life science and pharma translation services to get patient brochures, instructions for use, leaflets, doctors’ portals, regulatory documents, websites and all other crucial communication materials for their products translated into the local language with the help of language experts.


The field of medical translation is extremely broad and highly specialised, so much so that many translators do not dare enter it without having some sort of medical background or training. The world of medicine brings with it an extremely large quantity of specific terminology – an estimated 20,000 medical terms alone, not counting names for the parts of the body, names of medicines or names of illnesses. This huge amount of vocabulary – a language in itself one might say – combined with the endless branches and specialties within the medical field and the rapid rate at which science advances, requires highly qualified and experienced translators.


A translator specialised in medical translations needs to be aware that directly translating a text is not enough. Conveying and preserving the integrity of the whole message from one language to another and addressing cultural and social conventions is often required in addition to just translating the intended message.

Depending on what documents need to be translated, and what they will be used for, this adaptation could range from small changes in word choice, to full explanations of diseases or medical practices that the patient may not be aware of.


Medical terminology presents challenges that are different from other specialist translation domains. It is important for the medical translator to carefully determine who the target audience is. An interview with a patient will be completely different to instructions for a surgeon, not just in terminology, but also in tone.


Medical documents vary widely in content and format: prescriptions, package insert leaflets, instructions for use of medical devices, clinical trial protocols, articles in medical journals, advertisements for OTC medication, informed consents for patients, medical records, specialised textbooks, software and installation guides for hospital equipment, patents, and so on. The tone and style used in each of these are different, depending on the type of a document and the audience it addresses. The style used in a TV commercial for a painkiller will not be the same as the style used in the package insert leaflet for the very same painkiller. Similarly, the tone used in the informed consent form intended for patients participating in a clinical trial will not be the same as the tone used in the protocol of the same clinical trial, this time intended for healthcare professionals.

Another common element of medical documents is medical abbreviations, which again cannot be confused with one another. The translator must be familiar with these abbreviations and know how to translate them into the target language. AS, for example is the abbreviation for left ear, AD for the right ear and AU for both ears. If any of these abbreviations were to be mixed up, the doctor could misunderstand the patient’s medical issue.


Drug names need to be given special attention and a distinction should be made between the trade name for a medicinal product and its International Nonproprietary Name (INN). The INN is a unique name designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to a pharmaceutical substance, and it differs from the trade name. For example, when translating Tylenol into Italian, it would help users of the document to know the INN so they are able to identify the equivalent drug used in Italy. Tylenol is a brand name for the INN paracetamol, and knowing this information would help the medical translator accurately translate Tylenol.


Medical translations should also be localised in most cases. Localisation addresses cultural elements such as drug dosages (ounces versus grams or millilitres), acronyms such as BID (twice per day), QD (once a day) or PRN (as needed), shorthand, as well as ways of doing business. For example, most countries address their doctors and medical professionals in different ways. Some cultures still have traditional medicine combined with modern medicine. There are also differences in time, personal space, and the way in which procedures are scheduled and administered.


Last, but not least: medical translations need technical precision. The translator can’t exclude, add or substitute anything. An incorrect word or omission of information can be equally problematic. For example, leaving out key data in dosage instructions can transform a perfectly safe medication into a life-threatening one. A missing word in a patient’s file can change a diagnosis.


In the end, what all this boils down to is: there’s no room for error when people’s lives are at stake. No room for compromises on quality and accuracy. People’s lives may depend on the exact meaning of the words, as they describe medical procedures, the composition of a medicinal product, or instructions for treatment. That’s why medical translations demand nothing less than 100% accuracy.