Key Challenges in Medical and Healthcare Translation

While translation in any industry can be challenging, medical and healthcare translation is by far one of the most difficult types of translation. When people’s lives and health are involved, the stakes are much higher than in any other area. Whether the medical translation involves a healthcare procedure or pharmaceutical instructions, even a single wrongly translated word can have dire consequences.

Here are some of the primary challenges that a medical translation agency faces when working on projects.

The complexity of Medical Terminology

One of the most complex aspects of medical and healthcare translation is medical terminology, particularly because even a slight variation in wording can significantly affect the healthcare a patient receives. Since medical terminology tends to be related to the source language, words often do not have a direct correlation with the target language.

When this happens, the translator must make some difficult choices to find the best word to use in the source term’s place.

In addition, the healthcare industry is vast, and each area has terminology specific to the medical condition being treated. As such, translation companies must make certain that their clients are paired with translators who are subject matter experts in the specific field.

For instance, a translator skilled in cardiology would focus on that area instead of attempting to translate medical documents that address hematology issues. Trying to translate each other’s specialty would only result in the linguists making mistakes; additionally, having a translator with no medical experience would practically guarantee that the final product would have significant errors.

Eponyms Pose a Big Challengetransltranslation

One of the particularly unique challenges with medical translations is that numerous medical terms involve the use of eponyms. Eponyms are in the healthcare field; examples include various medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

A primary issue with translating eponyms is that their counterparts in the target language might also be eponymous. In addition, there might not be an equivalent phrase in the target language, which makes finding a replacement word even more complicated.

Acronyms and Abbreviations are Difficult to Translate

Anyone who has received a prescription or medical instructions has likely noticed that medical documentation almost always includes acronyms and abbreviations. Most of these simply do not translate, meaning that the linguist must be well-versed enough in the field to know how to accurately translate them into the target language.

This is an example of why having a specialist translator is vital. Translators who do not entirely understand their field will likely make mistakes when trying to find a counterpart to a medical acronym or abbreviation.

Other Types of Language Issues are Common

Along with acronyms and abbreviations, there are other types of words and phrases that can be problematic for translators. One of these issues involves the frequent use of compound phrases. Terms such as heart failure, pulmonary embolism, and patient safety are commonly used in medical documents, especially ones written in English.

As these phrases get translated, linguists must be careful to ensure they do not lose meaning. Additionally, many medical terms use prefixes and suffixes; if they are used incorrectly, they would drastically change the word’s meaning. For example, “hypo” means insufficient, and “hyper” is used to describe something excessive. A simple switch in these terms during translation makes the diagnosis the opposite of a patient’s ailment.

The Audience Varies Greatly

There are many groups of people involved in the medical field; as a result, it is vital to ensure that the translation properly captures the message geared toward a specific audience. To ensure that the content will be appropriately translated for the intended audience, the translator needs to know who will receive the content or message.

For instance, physicians and medical experts will comprehend and expect complex terminology, whereas instructions to patients need to be written in less specialized terms.

Some of the different types of translations that require their type of communication are:

  • Patient documentation, including billing statements, privacy policies, insurance information, treatment plans, and consent forms: It is critical that patients thoroughly understand the documents they are signing, the forms and information they receive should not contain highly technical information.
  • Pharmaceutical instructions: Similar to patient documentation, medication instructions need to be understandable to the patient. However, pharmaceutical inserts will often include specialized terminology as well. In this case, the translator needs to be capable of translating complex information for inserts while also translating instructions that resonate with patients.
  • Medical device instructions: Directions for medical devices have to be written in that the user can quickly understand how to assemble the product and how to use it properly. A medical document translation agency will ensure that the target audience can easily comprehend the instructions.
  • Clinical trial documentation: This is a unique area because it involves a vast amount of information for both laypeople and experts. For starters, participants have to fill out numerous forms to make sure they qualify for the trial, and they have to be fully aware of any risks involved. In addition, results from the trials will be written for the medical community and include specialized information.
  • Case studies and academic papers: These medical documents are entirely geared toward a specialized audience, and their data must be translated with that in mind. Translators must ensure that the technical details are correctly translated, even if terms and phrases do not have equivalents in the target language.

Translating Drug Names Requires Expertise

In addition to issues with documents involving medical conditions, medical translation services companies deal with an array of challenges when working with pharmaceutical names.

To help lessen confusion about drug names, the World Health Organization assigns an international nonproprietary name (INN) to certain pharmaceutical products. The INN is assigned to a generic drug depending on the medicine’s active ingredients. While the INN can reduce confusion around drug names, a translation company needs experts who understand pharmaceuticals to translate them correctly.

Another factor that makes translating medication names particularly difficult is that government agencies approve new medicines that can be sold within their countries. As this happens, medical translators have to ensure that they stay up-to-date on new medications that are available in their markets.

Medical translators have unique challenges as they work on projects, particularly since they have an essential role in helping people manage their healthcare. As such, having translators who are experts in specific medical fields, as well as being native speakers of the required languages, is vital to meeting their client’s needs. Remember that healthcare translation requires the utmost care, so make sure you choose the right medical document translation services for your specialized needs.


Medical and healthcare translators face several difficulties when they conduct their work. Translating specialized terminology, acronyms, and pharmaceutical names are just a few of the obstacles they have to overcome. Here are the primary challenges that occur with medical and healthcare translations.

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