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Cross-cultural communication is closely connected to social responsibility, a concern shared by most translators and interpreters. To help meaning traverse languages and cultures well, follow industry-specific ethical guidelines. These are a form of social responsibility.

Medical interpreters deal with ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day work. When interpreting spoken language in medical environments, interpreters have to be mindful of cultural differences, impartiality, maintaining calm and respect, and many other values. This is especially true in highly stressful situations, like medical emergencies or potentially life‑changing medical procedures.

Translators tend to discuss them less, but they, too, face ethical dilemmas. For this reason, most major international and national translators associations* have established codes of ethics or professional standards, all underpinned by values of quality, faithfulness, and accuracy; impartiality, confidentiality, and accountability; and continuous professional development. In the following paragraphs, we will examine how medical translators can follow these key values.

Key values in medical translation

Professionalism is a prerequisite for quality. It includes responsibility, respecting deadlines, and other agreements. Responsible language professionals (individual translators or agencies) offer a limited range of subject areas and services. Especially in the high-stakes medical and pharmaceutical industry, translators must be aware of the limits to their knowledge to subject areas in which they are experienced, and only accept translations within these fields. For example, a professional translator for ophthalmology and otorhinolaryngology should (and usually will) reject requests to translate highly technical texts in cardiology. Even though such a linguist is a proficient researcher, such an assignment goes beyond their competence and comfort level.

Continuous professional development in the translator’s specialism can change this. Different fields of expertise may blend within a single document. If they encounter this a few times, the translator might become familiar enough with a new field to consider it as a possible new specialism and educate themselves further on its specifics (such as terminology).

Quality is at the forefront of every professional translation, though its definition differs from text to text. Quality medical translations balance accuracy and suitable style for the intended reader. For patients, complex terminology used by medical professionals cannot be deemed appropriate. In marketing texts, on the other hand, quality means bringing the text closer to the target audience. This means fluency can be more important than accuracy. A joke that could sound ridiculous if translated directly; in such cases, translators search for a well-established joke in the target language that renders the same emotions.

In contrast, accuracy is key in medical and pharmaceutical texts. Without it, the risks for the pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and above all the end users, are indescribable. One wrong letter (mg vs. μg), or decimal separator can cause serious (legal and physical) damage.

Accountability comes into play when mistakes in translations do happen. To err is human. Whoever caused the error should hold themselves accountable, followed by immediate action to rectify it and prevent it from repeating.

The translator must also remain impartial to the subject they are translating. All conflicts of interest must be clearly stated, including personal, ethical, or religious ones that might affect the linguist’s performance. A pro-life individual may receive a request to translate marketing materials for a pro-choice group. Without impartiality, such a discrepancy between beliefs would likely affect the overall quality of the translator’s work. If they feel they could not produce a faithful translation, the ethical thing for linguists to do is to refuse such a request. Every reader deserves to receive translated materials that represent the author’s beliefs in their entirety.

Last but not least, confidentiality is the ethical mainstay of every professional translator. This means more than signing an NDA or keeping all correspondence and files stored somewhere secure, inaccessible to third parties. Work should not be outsourced without prior express confirmation from the client. These three elements of confidentiality nowadays almost go without saying, but it is always better to for translators and agencies to give their express confirmation.

You the client should proceed with caution when working with language service providers who do not adhere to these values. Quality assurance and risk management procedures are needed to prevent any risk to your company from that could arise from faulty translations. However, during thorough vetting processes, these red flags can be noted and dealt with, so keep in mind taking the time for due diligence might be very beneficial to you.

Should we consider any other ethical dilemmas when preparing medical and pharmaceutical translations? What are some other pitfalls a translator should pay attention to? We are always happy to expand our (ethical) horizons, so let us know at or via our social network pages (LinkedIn, Facebook).


* Such as the American Translators Association (ATA), the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), the Slovenian Associations of Literary Translators (DSKP), The Association of Translators and Interpreters of Slovenia (DPTS), and the French translators association (Société Francaise des Traducteurs, SFT), to list only a few.