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If you are a regular reader of our blogs on medical/pharmaceutical topics, then you know our mantra: medical translation is not merely about converting words. It is an intricate dance between languages and cultures.

We have already discussed how marketing texts within the pharmaceutical industry warrant special attention and translation skills. Beyond a literal translation, delving deep into cultural underpinnings ensures not only effective but also empathetic communication.

The importance of cultural sensitivity

In industries where the stakes are towering, particularly the medical and pharmaceutical spheres, cultural sensitivity is not a luxury – it is a necessity. A campaign in Latin America once used an image of a hand showing an “OK” sign. While this gesture denotes approval in many countries, in Brazil, it’s considered rude, and the campaign made smart use of this fact. In a similar vein, a company would be wise to avoid expressly mentioning Taiwan as being either a part of or independent from the People’s Republic of China, as that can lead to (public or political) dissatisfaction.

Such repercussions underline the necessity of not just translating words, but sentiments. Missteps like these can erode trust rapidly, especially in fields such as medicine, where trust (between the healthcare provider, the manufacturer, and the patient) is key.

Understanding health beliefs in different cultures

Diverse cultures have their own unique paradigms for health, disease, and remedies. In many Asian cultures, the balance between “yin” and “yang” is believed to foster health, which is why marketing campaigns will often make use of these concepts. Similarly, in Native American traditions, health is often linked to harmony with nature. In some African cultures, for instance, the “Tree of Life” or the Baobab is believed to possess healing properties for various ailments.

A translated document that ignores these deep-rooted beliefs may miss the mark entirely. Imagine marketing a supplement in China without addressing its potential “warming” or “cooling” properties (in line with the “yin–yang” principles) – this oversight could lead to market mistrust due to feeling too “foreign” for them. While translating materials for such a market, it is vital to recognise and possibly reference indigenous traditions, ideally delicately incorporating them without compromising factual precision.

Medical idioms and their cultural implications

Languages brim with idioms, not least around health.

  • In France, “avoir le cafard” means to be down or depressed but translates literally to “having the cockroach”.
  • Elsewhere, in Russia, “больная тема” or “a sick topic” doesn’t refer to health but means a touchy or sensitive subject.
  • In colloquial Slovene (similarly to English) “sick” (i.e., “bolana tema”) can also be interpreted as “very interesting or cool”.
  • In Japan, a common idiom “hara ga tatsu” translates literally to “rising stomach”, but its actual meaning revolves around feeling angry or upset.

Imagine a medical questionnaire mistranslating this idiom and misdiagnosing a patient’s emotional state as a digestive complaint. It is vital to ensure that the conveyed message does not lose its essence.

Idioms provide flavour to a language but pose unique challenges in translation. Literal translations can lead to misunderstandings that can range anywhere from comical to confusing or dangerous. Your best bet at avoiding this issue altogether is to work with specialised, experienced, and well-vetted translators.

The role of gender and societal hierarchies in medical communication

In Middle Eastern cultures, it might be deemed inappropriate for a male doctor to communicate directly with a female patient without the presence or consent of a male relative. Conversely, in the Nordic countries, gender equality is strongly emphasised, and any perceived gender bias in medical communication can be viewed negatively. In some South Asian cultures, medical decisions, especially for women, often involve consultation with senior family members. On the one hand, in parts of Africa, tribal leaders, community elders and/or other family members (sources 1, 2 and 3) might be integral to health choices. Western societies, on the other hand, emphasise individual decision-making.

Failing to appreciate these hierarchies can lead to mistrust or non-compliance. However, recognising and respecting these dynamics when both advising patients verbally and marketing to them in written materials can foster trust and adherence to medical advice.

Formats and norms in (medical) documentation

Cultural preferences dictate the style and depth of medical documentation. In Japan, detailed documentation showcasing thoroughness is appreciated, while in some parts of Africa, lower literacy rates may call for oral communication. And if patients in the USA can be accustomed to detailed drug leaflets, an audience in Russia might expect concise, straightforward documentation as matter-of-factness is an appreciated quality.

Hence, pharmaceutical firms might consider audio instructions, visual guides, or infographics. Adapting the content format to regional needs can bridge the understanding gap more than verbose leaflets, drastically improving patient understanding and compliance.

Tips and best practices

Our advice for medical and pharmaceutical businesses aiming to leave global footprints:

  • Lean on local expertise: Native translators are your best bet to add an authentic touch and catch nuances a non-native is likely to miss.
  • In culturally and linguistically diverse markets, consider multiple translations (including dialect-specific ones) catering to the entire array of local languages.
  • Test and refine: What works in urban settings might falter in rural areas, even within the same country. Pilot your translated materials with a local subset, just like clinical trials test a new drug in a small demographic before they are granted permission to launch country- or region-wide.

In medical translation, nuances are everything. Through tangible, real-world examples, it becomes evident that merging accuracy with cultural intelligence is not just good practice – it is absolutely critical.

Eager to master the cultural maze of medical translations? Allow us to be your guide. Connect with us at info@alamma.eu for in-depth consultations or to explore the fascinating realm of culturally-sensitive medical translations.