Interview with Sarah Leonard: The importance of medical translation and its role during the global pandemic

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We have been co-existing with Covid-19 for close to a year now. With case numbers exceeding 3 million in Spain and a total of 110 million global cases (at the time of writing of this post), the virus does not seem to have an end date in sight despite the never-ending efforts of health care workers and the administration of hundreds of thousands of vaccines around the world.

As the virus has swiftly spread across the planet, the need for medical translation services has never been more evident than it is now. This has been confirmed by the Common Sense Advisory study from August 2020. The report describes how the demand for translation services is on the rise in certain sectors. Specifically, demand in the health sector has increased by 49% while that of the medical and pharmaceutical industries has risen by 38%. Conversely, other areas have experienced a downward trend in translation requests, including decreases of 78% in the events sector and 74% in travel and leisure.

Health workers around the world are working against the clock to locate and treat ill individuals. Any relevant piece of news or innovation must be swiftly shared among the international medical community, and that is precisely where medial translation provides immeasurable value.

At Berba, we sat down to chat with Sarah Leonard, a medical translator in our community, about the importance of medical translation and its role in the global pandemic

Why is medical translation essential?

With eight years of translation experience under her belt, Sarah explains that one of the main responsibilities when translating medical content is being aware of the possibility of holding someone’s life in your hands. “Translating medical content, much like other specialised fields such as engineering or legal translation, requires specialised knowledge in the field but, more than anything, I think it requires being a humble translator and knowing your limits”, she says.

“When translating medical content, you could potentially have someone’s life in your hands”

The translator explains that translating a presentation on skin diseases for a dermatology convention is not the same as adapting to other languages information on medical devices for open heart surgery or interpreting a blood gas report.

Entrusting medical translation to individuals without experience or knowledge in the field puts at risk the content and meaning of the information, which can lead to mistakes and confusion. Therefore, “you can never make any assumptions about a term, acronym, or figure. You must be confident in your medical knowledge, be open to asking questions and doing all the research and know when to not accept certain projects because they exceed your abilities or knowledge”, Sarah explains.

Google Translate: 57.7% accuracy in medical content translation

A study from the BMJ medical journal evaluated the accuracy of Google Translate in medical communication and concluded that the platform is only 57.7% accurate when translating this type of content. The study translated 10 medical phrases in 26 languages, finding that 42.3% were poorly translated. Faced with these numbers, Sarah states: “Google translate can absolutely be a danger in medical translation because we are talking about people’s lives and health”; she continues: “Think about it this way, would you want to undergo medical treatment that only offers 57.7% accuracy? Would you trust a pharmacist who is only accurate with your prescriptions 57.7% of the time?”.

Medical translation, a cornerstone during the global pandemic

In the wake of the global health situation, medical translation has expanded and grown transversally to encompass diverse sectors and fields. Sarah highlights that “translators have done an excellent job of ensuring that health guidelines, preventive measures, best practices and information regarding social distancing, hygiene, vaccines, and new strains reach people around the world in hundreds of languages.”

The translator explains how the global pandemic has shone a light on the work of translation professionals and underscored the collaborative and charitable nature of many translators who have worked together to create glossaries for new and ever-changing terminology. Also, to volunteer their time to interpret virtually for hospitals or translate key information for charities and NGOs.

“Many medical translators have worked together to create glossaries and terminology adapted to this new, ever-changing situation”

So great has been the need for medical translation in these times that the translation industry has experienced a significant increase in the volume of translation requests. Sarah points out that one of the sectors that has experienced an uptick in translation requests is companies pivoting to sell masks and sanitising gels, not to mention all the businesses that need their Covid guidelines translated to ensure safe client visits or simply people going to the shops.

Medical professionals with extensive knowledge and experience

At Berba, we understand the scope of the situation so, since March 2020, we have been offering a special translation service for all kinds of Covid-19-related documentation in an effort to expand and improve information circulation and comprehension. These projects are our first priority. Reach out to us at info@berba.net.

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