5 Tips for Medical Translators who want to stay at the top of their game


As a former medical researcher and senior medical translator, I am often hired as a reviewer to ensure that translations are medically accurate, complete and that their tone is adequate to the target audience (usually doctors and researchers or patients).

Having reviewed millions of words and translated millions more myself, I have identified 5 long-term tips that all medical translators could use to improve the quality of their translations.

1. Be curious. This is not the first tip by chance; it is one of the most important attributes of a medical translator. You must be curious, both when translating and not. When you are translating a piece about a specific topic, you should not only search for the words that you do not know, but you should seek to understand the topic thoroughly. Naturally, it is impractical to read all the literature available about a topic in one go, you would never finish any translation job, but it is easy enough to find summaries of diseases and cellular mechanisms online that can really help you when you convert your source piece to a different language. Most of the mistakes I find when reviewing medical translations are not major terms that have been mistranslated, but mistranslation of sentence structures due to a clear lack of understanding by the translator of a drug or disease mechanism. These types of mistakes seem small, but they often render the translated sentence wrong, and you may proofread as many times as you like, if your understanding of the process doesn’t change, you will never detect that error.

2. Read extensively. In the same way that reading promotes better writing in general, reading medical texts promotes better medical writing. Therefore, you should seek to read as much as you can in all your working languages, this will not only expand your vocabulary, but will also give you a better grasp of the tone and level of formality of medical texts in different languages and for different audiences. A medical translator must be discerning and know how to communicate with different stakeholders in the health system, such as patients, physicians, researchers, hospital administrators, as well as knowing the unwritten codes of medical writing for that particular language. The only way that you will acquire these skills is by reading everything medical in your source and target languages.

3. Use glossaries. I have talked about the role of glossaries and dictionaries in a different post and provided lists of dictionaries and glossaries that include medical ones, but as a medical translator you should also seek to create your own glossaries. Whenever you work on a particular topic, make sure you open an excel spreadsheet and insert every term that you research there. If you are doing your extensive reading (tip 2) and come across and unknown term, research it and add it to your glossary. Whenever you receive client feedback on terminology, update your glossaries. Your personal glossaries are invaluable assets, which you will learn to rely on increasingly as your glossaries get better and you become more specialized.

4. Build a network of experts and peers. You will be stuck at some point or another when translating medical texts, particularly when translating in an unfamiliar field. In such cases, you will be grateful for not having to rely solely on your research skills and being able to contact others who may know more about a particular topic than you. Your network should include physicians, researchers and other medical translators with whom you are able to discuss terminology.

5. Focus on what interests you. We all have medical topics of particular interest to us, be it because we have/have had a particular disease, someone we know has a condition, we are touched by an emotional appeal, there is a certain genetic disease that runs in the family, we are having a baby, we have a background in a particular field, etc. Unlike other areas of translation, it is almost impossible not to have some medical topic that we can relate to. When you identify that topic that is particularly close to your heart, you will want to read about it anyway, even when you are not working. Hence, make sure you learn as much as you can about it, and then advertise it as your specialism(s).  For example, in my case, two topics are of particular interest to me, the first is human reproduction. My father is a physician, a reproduction specialist, I was a medical researcher in the field of reproductive medicine and have not only always heard and read about the topic, but also have an extensive network of people who can help me and share information with me. Hence, I make it a point to learn as much as I can about anything related to human reproduction, from contraception to embryology and neonatology. My second topic is clinical trials. I had a melanoma in 2008, at age 26, which luckily, due to scientific advances when I was diagnosed, was successfully removed and no longer poses a threat to my life. This event had a big impact on me, because it dawned on me that had I been born 50 years earlier, the science to diagnose and treat me so quickly might not have been there, and I might have died at a very young age. Since then, I have made it my mission to help make research accessible to all languages so that diagnosis and treatment may advance quicker and fewer people have to die of undiagnosed or untreated cancers. This “mission” drives me to read a lot of research and clinical trials with new drugs and devices, which has given me a good background in terms of terminology and understanding of the mechanisms of clinical trials. I do not translate exclusively within these two topic, but whenever my clients happen to need translations in my specialist topics, I make sure they know how familiar I am with their particular subject.

These are long-term tips that you can apply throughout your medical translations career and they are always certain to improve the quality and timeliness of your work. Good luck!

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