On a trip to France years ago, my aunt was treated by her hosts to a hearty meal, at the end of which, feeling happily stuffed, she smiled, patted her stomach, and announced, ‘Je suis plein!’
She was bemused when her hosts seemed slightly shocked by this turn of events – had she inadvertently criticised the quality of the food? In French culture, could there be some taboo on enjoying a full meal she didn’t know about?
She understood very well the meaning of the word ‘plein’ – and there was nothing wrong with her grammar. So what had gone wrong?
Of course, not being a native speaker, she had no idea she had just told this mild-mannered elderly couple that she was pregnant – and in an indelicate turn of phrase the French usually reserve for farm animals!
This situation was quickly cleared up, and everyone had a laugh. But this medical mistranslation might in other circumstances have been far more serious!
The calling of the medical professional is a noble one, and one which traditionally transcends national borders – exemplified by Medicins Sans Frontiers and the sharing of medical trials data from all over the world. In fact doctors and pharmas enjoy a level of cooperation which is probably the envy of every other industry.
Not only do life science companies and doctors need to have a precise understanding of what patients are talking about to describe adverse events in medical trials, it’s essential that side effects are described in a way that people can understand in the disclaimers most countries demand on medicine packaging.
Speed and accuracy are critical, so that researchers can determine which treatments are beneficial for patients – and which carry risks. Medical transcription, translation and interpreting are almost as technical and challenging as medicine itself, and the names and medicines involved require a high level of familiarity with pharmaceutical terms and conventions and polished research skills so you can tell your pembrolizumab from your patritumab deruxtecan.
That’s why we require all of our linguists to have relevant qualifications for the content they are translating (or interpreting).
But technical knowledge isn’t everything. Translators and interpreters of medical content often need to have a good idea of how native speakers express themselves when they’re explaining their discomfort – especially when there’s a tendency to use colloquial terms or indirect language that might not have an exact equivalent in formal discourse, or when patients lack the proper vocabulary to communicate precise problems.
A stomach ache may refer to anything between the neck and the thigh, depending on the language and culture involved, and a head-ache might easily refer to anything from mild discomfort to a debilitating migraine. As a result, badly translated patient interviews and field research with physicians can sometimes be like a game of Chinese whispers, where vital symptoms may be miscategorised or misreported.
As with our French example above, even someone who considers themselves fluent can end up making very basic mistakes involving euphemism and slang. The only real guarantee is to have native speaking medical translators based in your target community, with an intimate understanding of the language.