Medical Translation and Interpretation: Differences and Choosing Guidelines

Medical Translation and Interpretation: Differences and Choosing Guidelines

The medical care industry is defined by its zero-tolerance for mistakes: in the worst-case scenarios, medical errors can cost lives, and when they don’t, they can lead to serious costs in both financial reparations and institutional reputation.

An area where this industry seldom places its attention is that of linguistic access: nowadays most countries have laws against discrimination and denial of service, and failing to provide services or care to people on the basis of linguistic barriers can become a big problem.

Some institutions that have become aware of this problem have taken steps to consolidate a more inclusive service and have a team of professional translators and interpreters in their inhouse staff. The San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), for instance, receives patients who speak over 140 different languages each month, and has 25 professional interpreters onsite who speak 12 languages, as well as access to more than 200 other languages via two vendors who deliver their services via telephone.

Translation or interpretation?

Translation consists in communicating the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text, and it is usually not performed in real time. Interpretation is a type of translational activity in which an interpreter conveys the meaning of a message from a source language into a target language in real time.

So, while these activities are closely related, the former revolves around text and is not time bound, while the latter is time-based and revolves around the spoken word. In medical care settings, translators are mostly charged with the translation of medical records, releases and other documents generally related to insurance and coverage, scientific papers and studies. Interpreters, on the other hand, are usually found in consultation, translating back and forth between patients and healthcare professionals.

Both activities require extensive training and a slightly different set of skills, although the end goal for both is to achieve good communication between doctor and patient to ensure good care.

Language access in a world of migrants and medical tourism

Up until the middle of the 20th century, leisure travel was a rare thing, reserved for the upper classes. But in the late 1940s, with the economic boom that came after both World Wars, it became accessible to middle and lower classes, and consolidated as an industry with the introduction of air travel. This created an unprecedented phenomenon: never before in the history of mankind had there been so much interaction between people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

A secondary phenomenon was the development of medical tourism, which refers to people who travel to obtain medical treatment, usually from less-developed countries to major medical centers in highly developed countries, to access treatment that is unavailable in their home country or too expensive for them.

These phenomena require medical care professionals and institutions to guarantee the availability of an interpreter to assist attending physicians in the process of communicating with their patients. The demand for interpreter services are thus on the rise as they bridge the linguistic and cultural gap between healthcare professionals and patients.

Translators, on their part, intervene on an administrative level: personal and insurance documentation, medical records, release forms and every other document that is relevant to the patient’s care needs to be accurately translated so that healthcare professionals can do their job without any risk.

Professional medical Interpreters in Telehealth

There are two types of interpreting services that use technology to improve health delivery services today: audio and audio-visual. These solutions enable fast and affordable access to medical care with the highest level of interpreting accuracy, by allowing professional linguists to connect with patients and physicians remotely.

As telehealth services continue to expand their reach across the United States, language access remains an important factor in providing effective care for people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Best practices include hiring certified professional interpreters to guarantee quality service.

Interpretation services are a fundamental part of the healthcare system, guaranteeing that all patients can access primary and preventive care, regardless of the language they speak or their cultural background. These services also create opportunities for patients to have a private, intimate conversation with their physician and ask questions as they arise in their mind.

Professionalism becomes a must for the interpreters in these scenarios, as they need to be quick on their feet to maintain the fluidity of the dialogue, but also trustworthy and discrete due to the sensitive nature of the conversations they facilitate.

It is often the case that people who are called in to help patients and health professionals communicate are not trained interpreters. In the rush to provide medical care, they resort to family members, friends or non-trained employees, simply because they have a better notion of the languages being spoken. This can create all sorts of negative consequences and may induce medical errors but also lead to other, non-medical issues, like violations of privacy.

All of the above highlights the importance of hiring certified medical interpreters, whether the interpreting will be done in person, over the phone, or via other telecommunication tools.

Language translation in healthcare environments

Medical translation is used by healthcare professionals to provide the necessary treatment to patients who speak and/or read another language. It should be a requirement that all medical documents, lab test results and any other written document produced by healthcare professionals be translated into the patient’s language, and that all personal documentation that the patient brings in be translated into the physician’s language, to make sure that all parties have a clear understanding of the situation, the treatment and its consequences.

It is important that the documents are translated by certified professional medical translators, because, in many cases, there are legal documents that the patient needs to sign, and they need to fully understand the meaning of these documents and what they’re agreeing to. This saves unforeseen expenses and prevents communication issues throughout the treatment.

So, interpretation or translation?

Choosing the right professionals and the most convenient service is a matter of knowing how to assess your situation and understanding your needs and those of the institution you work for.

Interpreters will be required in the healthcare setting when the purpose is to facilitate communication between the healthcare personnel, the patient and their family at the time of medical care. Interpreters must be proficient in medical terminology to avoid misconceptions that may result in misdiagnosis.

Medical translation, on the other hand, is a discipline that requires the highest quality and professionalism: the stakes are high when translating clinical studies, authorization or consent forms, patient medical records, medical manuals or medicine labels with their contraindications. Certification is an essential parameter to guarantee a quality translation.

We hope this article has shed some light on some of the more technical aspects of these activities, and that it helps you make better decisions faster and more confidently. Whatever your current needs may be, however, the safest bet in a space with a zero-tolerance for mistakes is to make sure that they are certified and qualified. Certification is a trustworthy sign that the professionals have the experience you need them to have, as well as a robust knowledge of the language pairs.


Hugo Rizzi
CEO at Language Solutions Team
Laura Aguirre
Marketing Manager at Language Solutions Team

Don’t hesitate to reach out to LST for more information or a free assessment of your needs.

« »