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You have surely been in this situation before. Your company would like to order a translation. It has to be flawless. Your company does not employ in-house translators, so your task is to find a suitable translator to take on this complex text. How do you know the translator you have chosen is right for the job?

Medical translation is challenging. That is a fact. The terminology is not the only factor that makes it complex, but also the level of background knowledge required to even follow a medical text. Through our extensive experience, we have seen that it takes a special combination of talent, curiosity, and knowledge to be an excellent medical translator. Domain knowledge is necessary but alone, it is rarely enough, which is why medical professionals do not necessarily make good medical translators. Unless they have strong translation skills, such as maintaining appropriate register or adapting the style to suit target reader, their translations will often fail to meet quality requirements.

Consequently, most professionals who do medical translations are not primarily health care providers (doctors, nurses, medics etc.), but translators who have developed a strong interest for medicine. As explained in this short article by Sevda Huseynova on the “birth” of medical translators, such an interest is born out of a variety of circumstances:

  1. A degree or courses in medicine. It is not unheard of to first enrol into medical school (or even graduate in medicine), only to realise that you do not see yourself practising this for the rest of your life. Some such people feel a strong desire to work with language, so specialising in medical translation is the logical choice. These translators bring together the best of both worlds: a proclivity for language with in-depth domain knowledge. Coupled with additional education in translation, this person may be your dream medical translator.
  2. Work closely related to medicine. This person may have been a medical secretary or worked in the marketing department of a hospital or pharmaceutical company. You would be surprised how much knowledge can be picked up from daily contact (even indirect) with the field.
  3. Access to healthcare professionals in their circle of friends or family. This enables a professional translator to check with healthcare professionals whether their understanding of the source text is correct or their translation is suitable, especially for medical professional use.
  4. University or professional association courses on medical translation. Universities rarely organise such courses, but when they do, it is usually in collaboration with medical institutions, which makes them an invaluable experience. Professional translation associations (such as ITI, Institute of Translation and Interpreting) regularly hold workshops and seminars, too. Such courses combine the best of both worlds and usually encompass working with real-life texts, examples of best translation practices in the given field, explanations of required background domain knowledge, and access through networking to medical professionals, whom one can often contact once the course has long finished.
  5. Medical issues or illness in the family that led to specific knowledge through research and contact with medical professionals. This is definitely the least desired circumstance that leads non-medical professionals to in-depth knowledge of the field, but it does happen. These translators’ knowledge of the topic will be incredibly detailed due to their personal relationship with it and can potentially also lead to a career in medical translation.

We at Alamma have personal experience with translators who have become medical or pharmaceutical translators in all of these ways, and an overwhelming majority produces top-notch translations.

We mainly collaborate with companies that do not employ in-house translators but prefer to work with a translation agency, rather than directly with freelancers. When working with a new LSP or on a new type of project, you as the client might ask to see blind CVs of translators the LSP has chosen to work on your texts as an additional risk management step. You can use the points described above as one of potential markers of quality and suitable qualifications.

How do you choose the right translators for your company? What background, skills, and experiences do you look for and what do you see as red flags? Are there any factors that you believe are important to achieve high quality? Feel free to let us know in the comments below or contact us at! We are always eager to learn and make our translator vetting process even more effective.