Scientific and Medical Translation: 5 Tips

Idea TranslationsBest PracticesScientific and Medical Translation: 5 Tips
scientific and medical translation

The universal aspects of scientific, medical and healthcare fields have a global impact. Translations in these fields are inherently important and complex, since they require specific expertise and knowledge from several professional disciplines.

Acronyms, terminology, units and background are some of the issues to consider when translating a scientific or medical text. How do we ensure an accurate translation in this context?

More than half of the global scientific papers are written in English. Barely 2% of them are written in Spanish.

Source: Instituto Cervantes

This material is usually complex and sensitive because it contains private information and there are many factors to consider when translating it. These are 5 of our practical tips:

1) Changing Numbers, Decimal Points and Units of Measurement

Scientific texts usually include several figures that are expressed in certain units of measurement. This is true in almost every field, and a basic task of the translator is to consider the differences between the diverse systems and uses.

  • In English, we use the decimal point, while in Spanish we use the decimal comma. For example: “Average coffee farms sizes range from 0.5 to 2.5 hectares”, would correctly translate to: “El tamaño promedio de las fincas cafetaleras varía de 0,5 a 2,5 hectáreas”. According to RAE, international standards require the decimal portion of the figure to be separated by a comma. There are, however, some exceptions: In Mexico, we usually follow the United States format and use the period to separate decimals.
  • In order to translate the units of measurement, we need to know the target country —or countries. The United States, for example —where many scientific papers are produced— follows the traditional Imperial system, with units such as the inch, the foot, the yard and the mile. However, most of the world currently uses the metric system. The chart below shows some conversions as an example.

Imperial System Metric System
1 inch 2.54 centimeters
1 foot 30.48 centimeters
1 yard 91.44 centimeters
1 mile 1.609347

The metric system was created in France in the late 19th Century and became the universal weight and measurement units system in 1875. Only three countries do not adopt it officially: United States, Myanmar and Liberia.

Source: BBC

2) Mind the Acronyms

Acronyms are very frequent in scientific texts, because they are used to shorten the name of common parameters or organizations. Acronyms need to be translated to avoid confusions in the target audience.

When the acronym is place-specific —for example, if it refers to a local entity– we can use the original acronym including a translation in the first instance.

These are some frequent acronyms that have an equivalent in Spanish:

English Spanish
United Nations (UN) Organización de las Naciones Unidas
World Health Organization (WHO) Organización Mundial de la Salud (OMS)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Organización del Tratado del Atlántico Norte (OTAN)
International Air Transport Association (IATA) Asociación Internacional de Transporte Aéreo (AITA)

3) Consider the References

When different texts or articles are referenced or quoted, translating these can further complicate the translation process and increase costs. Therefore, the usual practice is to leave the references section untranslated.

It is important to be aware that APA Guidelines state that, when referencing a text in any language other than Spanish, the translator may introduce their own translation without including the original title.

4) Extra Care in Medical Interpretation

This is a very important issue that both institutions and healthcare professionals need to address, particularly in countries with a large non-native population, as the United States. In fact, most regulatory authorities require healthcare institutions to have an interpretation service available for patients, to avoid discriminatory practices.

If the symptoms of a disorder are inaccurately translated or interpreted, great harm can come to patients: misdiagnosis, administration of the wrong dose or incorrect treatments that can worsen the symptoms. In addition, miscommunication may give rise to incorrect prescriptions.

Therefore, the symptoms need to be explained in as much detail as necessary for optimal understanding. If repetitions are needed, they should be requested; if explanations seem insufficient, paraphrasing should be used as necessary.

Often, healthcare centers make do with bilingual employees or even family members, but since these are not professional interpreters, misunderstandings can ensue. It is advisable to work with specialized translators/interpreters who work exclusively in the healthcare setting.

5) Working with Holistic Translation Services

Translating requires a large skill set. It is always advisable to work with holistic translation services that have qualified professional teams and specialized areas to manage any kind of content.

The intrinsic complexity of scientific texts needs to be considered from the beginning; their translation is not a task that any novice can face unsupervised. Making sure these texts are handled by professional translators results in undeniable benefits: it gives us the peace of mind of knowing that we are ensuring optimal results that will protect patients.

You might also like