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Fundamental ideas for getting optimal results.
Do you work for a company producing medical equipment that needs an IFU translated into Russian?
Are you a parent who wants a medical record for your sick child translated from Russian into English?
Regardless of who you are, you’re reading this article to get the translation right.
And that’s a good start.
So, let’s delve into the basics of what makes medical translations great.
You can also watch this 5-minute video which provides a summary of this article:
I’d say medical translation has the highest quality requirements of all translation specializations.
That’s because inaccurate translations can lead to injury or loss of life for patients. Or result in costly legal proceedings.
The risks you face as a buyer are extremely high.
Do you want to save a few pennies only to live the rest of your life with regret of causing someone’s death?
If not, commit to doing two things:
First, invest a lot of time into finding a great translation team.
Second, come to grips with the fact that their services might not be cheap.
More than a decade ago, a potential client asked me about a medical translation. All it took me to get their business was sending a few bits of information and my rate. Although it worked out well for that client, that’s not how you should choose your translation team.
Do you think there are many people genuinely capable of translating from one language to another?
Well, the state of Oregon came up with a very eye-opening statistic about that. According to National Public Radio’s insight, Oregon has about 3,500 medical interpreters, but only about 100 of them have been found to be capable of high-quality work. That’s just 3%.
It might sound surreal, but it’s true. And it means that an excellent translator doesn’t just land on your lap. You need to work hard to
get someone out of those 3%.
These are two important steps you need to take:
Become a savvy buyer by reviewing many different options. Don’t settle on what comes up first in search results.
Study candidates’ expertise by reading their website thoroughly. Does it reflect the breadth of knowledge they have about translating medical texts?
Contact them to see how customer-focused and responsive their communication is. Challenge them a little bit: voice your quality concerns and see how they react.
I realize this might sound unwieldy if you don’t know Russian, but it’s not that hard really.
To do so, you need two teams. The first one will do a sample translation. The second one will review it. (Or it can also be someone from your company who knows Russian.)
By getting an independent evaluation on the sample, you’ll have objective information for making a decision. And this review will cost you a fraction of what you might lose if you make a wrong choice.
One thing I love about testing is how it quickly removes the marketing facade that plagues the translation industry. Since it’s hard to differentiate, everyone goes to great lengths to create compelling marketing messages. But there’s often not much expertise to back them up.
For example, when I test Russian translators, I might look at a candidate’s qualifications and get excited. He might have an impressive list of clients and projects. But when he submits a sample translation, guess how high are the chances that it’s high-quality?
You already know the percentage.
Here’s another true story about how some translators think about quality.
In a sample I’ve checked recently, about 70% of commas were missing. That looked unprofessional to me, but not to the candidate. He commented that if I was so picky, my business wasn’t worth his time.
Translation buyers might also run tenders that invite translation agencies to participate, including doing sample translations. This is a viable approach as well, as long as your business is big enough to attract agencies.
By experts I mean two types of translators. This is either a healthcare professional who has translated in their field extensively or a translator who has worked in medical translation on a regular basis for about 7 years.
Why is this so important? Translating medical texts into Russian requires understanding the original text on a deep level. In fact, I joke that translators have to read the original way more attentively than authors themselves or end users.
Misunderstanding means literal or, worse, inaccurate translations:
Take this example:
“With simultaneous bilateral knee surgery, release leg tourniquets ten minutes apart to lessen any lung insult that may occur”
I came across this sentence in a translation memory from a project translated by someone else. The translation went like this:
“With simultaneous bilateral knee surgery, release leg tourniquets ten minutes before the operation…”
But what the author meant was:
“release the tourniquet from one leg and wait 10 minutes before releasing the tourniquet from the other leg.”
This actually takes place after the operation, but not before.
This translation was printed in the manual distributed to Russian-speaking doctors.
So, to translate this sentence correctly, you need a translator who understands the basics of this surgical operation.
If you see offers from doctors who are translators, don’t scratch your head thinking why a doctor would want to translate on the side. That’s because their salaries in Russia and CIS countries are much less compared to US or Europe.
I’ve been using the term “translation team” consistently so far for a good reason.
Firstly, it’s broad enough to mean both a group of freelance translators and a translation agency.
Secondly, and most importantly, it shows that you can’t rely on a single translator. And that’s not because she might go on a long vacation or be busy with other projects. The reason is that each medical translation must be done by one translator and revised by another one.
I didn’t invent this. It’s a requirement of the translation standard EN-15038.
And unlike formal requirements of similar standards, it’s deeply rooted in reality.
Humans are prone to blind spots and errors.
Take for example, confirmation bias.
While working on a translation, a translator assumes one term means a particular thing when they come across it the first time. From then on, they’re tempted to ignore all evidence to the contrary, i.e, that it means something different.
That’s where the second pair of eyes comes in. The second translator (editor) doesn’t have the same biases and can look at the translation critically, with a fresh eye, to detect all kinds of errors that the first translator overlooked.
This review comes full circle when the editor submits their comments or edits to the original translator. The translator checks them to undo any errors introduced by the editor.
Depending on how good these two are, such double-checking can reduce the risk of errors by up to 99%.
To give you an example, I had a project where the client extracted the text out of an Adobe InDesign file and had me translate it.
Then they inserted the translation back into the Adobe Indesign file.
Here’s where human error intervened. The DTP specialist forgot that before sending the text out for translation, he had inserted a few machine translations here and there, just for testing purposes.
As a result, he kept those worthless translations, failing to replace them with my translations.
Some time later, the client received complaints about incomprehensible translations. When they questioned the quality of my work, I found, much to my surprise, these leftover machine translations.
Morale of the story? Put the translation before another set of eyes to minimize human error.
Unless you have a translation to be done in many languages, you may prefer smaller translation teams to larger agencies.
Now, I don’t have anything against big agencies, because they tend to do a really good job in the area of multilingual projects. Yet, there’s a tangible quality risk.
For example, in an attempt to cut project management costs through automation, some larger agencies moved to a controversial process of assigning jobs to translators.
Initially, an agency approves many translators for translating medical materials. Then, it adds these translators to a mailing list and every time it has a new job, it sends it to everyone.
This means that a particular job may go to, say 100, translators.
With this process, the agency pursues three goals:
First, it wants the quickest answer possible. This means that the translator is chosen based on the “First one wins”: who clicks the “I accept the project” first, gets the project. So, it’s not the most qualified translator, but the quickest to click the button.
Second, it wants to automate the process as much as possible. This means that a project manager doesn’t sit down to select a translator thoughtfully based on their experience. It’s really a random process.
Third, this process may encourage translators to compete on the price by suggesting a price lower than offered by the agency. But lower translation price almost invariably results in low quality, forcing the translator to make up on the volume what they lose on the price.
This efficiency-centric approach is not built with customer in mind. You can’t be sure that a highly-qualified translator is selected to work on your translation. In the same vein,, you can’t expect consistency if you have materials to translate on a regular basis: they will be translated by different people all the time.
For a more customer-centric approach and consistency, consider smaller agencies or freelance translators.
They specialize in just one language or go even deeper, focusing on a specific filed—medical translations in this case.
Engaging freelance translators is also a good option, as long as they have someone review their translations each time (team, remember?) Or you may arrange such review yourself.
Besides higher quality, your benefits from cutting out the middlemen include lower costs, faster turnaround, and better communication.
With impressive advances of machine translation (MT) technology in recent years, you might be tempted to go for this type of translation.
I totally understand it since these translators are lightning-fast and free.
Yet, I need to caution you. The quality risks are huge, and I’ve already mentioned them. But let me stress it once again, because it’s so important.
An error in a user manual for a home appliance may be frustrating, but not that critical. A blooper in a medical IFU, though, can have a major negative impact on health of patients and your brand.
Along the lines of my knee surgery example, German surgeons made 47 failed knee replacement surgeries in 2006-2007 according to K-International’s list of mind-blowing translation bloopers.
The “non-modular cemented” femoral component became “non-cemented” in the translation, which is the exact opposite.
If highly-trained and certified human translators make errors like this, can you expect an automated translator to be flawless?
If you still want to explore your MT options, let me offer a few ideas.
Don’t use generic services such as Google Translate. Although they do great with simple content, they are no good at translating specialized medical texts.
To leverage this technology most effectively, build your own translation system, training it with your existing translations and terminology lists.
If your source document is not a plain-text file, e.g., an Adobe Indesign file or a scanned PDF, an MT system can’t prepare it for your or do post-translation DTP and proofreading. You’ll need human involvement for that.
Finally, set up a process where machine translations get revised by a professional translator.
One area where this revision will add value is detecting errors in the source text to which the computer is blind.
For example, in a long-term pharmaceutical project, we translate scanned PDFs converted into Microsoft Word files for translation. The person doing the conversion looks at the PDF and re-creates the text and formatting it in Microsoft Word.
However, because they rely on the OCR technology that’s prone to error, errors fall through the cracks all the time.
For example, one document had a list of language codes:
Notice how “ES” became “E5” in the Microsoft Word file.
Of course, I translated it into Russian as “Испания,” and it was saved to the translation memory this way.
However, in a project a year later, I came across a very different instance of “E5”:
The translation system matched this “E5” to the old translation memory unit automatically, translating it as “ES.” By marking this translation as a 100% match, the system also signaled that it was 100% confident in this translation.
This shows you how blind translation software is to human error. That’s why a review by a human translator is crucial.
Finally, I’d trust MT system with non-critical content only. For example, MT might be okay for internal documents, but less so for client-facing materials.
Otherwise, you might end up in a courtroom paying millions in damages and legal fees. Or face a crying mother.
Try to follow some of my advice as you’re looking for a medical Russian translation partner. This will ensure that your translation gives you optimal results. A great team will also keep you out of trouble in the legal and reputational sense.
If you feel you need help with this, just contact me. I’d be happy to give you a free quote or consultation to steer you in the right direction.