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Medical Terminology Translation – challenges of translating medical terms

Before our now globalized world, there had been a time when nations were isolated. One nation could at a certain age have figured out cures for diseases and written those down in books, while another nation would’ve never been able to comprehend this knowledge, and therefore remain behind. Translation changed all of that. 

Now, no matter the language, any advancement in the medical field can be made accessible to all parts of the world, thanks to medical translators.

Medical translation is discussed in our previous article Medical translation and its importance as one of the most specialized translations that are jargon-dependent, and of course one of the hardest ones. This is because medical translation requires a thorough understanding of how medical ‏terminology works.

This article will dwell more on a branch of medical translation “medical terminology” to discover its challenges, and benefits, as well as some translation approaches. 


What is Medical Terminology?

Medical terminology translation refers to the process of converting medical terminologies from the source to the target text. Medical terminology refers to a wide range of words/ vocabulary/ expressions/ concepts, that are used in the medical or healthcare field. These terms can be anything such as anatomical structures diseases medical conditions operations disease treatments or names of medical devices.


The complexity of medical terminology

Medical terms are complex and challenging which can make medical translation a daunting task.

Translating medical terms requires a solid understanding of their semantic structure. One term could have multiple meanings and interpretations, depending on the context. To avoid misinterpretation, medical translators need to always be up to date with the ever-changing medical terms around them. They are also non-standardized, meaning that they change from one country or sector to the other. In very small medical sectors, specific medical jargon can be used, but because it is on such a small scale, the terminology rarely makes it to directories or dictionaries.


Prefixes and Suffixes 

Usually, we can divide medical terms into three sections the first one is the route which is the basic structure of the word of the word. Secondly, the prefix, which is the section that is put before the root, and thirdly is the suffix which is the section that is added at the end of the word. Prefixes are added to indicate location type quantity quality basically they give more sense to the root word. Unlike the prefix, the suffix has quite a different function because it usually indicates a procedure a function disorder a status of something, or a specialty.

Let’s apply this to these health conditions: Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

The prefix is a determining factor because (hypo) refers to an underactive thyroid gland, while (hyper) refers to the complete opposite ‘hyperactivity’. 

Read more: Types of Translation

Read more: Top 10 Medical Translation Companies in Egypt


The Importance of Translating Medical Terms 

Medical care is sought by people daily everywhere in the world. Not only medical translation is equally important, but its accuracy too, affects patients and medical researchers on a large scale. Medical mistranslation is not to be taken lightly.


Medical term interpretation

Medical translation can exist on the spot. When a foreign patient is admitted into a hospital where the medical staff speaks a different language, it’s crucial to have a translator who can accurately translate the patient’s needs, and also deliver to them what the doctors are saying.


Solves the issues of equivalence

Since medical texts are of a very sensitive and technical nature, medical terminology translation steps in to fill the language gap, because a medical term in one language might not have a direct equivalent in another language. A medical translator will make sure that each term attains the same exact meaning when translated into the target language. Consistency is crucial in translating technical and medical jargon such as abbreviations, acronyms, anatomical terms, etc.


Translating prescription labels

Translating drug prescriptions is essential in pharmaceutical translation because it provides valuable information for the patient on how to use the drug. Without translation of terminologies, the patient could misuse the drug, take the wrong dosage, or suffer from side effects they weren’t informed of.


Medical Terminology Translation Challenges

  • Highly technical language and jargon.
  • Difficulty in capturing the contextual and cultural nuances.
  • Difficulty in maintaining consistency with abbreviations, and acronyms.
  • Lack of medical terminology equivalent in the target language.
  • An incredibly high volume of terms that can be counted in millions like (UMLS Methaesaurus)
  • Medical terms encompass a wide scope of specialties that are different from eachother (dentistry and Psychiatry) for example, and it has an interdisciplinary nature that doesn’t necessarily confine itself to medical topics.
  • The existence of Synonyms that are used in different contexts and registers like (Major depressive disorder – Clinical depression) or (Hepatitis – Liver inflammation) the former are usually used by professionals, and the latter often are layman’s terms.
  • Dependence on abbreviations can have different translations according to the context: CA refers to (Cancer, cardiac arrest, or calcium).
  • Medical Terms are non-standardized in all countries, what is familiar in one medical sector, can be unfamiliar in another.


How to Approach Medical Terminology Translation

When it comes to medical terms, translators and linguists are equipped with certain translation habits and tools that help them achieve accuracy and maintain consistency, that doesn’t involve binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy:

Firstly, they often consult specialized dictionaries and glossaries that keep medical terminology up to date.

Secondly, for consistency, they use tools like translation memories to make sure one term repeated in the same context is translated into the same word repeatedly because the opposite can result in confusion for medical staff members or a patient dealing with medical content.

Thirdly, they make sure to keep localization in mind. Part of a medical terminology translator’s job is to be aware of the cultural nuances of a given medical document. If not, so many things can lose their original meaning/effect in translation which can result in several things like confusing the reader, misguiding them, or offending them.

Fourthly, we previously mentioned that ‘medical terminologies’ are vast; therefore, translators of those terms attribute each term with a certain memorable image/video that can be their reference whenever they try to memorize that word.

Lastly, they use credible resources to keep their knowledge fresh, like WHO publications, MSD Manuals, Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, PubMed, and IMIA.


Risks of Using AI in Translating Medical Terms

The thought of hiring expensive medical terminology translators can spook clients and businesses away, thinking that machine translation can easily replace them. Well, how far is this true?


Accuracy of Machine Translation

We’ve agreed that translating medical terms requires accuracy. However, machine translation-at least until very recently advanced ones-isn’t famous for accuracy. Machine translation or AI needs to be highly advanced and specialized in order to handle medical texts single-handedly. If not, then it can aid human translators in so far as quickening the translation process. However, it will often require human-machine translation post-editors to review the machine translation and edit any inaccuracies.


Interpretation of Contexts

Aside from the issue of accuracy, machine translation has a bad reputation for misinterpreting contexts, which is a task that can be safely put in the hands of human translators to take care of. Context involves within it the cultural nuances of a given medical text/term. It’s very important to keep cultural sensitivity in mind because medical jargon is not the same everywhere in the world, nor do healthcare systems work similarly in each country. 

A recent example of these cultural sensitivities is how the medical field dealt with the topic of ethnic disparities during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, back then there were assumptions about how people of color were immune to the virus. You can imagine how sensitive it is to translate or even to write proper terms in such a context to refer to a disprivileged ethnic group in a medical context.


Rely on Fast trans medical translation experts

So far we’ve established that medical terminology translation is a task that requires expertise and solid background knowledge. That being said, Fast Trans is there to fulfill any medical translation task that you might be struggling with. As a leading translation company in the MENA that has landed giant clients over the years, we pride ourselves on the ones who found the sweet spot between translation quality, client satisfaction, and a rock-bottom price.

We work with a network of highly skilled specialized translators, including medical ones who can understand your translation needs, provide free translation samples, ensure confidentiality of information, and ensure short turnaround times.

Your journey with us starts here



What are some problems that might occur in the translation of medical terminology?

Translating medical terminology presents numerous challenges due to the specialized nature of the language and the necessity for precise communication. One significant issue is synonyms where medical terms can be written differently but have the same meaning. Another problem encountered in medical terminology translation is the use of abbreviations and acronyms, some of which require context because the same abbreviation is used for multiple acronyms. Additionally, translators need to be aware of cultural and regional differences. For example, the classification of insulin types might not be universally standardized or might have different approved translations in different countries.


What is a big issue that comes with the translation of medical terms?

If one thing, accuracy is the main hurdle when it comes to medical terms translation, because it demands translators to have years of experience, knowledge of different medical specializations, localization of cultural nuances…etc. 


What are the challenges of medical interpretation?

Medical interpretation can be challenging in many ways. First and foremost, is the cultural differences of patients which can influence everything from how they describe their symptoms, to how they receive medical advice. It’s the interpreter’s job to bridge the gap. In addition to that, they can be challenged by emotional and psychological stress because of the nature of the high-stress environment like a hospital ER. Other challenges included: meeting accuracy with speed and attentiveness, and interpreting non-verbal communication of patients or healthcare professionals.

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