The Translation of Medical Documents into Spanish & Its Challenges

When it comes to languages, Spanish is a global powerhouse. Over 442,000,000 people around the world speak Spanish. There are 20 states and territories that consider it the majority language. In these territories, Spanish is the language children learn in school. And the language of official documents. In the United States, the Spanish language is also prevalent. Despite not being the official language. Spanish is the most predominant language spoken by immigrants and U.S.-born Limited English Proficiency (LEP) individuals. With 64% of the total LEP population speaking Spanish. Considering these vast numbers and the regulations regarding health care accessibility for everyone, it comes as no surprise that there is a growing need for the translation of medical documents into Spanish. The needs of medical translation are various, but when translating from English to Spanish and vice versa, medical translators must be prepared to solve a number of challenges that may arise. These are a few of them:

Medication and Drug Names

One of the first missteps in the translation of medical documents into Spanish is confusing medication and drug names. Names can easily be mixed up because drug and medication names used locally are different than internationally. Both brand and generic drugs can have names specific to the country in which they are sold. For example, acetaminophen is a name used in the United State for what is internationally known as paracetamol.

Mistranslating names can lead to dire consequences. Especially when it comes to dosing. Scarily, the FDA estimates more than one million people each year experience physical harm from medication misuse. This is why translating medical text requires a specialized translator trained to deal with medical vocabulary.

Units of Measurement

Even without the need for translation, measurement mistakes are easy to make. Parent medication administration error rates is an example of this issue. More than 40% of parent administrators make dosing errors involving oral liquid medications. Units of measure conversions can be difficult, so linguists have to be very careful when translating them. In some scenarios, conversions are necessary. Other times it is okay to leave the unit of measurement as is. In general, medicine and science utilize the metric system as it is more accurate. Hispanic countries also use the metric system, but U.S. citizens more commonly use non-metric units. It is of the utmost importance that medical translators are aware of who the target audience is (general population or scientists, for example) and the system used in particular countries. This helps them determine whether conversions are necessary or not.

New Terminology

The medical field is ever-changing. Progress is a good thing, except when it causes misunderstandings. Occasionally, there is not a recognized translation for a certain term. It is challenging for bilingual dictionaries to keep up with new concepts, technology, research, and medical terms. Many bilingual English-Spanish medical dictionaries are direct translations from English. They don’t always take into account the actual terminology used in the target language. 

Translators also have to be wary of what is known as “false friends”. These are words that sound very similar and appear to be the equivalent of two words in different languages. The word “severe” is an example of a false friend. Severo is a term in Spanish which means ‘strict, tough, harsh in treatment or punishment’ and describes the character of a person. But this word is easily confused with “severe”. A word that can have many meanings, such as grave, intense, or strong. Such as a severe pain, a severe blow to the head, or a severe problem. The English word “condition” serves as another example. In Spanish the word for condition can vary depending on the usage intended. When the word “condition” refers to a defective state of health, it is translated as enfermedad. When it refers to a particular state someone or something is in, it is translated as estado or situación. But at first glance, the Spanish word condición sounds like the proper word.

How Medical Translators Can Improve Accuracy

It is important that the medical translator keeps in mind the limitations of scientific and medical dictionaries. Some may find it necessary to purchase additional medical dictionaries to create a comprehensive knowledge base. Furthermore, skilled medical translators must read the latest journals and scientific papers to properly understand the current medical landscape, as well as recognize and translate new terms.


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