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You are on a tight deadline and you have a load of documents that need translating. You quickly jot down some text in your native language or maybe even English, though it is not your first language. Hold on a second! Have you considered how ambiguous phrases could get lost in translation? Let us dive into why crystal-clear source texts are non-negotiable.

Have you ever played Chinese whispers? One person whispers a message into the ear of the next person in a line, and by the end, the message is usually hilariously distorted. Now, imagine the stakes are higher—say, in the translation of pharmaceutical documents. There is no room for whispering errors, is there?

The accuracy of translated text hinges on the clarity and precision of the source text, especially when non-native speakers are drafting it. A vague or ambiguous source text can result in mistranslation, causing miscommunication that could have significant consequences.

More than just semantics: commonly confused terms

Language is a nuanced thing, especially in specialised fields like pharmaceuticals. Let us explore some examples of terms that are commonly confused but have different implications and can lead to ambiguous or even incorrect translations. An unclear source text forces the translator to guess the intended meaning, which is a risky endeavour. This is why it is crucial to get it right the first time.

Digit vs. digital
This is a straightforward example that most of us can relate to – the words “digit” and “digital”. “Digit” refers to the numbers 0-9 or the fingers and toes in anatomical context. “Digital”, however, refers to data stored in a numerical format or technology relating to computers. Using these terms interchangeably could lead to catastrophic errors, particularly in a field as meticulous as pharmaceuticals.

Consider the following phrases: “digit/digital cuff” and “digit/digital measurement records”. Could you say with 100% certainty which of the two is correct, especially without sufficient context (as translators often have to – hello, user interface translations)?

Toxic vs. toxicity
“Toxic” refers to a substance that is harmful or poisonous. “Toxicity”, however, is a measure of the degree to which something is toxic. Saying a substance is “toxic” without quantifying its “toxicity” could lead to misinterpretation of research findings or safety guidelines.

Cure vs. treatment
“Cure” is the complete eradication of a disease, while “treatment” is the management and care of a patient to combat the disease. Mixing these up could set unrealistic expectations and could be legally sensitive.

Quality vs. quantity
“Quality” refers to the characteristics or attributes of something, while “quantity” refers to how much there is. In a pharmaceutical context, confusing these terms in documentation could lead to grave mistakes in drug manufacturing or data analysis. And you do not need much ‒ only one occurrence of your fingers being faster than your brain, coupled with a lack of proofreading the text before sending it for translation is enough.

Efficacy vs. effectiveness
When non-native speakers are crafting the source text, the risks of imprecise language increase exponentially. Words or phrases might sound correct to a non-native speaker but might convey a slightly different nuance to a native speaker. For example, confusing “efficacy” with “effectiveness” could lead to substantial misunderstandings, especially in clinical contexts.

“Efficacy” is about how well a treatment works in ideal conditions, often established through controlled clinical trials. “Effectiveness”, on the other hand, gauges how well something performs in real-world conditions. Imagine a clinical trial mistakenly assessing the “effectiveness” of a new drug when they meant to study its “efficacy”. The ramifications could be enormous.

How to ensure clarity

  1. Keep sentences short and sweet: A complex sentence structure is a breeding ground for ambiguities.
  2. Avoid jargon: Unless it is industry-specific and necessary, avoid jargon. If jargon must be used, provide an explanation for it within the text (brackets are your friends) or in the footnotes.
  3. Use active voice: This makes it clear who is doing what, reducing the chance of misunderstanding.
  4. Proofread: It may sound obvious, but meticulous proofreading by a native speaker specialising in the field can go a long way.

Pharmaceuticals is an industry where there’s no margin for error, whether it is in a drug formulation or document translation. The source text is the foundation upon which quality translation is built. Making sure this foundation is unambiguous, especially when drafted by non-native speakers, can make the difference between successful communication and a costly mistake.

Remember, the next time you are in a rush to get those documents translated, pause, and ponder – have you been as clear and precise as possible? The success of your project may hinge on your answer.

Stay tuned for more insights on how to achieve flawless translation in the pharmaceutical industry. Need a translation of your own and you are unsure if your source text is good enough? Contact us at and we would be happy to advise you which of our translation service packages is the best fit for you. Best of all? We can also have your source text proofread first to make sure it is ready for translation!