Do you have to be a doctor to do medical translation?

With increased volumes to be translated in the 1990s and the growing computerisation of the profession, the translation sector has specialised, subdividing into various disciplines, such as a technical specialisation (in relation to the industrial sector), legal specialisation, IT or marketing specialisation, and a medical specialisation.

Medical translation uses terminology that is complex perhaps moreso than in other areas of specialisation (although this is disputable). In any case, it is preferable to entrust medical translations to a linguist trained in the intricacies of this terminology. It is also important that the translator has a deep understanding of the ins and outs of the texts they are translating, and a medical background is an undeniable asset.

However, we are sometimes asked if we work with health professionals, and in particular, if we work with doctors. As a moral and intellectual voice, would doctors be better translators?

Does a good doctor necessarily make a good linguist?

Working with a doctor may sound reassuring, especially when it comes to terminology use. However, in the same way that a good engineer would not necessarily know how to correctly translate the user manual for their machine (which they can nevertheless handle perfectly), a doctor would not necessarily have perfect command of the English language, a focus on consistent use of terminology and the reflexes that guarantee a quality translation. Medical translation requires skills beyond following a glossary and correctly matching source words to target words. It also requires excellent general vocabulary, syntax, punctuation and rewording skills. And a more insidious pitfall is that a doctor might be tempted to add their own spin to a text in a field the know well, rather than remaining faithful to the source text.

Two very different jobs

The “medical” field is also vast: biomedical translation, the translation of medical device documentation, clinical studies, medicine package inserts, medical marketing brochures, orthopaedics, oncology, dermatology, etc. The world of health is varied, and each sector is different. What is the specialisation of the doctor you have chosen?

Other aspects should be taken into account: does the doctor translate on a regular basis? Like in gymnastics, a lack of practice leads to a loss of “flexibility” and agility when translating. How fast can they translate? Translation speed directly influences the delivery date and… the price they charge. Because translation is time, and time is money.

Finally, doctors are known for their passion about their profession and the high value they place on patient care. What doctor would be willing to invest long hours in such an impersonal activity, alone with their computer?

Our advice for medical translation

Final approval by a healthcare professional can only be beneficial if it reassures the client. However, we do not recommend working with non-linguist healthcare professionals if you want your medical translation project to be a success.

Over the past 20 years, some universities have offered specialised courses with small groups of hand-picked linguists. Master’s translation programmes specialising in the world of health can train translators specialising in the biomedical and pharmacological fields. Linguists can develop technical, terminology, biological and medical skills, as well as gaining expertise in the document research methods necessary for researching terminology.

They are the true professionals in medical translation, and in the 20 years that we have been working with some of them, none of our clients have had reason to complain!

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