While the field of medicine is a science, the disciplines of medical translation and interpreting sometimes have more in common with art than science. These linguists act as diplomat, medical professional and cultural ambassador all at once. Because of this versatility, medical translators and interpreters have the potential to be an integral part of any hospital operation.
The Cultural Divide
While many linguists can perform direct translations of simple medical terms and regular conversation, medical translation involves much more than that. It is vitally important to both the practitioner and patient to understand exactly what is being discussed, and that includes a detailed knowledge of medical concepts and the repercussions of diseases and treatments.
For example, a 2012 article in the Tufts Journal stated that the Navajo have no word for chemotherapy. An interpreter would first have to get the concept of chemotherapy across and communicate the risks and benefits associated with the procedure before the conversation could continue. The doctor would be the one to provide the explanation, but the interpreter would have to flag the unfamiliar concept in the first place.
There are many ways that translation can go wrong. Complacency, haste and emotions are just a few of the complicating factors. That’s why it’s important to have qualified, professional medical interpreters and translators guiding you through multilingual medical encounters.
More Than Words
In addition to knowledge of medical terminology, language professionals have to be able to properly handle issues of cultural taboos. In another 2012 article, the VOA news site reported that medical interpreters must often resort to euphemisms when speaking about sexual health — including body parts — due to African cultural taboos. The process of communicating necessary medical information while respecting cultural norms is a delicate one, and this isn’t always easily accomplished.
The cultural risks of medical interpreting include other, non-verbal cues as well. The VOA article went on to mention a strong gender bias in a certain Maasai community that discouraged women from speaking in public. Neither the doctor nor the interpreter want to alienate the patients and therefore make diagnosis and treatment more difficult, so it’s important for them to be aware of these kinds of considerations.
It should be noted that medical translation risks apply to more than just patient care. Any part of the medical industry that exchanges information over a cultural or linguistic border is in danger of mistranslation.
The Journal of Operations Management published a study that analyzed the difference in quality between drugs produced in the US mainland and drugs produced in Puerto Rico by the same company. Their findings showed that there was a significantly higher quality risk in Puerto Rican plants than on the mainland. The study’s authors believe that this was due to challenges in translating knowledge from the mainland offices to the overseas plants, with the primary factors being differences in culture, language and values.
It is important for hospitals and medical service providers to make proper use of interpreters and translators in order to better facilitate communication. As the above examples have shown, the scope need not be limited to patient care. Any service or department that encounters differences in culture, language or customs would benefit from expert medical translation and/or interpreting in order to convey vital information from one language to another.