Types of medical documents handled by medical translators

If you are thinking of venturing into medical translations, in this article you will find a brief description of the most common types of medical documents that you could be presented with. I will briefly discuss some categories of medical documents and the level of specialization required to work with them.

Like doctors, some translators choose to specialize in body systems, such as vascular, reproductive, respiratory, lymphatic, etc. Alternatively, they may specialize in a particular condition, such as diabetes, leukaemia, Alzheimer’s disease etc. These translators will usually handle all sorts of documentation within their particular field of expertise. This type of specialization usually works when you have a background working in that particular field. For example, I have a background as a researcher in human reproduction, so for this particular area of specialization I usually handle all types of medical documents. Otherwise, this type of specialization may be too limiting and the time investment it will take you to learn about all things related to that topic may not be feasible in the short to medium term.

Other medical translators choose to specialize in a particular type of medical documentation, which is what we will focus on in this article. Specializing in a particular type of documentation requires a broad general knowledge of medicine and extensive experience with and exposure to that particular type of document. Usually, the terminology and style of these types of documents are very specific, but also somewhat standard, so they are quicker to learn and easier to master. Again, they require a time investment, because you will need to read many of those types of documents in both your working languages and, what’s more, you will need to keep up with your general medical knowledge to handle requests in any field. However, you will get the gist of the documents quicker and can start selecting jobs in areas that you are more familiar with.

Having said that, what types of medical documentation could you specialize in?

  • Clinical trial documentation: All pharmaceutical companies carry out clinical trials to ensure that their drugs are safe and market-ready. Many new drugs are meant to be sold globally and, for that reason, clinical trials also have to be conducted in several countries. Hence, this is a prolific field, because these trials happen all the time and in many languages. Typically, the source documentation is prepared in English, regardless of where the pharmaceutical company is based. These documents are then sent to medical translators for translation into the languages of the countries where the clinical trial will take place. The most common types of documents in clinical trials are clinical trial protocols, investigator’s brochures, informed consent forms, adverse event reports, communications between the main study centre and other study centres, and legal documentation between the pharmaceutical companies and study centres (e.g. agreements, statements, etc.). Specializing in this field requires a thorough knowledge of the technical and legal aspects of this type of documentation, as well as extreme attention to detail, because errors in clinical trial documentation are particularly serious. For example, a typo in a dosage could effectively kill or harm a patient.
  • Patents: Patent translations is also a prolific field. Because there is no unified patent legislation across the globe, patent holders often have to file for patents in several different countries, which means that there is a high demand for several languages. Translating patents requires some knowledge of medical devices and biochemistry, because most inventions related to the medical field are either devices or chemicals, as well as law. These are usually legal documents written according to very particular standards, so learning the style and terminology is essential, because patents are often rejected if their style is not compliant with the accepted standards. In addition, the translator needs to keep up with medical news, because patents are often inventions and the technology used is cutting-edge. Hence, you need to be willing to research and learn, because it will not always be easy to find equivalent terms in both your working languages.
  • Medical devices: medical device documentation consists primarily of manuals. These documents are usually extensive and explain in detail how a device works, what it contains and how it should be operated. This is a very technical field that requires some knowledge of engineering and physics, because you often have to describe parts and how they operate in relation to each other. Specific medical knowledge in this case is important for you to understand the purpose of a device, but understanding its mechanics and engineering is usually more important. A translator who wants to work in this field should focus on knowledge of engineering applied to the medical field, and health and safety regulations.
  • Regulatory & compliance: These are usually standards issued by governments or regulatory authorities, best practices, legislation, etc. In my experience, there is less demand for this type of documentation, except among economic groups, such as the EU, where certain standards are unified and therefore need to be translated into all applicable languages. Other cases in which regulatory documentation requires translation is when foreign companies are taking part in tenders and need to be compliant with local legislation. In such cases, there may be a demand for translation of such requirements and then translation of the applicable compliance statements. This type of translation requires a knowledge of legal terminology applied to the medical field and, if you translate into a language used within an economic group, knowledge of the style and terminology of standard documents used within that group.
  • Market research: Pharmaceutical and medical device companies often sell their products globally, therefore, they are always conducting market research in their target countries to determine their positioning, pricing, acceptance, branding, etc. Translators specialized in market research will often translate discussion guides for interviews with patients and physicians or other experts, product profiles, research screeners and transcripts of interviews. This is a “softer” type of translation because the medical knowledge required is not as technical. However, you need to be aware of the terminology used among physicians as well as among patients, because the same question will almost never be translated in exactly the same way to both audiences.
  • Websites and patient brochures: This is self-explanatory and technically speaking the easiest type of translation in the medical field. Websites are rarely too specialized, because they aim to attract broad audiences. However, you must be very careful in conveying the right tone and style. Translating a healthcare company’s website is not like translating a travel website. The language usually needs to be accessible, but credibility is essential, so your translation must ensure that the terminology used is in line with industry standards. In addition, patient leaflets and brochures must be understandable and credible, so that patients feel that they can rely on that information. Your job as a translator in this case is to learn how to communicate with each audience in a professional, but accessible manner.
  • Academic: These are usually scientific articles published in international journals. The demand for this type of translation is most often into English, because most international journals are in English. There may also be a demand to translate researcher CVs, abstracts, protocols, etc. This type of translation requires a knowledge of the standard formatting and style of scientific journals. Sometimes the translator must also become familiar with the style and requirements of a particular journal, in order to ensure that the translation is compliant. Furthermore, this type of translation requires technical knowledge, because many publications will be directed at experts in a particular field, which means that less than expert translations often discredit the work of the researcher.

In my experience, these are the most common types of documents translated by medical translators. If you choose to specialize in a particular type of document, it does not mean that you can never venture into other types of documentation. All it means is that you need to be aware of how much you will need to learn and what to focus on, because with specific documentation you need more than expert knowledge of a particular field.

Can you think of any other types of documents translated by medical translators? If you do, please share them in your comments!


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