Quality assurance in medical translation


Translation and interpreting help mediate knowledge in the world of medicine or pharmaceutical research, but are rarely the focus of healthcare researchers’ attention unless a mistranslation triggers severe clinical consequences, including health or life hazard, or becomes the reason for lawsuits or financial claims. It is therefore crucial to ensure sufficient standards of quality in medical translation and interpreting. This article discusses medical translation quality, translator training and qualifications, translation quality management procedures, with particular focus on back-translation and parallel translation in the light of improving the quality of translation and interpreting for the medical sector. The author presents a model for medical translation quality assurance and provides helpful tips for medical translators.


Although translation does not occupy the most central position in the world of medicine, it certainly plays an important role in knowledge mediation: sharing medical research results, publicising new findings in the international scientific community and marketing new medicinal products and medical devices are key features of this role (cf. Andriesen 2006; Montalt-Resurrecció and Shuttleworth 2012). Apart from books, articles and presentations, translated medical texts primarily include registration documents, such as application dossiers for the registration of new medicines and medical devices, as well as instruction manuals for medical equipment and instruments, and documents for clinical trials.   Medical translators who are responsible for mediating professional communication are expected to have considerable expertise in translation and in a given subject area. What is more, written materials, such as health surveys, patient consents, posters, leaflets etc. need to be made available to foreign patients whose command of a given language may be insufficient. This is frequently performed by medical translators who specialise in professional-layman communication. A separate group of facilitators is constituted by public service interpreters, who mediate communication between professionals, and also between healthcare professionals, e.g. hospital staff and patients.  Therefore, medical translators and interpreters facilitate the communication process between patients and medical professionals because the failure to communicate with a patient may lead to health or life-threatening situations if a physician is unable to obtain information from a patient (cf. Heine 2003).

Medical translation plays an ancillary role in medical research and practice, but it is also worth remembering that medicine is one of the major areas which involve translation:

Medical translation may well be the most universal and oldest form of scientific translation because of ubiquitousness of human anatomy and physiology (after all, the human body is much the same everywhere), the long, venerable and well-documented history of medicine, and the hitherto uniform character of the language of medicine, at least in the West (Fischbach 1998:1).

There is a growing tendency in healthcare communication to focus attention on the patient (Montalt 2012:13; Krystallidou 2012:74-95) and it is now generally acknowledged that there is a need for qualified medical translators and interpreters to facilitate mediation in interlingual and intercultural medical settings, resulting in a number of translators specialising in this particular area worldwide. It appears, however, that the quality of medical translation is subject to improvement, which particularly concerns translator training and qualifications, as well as verification measures applied to detect translation errors in medical texts. That is because quality becomes an issue of vital significance when a translation or interpreting error affects the quality of medical care or reliability of data gathered in the course of clinical trials.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the importance of quality in medical translation and interpreting, to present various methods of quality assurance in medical translation, to reflect on the qualifications of medical translators and to provide suggestions regarding medical translation quality assurance.


The reason why the quality of medical translation and interpreting is so emphasised is the fact that a translation error may trigger severe clinical consequences (cf. Márquez Arroyo 2007:74). Translation errors in scientific articles and presentations may affect an author’s reputation. Healthcare services may be adversely influenced, if translation (or interpretation) is misleading either for a physician or a patient, or if vital piece of medical information fails to be translated accurately and, as a result, a patient’s condition may not be diagnosed or treated properly.


While the main focus of this paper is on translation quality assurance, it is also worth noting the significance of accuracy in interpreter-mediated healthcare communication. Flores et al. (2003) studied interpreting errors, their frequency, categories and potential clinical consequences. Their analysis of audio recordings and transcripts of pediatric encounters in a hospital outpatient clinic shows that errors in medical interpretation are quite common. The average number of errors was 31 per session, and 63% of all errors had potential clinical consequences. Errors were divided into the following five categories — omission, addition, substitution, editorialisation, and false fluency:

Omission: The interpreter did not interpret a word/phrase uttered by the clinician, parent, or child.
Addition: The interpreter added a word/phrase to the interpretation that was not uttered by the clinician, parent, or child.
Substitution: The interpreter substituted a word/phrase for a different word/phrase uttered by the clinician, parent, or child.
Editorialisation: The interpreter provided his or her own personal views as the interpretation of a word/phrase uttered by the clinician, parent, or child.
False Fluency: The interpreter used an incorrect word/phrase, or word/phrase that does not exist in that particular language (Flores et al. 2003: 7).

The analysis reveals that the largest number of mistakes are made by ad hoc interpreters — random mediators who are not trained in translation or medicine, e.g. children, other family members or bilingual hospital staff. What is more, in comparison to hospital interpreters, ad hoc interpreters made more mistakes which could potentially have clinical consequences, and the most frequent type of error was omission. This included omitting questions about allergies to medical products, omitting dosage instructions, frequency or duration of drug administration, omitting significant information about a patient, such as facts from medical history, symptoms or other key information concerning the patient’s condition, confusing drug administration routes, advising a patient not to answer personal questions, etc.  (Flores et al. 2003).

The results of the study seem to be an argument for stricter rules of selecting interpreters, who need to have appropriate skills and expertise. What is interesting, interpreting errors tend to result from lack of attention or insufficient command of language, rather than cultural differences (Felberg and Skaaden 2012), which means that they could be reduced by adequate training, peer observation and feedback sessions. Thus, their potentially dangerous clinical consequences could be avoided.

The study results also indicate that medical interpreters are expected to have adequate command of both source and target languages, and to provide very precise and neutral interpretation of the message — without omissions, additions or expressing an interpreter’s personal views, which are categorised as errors by Flores et al. (2003). This approach means that frequently, total accuracy is expected of medical interpreters, with very little tolerance for any reformulations they might want to use. One of the reasons for the ‘total accuracy’ demand is the concern that knowledge may be distorted in intercultural communication (Montalt 2012:18). Precise rendition is what protects the translated message from being distorted. Frequently, however, demanding accuracy is simply not sufficient: an interpreter should receive adequate training and support in his or her professional development.


An incident which exemplifies a health-threatening potential of an error in written medical translation is a series of knee replacement…

Read more | jostrans.org

Photo credit | Medical Drugs for Pharmacy Health Shop of Medicine by epSos.de on Flickr

Posted on June 11, 2014 in Field of translation

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