Pharmaceutical and medical translation have to be some of the most complex translations that a translator is ever presented with. Not only are there names of medical conditions or drugs to get to grips with, but there’s also plenty of industry shorthand and idioms to get used to.

However, it doesn’t have to be so complicated, so long as the translator puts themselves in the mind of a medical professional. As Stewart Lyman, owner and manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC, writes in Xconomy, it is not that far removed from real estate agents and property sellers describing houses as “cosy” instead of small or “conveniently located” when in fact it is on a busy road. He adds that the pharmaceutical industry is no different in that some phrases and words need to be translated for the layperson – and that’s before translating them into a different language.

Translate this healthcare jargon, stat!

One commonly-heard pharmaceutical phrase Mr Lyman notes may be in need of translation for the uninitiated is: “All forward-looking statements are based on the companies’ current assumptions and expectations and involve risks, uncertainties and other important factors.” In fact, this phrase should be familiar to any business that makes a product or sells a service; it is a protective statement aimed at covering itself against legal action.

Translating their client-facing materials for a layperson is something medical professionals should consider. Sometimes, it’s not only people with a different mother tongue who can struggle to interpret what is in front of them and, to many, medical jargon is akin to a foreign language.

In January, the Daily Telegraph reported that the use of medical jargon by GPs and hospital staff could actually threaten patients’ health and welfare. Indeed, as many as 20 million people in the UK could be at risk as a result of misunderstanding the slang. Dr Joanne Protheroe, a GP in Manchester, said the problem was not that people weren’t intelligent enough to understand the information, but that medical materials are “too complicated and confusing”. Dr Gill Rowlands, professor of health disparities at London South Bank University, added: “We were surprised by the scale of the problem. If we are writing things that almost half the population can’t understand, then we need to change that.”

Rice University in Texas has published a useful list of medical jargon that could assist patients who are struggling. For instance, a ‘chest film’ is medical speak for a chest x-ray, which could cause confusion for anyone not used to this term. An embolus, meanwhile, is a blood clot, while a pulmonary embolism describes a blood clot in the lungs.

Of course, the medical community also has its own slang words and phrases, which are unlikely to make it into any official materials. A ‘crispy critter’, for example, describes a patient with substantial and severe burns. ‘Gorked’ is a word used in A&E to describe a person who is unconscious; usually as a result of drug or alcohol abuse. And anyone wondering what the characters in their favourite hospital TV dramas are talking about when they shout “stat”, it’s actually an abbreviation of the Latin word “statim”, which means “immediately”.

The value of medical translation

Medical industry documents can be hard enough to understand when they are written in the patient’s own language, but when they’re not it can seem like an impossible task to follow them. That’s why medical translations require such care and attention.

A medical translator should always have experience working in the area of the industry that has hired them. For instance, if the job is translating user guidelines to accompany pharmaceutical products, some knowledge of the words and terms that will likely appear there is beneficial, while medical market research translations will be of a higher quality if done by a linguist with experience in this area.

Language services are integral to the healthcare sector, from hospitals right the way through to pharmaceutical manufacturers. Multiculturalism means that the industry is prioritising spending on translators and interpreters more than ever before.

The Belfast Telegraph reported last year that Northern Ireland’s healthcare sector stood by its £5 million spend on translation and interpreting services in its hospitals and saw it as money well spent. The Belfast Health Trust acknowledged that it had a duty to ensure everyone had equal access to language services.

By taking additional care and attention, healthcare providers can ensure that not only do people who speak a different language fully understand the medical information they are given but those who speak the same language too.