LeQ Medical

Communicating the ideas that are changing medicine


Don’t Make These Medical Translation Mistakes!

Translating medical materials is importantIt’s a global world, baby. Most medical companies today sell their products and services around the world. Even hometown hospitals frequently treat patients who do not speak English. All of this has created a new career path, that of medical translator.

I’m not talking about the volunteer types who visit hospitals and clinics and offer assistance to foreign-language-speakers. I’m talking about medical companies and hospitals preparing patient materials, forms, websites, and other information in other languages. Translation is a challenging profession and since most people have no experience in this arena, it can be difficult to get the work done. There are some very common pitfalls for the average marketing person tasked with going global:


1. Don’t assume all translation services are the same. Prices vary widely. You can easily pay too much.

2. Don’t assume that high-priced translations are better quality. They may be, but they may not be.

3. Don’t assume that your translation company or translators know what they’re doing. Many translation companies work in all fields, from tire manufacturing to genetics to banking. These groups may not have the expertise you want. By the way, translators do not have to be licensed in the U.S. If you want to be a translator in this country, all you have to do is say you’re a translator.

4. Don’t assume that knowing two languages make you a translator. Being brought up bilingual is actually considered a drawback to translators (you are supposed to grow up monolingual and acquire the second language to be an ideal translator).

5. Don’t assume that anybody who can speak another language is a qualified translator. There are probably people at your company to whom you would not entrust writing your next product manual. Why would you just assume that if they knew a second language they’d be better at communications?

6. Machine translation (or computer-aided translation) is fine for very light work, like “how are you?” or “what does this cost?” But if you are communicating serious information, they just don’t work well.

So how do you find a good translation company? You can call us, for one thing, but here are some basic tips to get you started.

1. Translation is mostly done by freelancers. This profession seems to attract the freelance practitioner and rarely will you find on-staff translators except at big outfits. Most of these translators work out of home offices. They charge a per-word rate which varies somewhat depending on the language combination (source language into target language), the difficulty of the work (medical costs more than, say, a restaurant menu or a birth certificate), and the translator. Very highly qualified or much-desired translators charge a premium. The per-word rate can range from a few cents to up to a dollar, depending on these factors.

2. If you hire a translation company, the translation company jobs out your work to these freelancers (or if there are on-staff translators, hands it to them). You will rarely have contact with the translators. That may be a good thing, since if you have a project that goes into 8 different languages, that is quite a crew you’re assembling. You don’t need all those emails going to you.

3. The translation company marks up the work. You can get a cheaper deal if you work with freelancers directly but then you have to know where to find them, how to evaluate them, and handle each one individually. By the way, freelancers as a rule (not just translators) embrace a freelance career because they like flexibility. If you are planning on working with translators, be prepared for the sabbatical year, the three-month vacation, or the spur-of-the-moment canoe trip. The translation company deserves a markup, but some of them charge high rates.

4. Many translations go through a three-level process. They are first translated (let’s say from English into Spanish), then they are edited, and then they are proofed. High-level translation work often requests that these three steps be performed by three different individuals. This allows for great-quality translations but it adds significantly to the cost.  You may or may not need this level of service.

5. If you work with translators, editors, and proofreaders, it is best to work with teams with some history working together. Sometimes you can pair editors and translators together who get along like Martin Sheen and Denise Richards.

6. You need to be good at trafficking, that is, moving the project from point A to point B efficiently. That’s another thing an agency provides.

7. You also need to know what kind of translations you want. For instance, if you want patient materials translated into Spanish, you should specify American Spanish, which differs from European Spanish and also South American Spanish. Same with Portuguese (Brazilian and European) and even French, where there are European, Canadian, and African choices.

The best way to handle translations is to work with an agency that can help you:

  • Define your project
  • Set a realistic budget
  • Handle the coordination, legwork, and care-and-feeding of the translators

Once you’re done with that, you may face getting the material produced. Most translators deliver their projects as Word documents and few have layout or design skills. However, many translation agencies work with designers who are adept in foreign language work. This is a special skill because the designer must be confident not only about text placement but must also know about wordbreaks and other nuances of the language. Most foreign languages use at least some unusual diacritical marks and some use entirely different fonts. This type of designer is usually more expensive and more in-demand than the average entry-level designer but can help you create effective translated materials.

By the way, many translation agencies will turn-key projects from translation to layout to production and printing. However, some may charge a premium price and not do the work well. This is because some agencies simply hand off the work and then turn it back to you without getting involved in checking it, evaluating the translations, and monitoring the progress of the printed piece.

Got translation work? You can get an estimate from us and have us walk you through the process.



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