5 mistakes to avoid in biomedical translation

Published on 24/03/2023

Nowadays, biomedical translation has become crucial. The demand for translation in the medical field is growing.


This is simply because more and more inventions are being developed, such as new types of tests, new drugs and treatments, and new techniques.

When these inventions do a good job, it is necessary to share them with the world. This was demonstrated, for example, during the Covid-19 pandemic!

This is where the medical translation comes in!

Medical translation involves translating medical documents, such as medical recordsclinical trialspatents, and drug instructions, among many others.

It plays a vital role in effective communication between health professionals and patients, especially foreign patients or patients who do not speak the native language of health professionals.

Translating medical information is a complicated process, for which you must take every precaution to ensure that the translation is carried out properly.

Reliable biomedical translations can help to improve the quality of healthcare, prevent medical errors and protect patient’s rights.

However, translation errors can occur and have serious consequences, especially for the health of patients.

In this article, we will share with you the 5 most common mistakes to avoid in medical translation.

1. Using machine translation for medical terms

First of all, the use of machine translation should be avoided in the medical field. 

Perhaps you are looking for a cheap and fast solution to medical translation, but let us tell you that machine translations are not the answer!

While they meet both criteria of being cheap and fast, their reliability is not as secure.

Indeed, due to the complexity of medical vocabulary and specific expressions, the machine translation may make many errors. 

But as we have told you, even small translation errors can be fatal!

Let's take the example of Willie Ramirez:

In 1980, when he was feeling ill, his family decided to take him to the emergency room. 

This is where things get complicated... His family is of Cuban origin, and they want to take him to the emergency room in Florida, USA.

Do you see where we are going with this?

No? So let us tell you the rest...

His family does not speak English, but Spanish.

To describe what Willie is suffering from, they use the word "intoxicado": he is suffering from food poisoning.

But translation is not so easy for the hospital staff!

Indeed, they translated it as 'intoxicated', which for them does not mean 'food poisoning', but 'drunk'.

So according to them, all that was needed was treatment for an overdose and everything would be back to normal; when the alcohol or drugs ingested disappeared..

The situation became fatal when the patient suffered a brain haemorrhage!

The treatment for the overdose taken because of a translation error eventually rendered him quadriplegic.

Do you understand a little better why trusting an automatic translator is really to be avoided? 

Just imagine if he made a translation error like this...

This is actually the case, for example, with Google Translation, which translates "intoxicado" as "intoxicated" which means "drunk". 

If you want to know more about translation errors, please read our article on translation errors in history!

Machine translation algorithms are not able to understand the subtlety and nuance of medical language, which can lead to serious translation errors and put patients' health and safety at risk.

2. Ignoring specific medical terminology

Another mistake to avoid if you want to translate a medical document is to ignore the terminology that belongs in medical translation!

In fact, medical terminology is the key to accurate and reliable translation of medical documents.

It defines technical terms and specific expressions that may be used in the medical field.

In general, a medical word is composed of several units of different meanings, which are often derived from Greek or Latin words.

The units of meaning are the radicals, prefixes or suffixes that allow us to understand the meaning of a word. 

Take the example of the prefix "dis-" meaning "abnormal function", or the suffix "-pathy" meaning "disease".

Only people trained in medical terminology can understand all these units of meaning and can thus translate medical documents reliably and accurately.

In addition, it should be noted that medical terminology varies considerably from one language to another, which can complicate the task of translators. 

Translators must be familiar with medical terms in both languages and be able to use them consistently to ensure an accurate and reliable translation. 

They must have a sound knowledge of medical terminology to ensure accurate and reliable translation of medical documents.

3. Not taking cultural considerations into account

Not only do you need to know the medical terminology, you also need to know the cultural differences that may exist!

Failure to take cultural considerations into account is a common mistake in medical translation.

Culture can influence patient’s attitudesbeliefs and health behaviours.

Let us give you some examples of cultural differences in relation to health:

  • Healing beliefs: some will believe in alternative treatments such as acupuncture or herbs, others will have faith in a religion to heal them, others in more traditional methods such as drugs or surgery.
  • Conceptions of health: some cultures will include in health not only physical health but also emotional and spiritual health, while others will only focus on formal medical care.
  • Conceptions of the family: while some cultures will have a strong inclination to consult family members in making health decisions, others will consult directly with health professionals.
  • Conceptions of time: some will also be more patient towards a healing process for example, while others will be in a hurry to find quick solutions to their problems.

If you want to do a medical translation, it is therefore crucial to take cultural differences into account.

This means knowing about health beliefs and attitudes, but it also means knowing about language differences between cultures. 

Some languages have a more developed medical vocabulary than others, which can make it difficult to translate complex medical terms.

The same applies to grammatical structures, which may be different.

Linguistic sensitivity can also complicate medical translation, especially when linguistic nuances such as undertones or connotations can make it difficult to translate certain subtle medical concepts.

When cultural considerations are ignored, this can lead to problems of communication and understanding for patients and health professionals.

This can lead to poor patient management, poor risk assessment and poor disease prevention.

If you are translating medical documents, it is crucial to take cultural considerations into account to ensure an accurate and reliable translation.

Translators need to be aware of cultural differences and their impact on the understanding and use of medical documentation to ensure patient health and safety.

4. Not being aware of health regulations

Another common mistake in medical translations is not knowing the health regulations.

Regulations can vary considerably from country to country.

It is important if you wish to translate medical documents to be aware of local regulations to ensure that the translated medical documentation complies with legal health requirements.

If translators are not familiar with health regulations, they may unintentionally include information that is not permitted or is incorrect.

Again, this can have serious consequences for patients and health professionals. 

For example, some information on medicines may be considered to be in breach of advertising regulations, which can lead to legal action for the companies involved.

In France, the law prohibits advertising for prescription drugs.

You can also find in the Regulation 2017/745 of the European Parliament and of the Council on medical devices, Article 7: "In the labelling, instructions for use, making available, putting into service and advertising of devices, it is prohibited to use text, names, marks, images and figurative or other signs which may mislead the user or patient as to the purpose, safety and performance of the device".

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that advertising for health products be truthful, fair and not misleading to consumers.

In Japan, the Pharmaceutical and Medical Products Act prohibits the direct promotion of medicines to the general public.

As you can see, there are many considerable differences between countries in the advertising of medical products alone!

The same applies to privacy and data protection regulations.

These are crucial to ensure the patient’s privacy.

If you want to translate a medical document you need to understand yet another element: medical data protection regulations, to ensure that sensitive information is not disclosed or published without permission.

Confidentiality is a key element of medical translation.

Do you want to know why?

Simply because when you translate medical documents, they contain sensitive and personal data about patient’s health.

So you understand that neglecting privacy regulations can have serious consequences for patients, especially with regard to their privacy and safety.

Translators should therefore be aware of the regulations regarding the protection of medical data and sensitive information, such as medical history, mental health information, treatment information, etc.

One should also be aware of privacy concerns regarding information stored on computers and translation systems. 

Appropriate security measures must be put in place to ensure that sensitive data is not compromised.

Finally, translators should be aware of the importance of confidentiality when communicating with clients and other stakeholders.

Yes... Discussions on translation projects should of course be held in private and sensitive information should not be shared with third parties without permission!

If you are translating medical material, make sure you do not tell anyone else outside the translation process!

A thorough knowledge of healthcare regulations is a decisive factor in obtaining a reliable medical translation and in ensuring patient protection and compliance with ethical and legal standards.

5. Not working with qualified translators

All of the above mistakes could be avoided if you use qualified translators...

If you don't, this is another mistake!

Indeed, working with qualified translators is an essential element, if not the most essential element, in ensuring the quality and accuracy of medical translations.

Using translators who are not trained in the medical field and therefore cannot understand specific medical terms and cultural considerations related to health can lead to serious translation errors. 

It is therefore crucial to work with qualified translators who have specific training in medicine and translation. 

For this purpose we advise you to use translation agencies.

Translation agencies such as AbroadLink Translations are an excellent option for medical translation projects, as they often have a team of qualified and experienced translators. 

Translation companies specialising in the medical field can also provide additional expertise in health and privacy regulations, as well as cultural and language differences.

For example, specialist translators will be able to translate "lésions" or "altération” from French into English as "damage".

They will also avoid translating "condition" in English into "condition" in French... They will translate it into the right term, which is "état".

These are just small examples, but as we told you in the case of Willie Ramirez, one word was enough for the translation to be wrong and become fatal...

The qualified translators working in the translation agencies are able to provide accurate and reliable translations that meet the highest quality standards and can be used with confidence in the medical field.

It should also be noted that translation agencies have quality control systems in place to ensure that the translation meets the highest standards.

This is the case of AbroadLink Translations, which has ISO 17100 and ISO 13485 certifications. These certifications ensure that the translation is checked and proofread, that regulations are respected, that customer requirements are taken into account, and that the activity and associated risks are controlled. 

Working with unqualified translators would mean missing out on all this.

Now you can see why it is important, and even vital in the medical field, to use qualified translators? 

Conclusion: 5 mistakes to avoid in biomedical translation

In conclusion, medical translation is a complex field that requires professional expertise. 

Common mistakes such as the use of unreliable machine translators, ignorance of specific medical terminology, neglect of cultural considerations, lack of knowledge of health and privacy regulations, and the use of unqualified translators should be avoided.

Work with a translation agency and you can be sure of a professional and reliable translation that meets medical standards and regulations.

And you will also be sure to avoid these 5 fatal mistakes!

We remind you that these serious errors in medical translations can endanger the health and lives of patients.

It is therefore crucial to be vigilant about the quality and reliability of the translation.

Ultimately, medical translation is a critical area that requires special attention and professional expertise to ensure the safety and quality of healthcare.

We hope that you will now be able to avoid these mistakes when translating medical texts! And if you have any other questions, don't hesitate to ask them in the comments, we'll be happy to answer them! 

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Emeline PADIEU's picture
Emeline PADIEU

Emeline holds a Master's degree in Applied Foreign Languages, specialising in International Management and International Trade Techniques. She completed her end-of-studies internship at AbroadLink Translations and now works there as a sales and marketing assistant

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