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What Errors Are Unacceptable in Medical Translation?

By Melia Yanat , Lingolet Team

What Errors Are Unacceptable in Medical Translation?

There are several kinds of interpretation mistakes.

  • Making mistakes in the medical lexicon

Abbreviations and false friends are very common in medicine, and a medical interpreter must always question the meaning of acronyms used by a caregiver. A simple abbreviation can completely change the severity of a diagnosis.

Besides, some abbreviations have multiple meanings. Abortion, for example, can mean "left ventricular failure" and "voluntary termination of pregnancy." It is the interpreter's job to determine the meaning, depending on the context.

  • Explain a diagnosis or procedure

An interpreter is not a doctor; he or she must interpret and translate for the patient and the doctor.

It is not their job to explain a procedure or diagnosis, nor is it their job to give advice or recommendations. The interpreter must remain neutral in his/her statements.

By intervening personally, the interpreter may make a patient feel uncomfortable or influence him or her in any way. This is a grave professional mistake.

  • An Example of Poor Medical Translation

When 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to hospital in a coma in 1980, his family, who spoke Spanish, said he was “intoxicado”.

The medical team thought this meant he was "intoxicated", perhaps on alcohol or drugs, so they left him to sleep until he recovered.

However, in Spanish, “intoxicado” means a reaction to a toxic poison or allergy.

Ramirez had a brain hemorrhage. The delay in his treatment caused permanent nerve system damage and he became quadriplegic, unable to use arms or legs. His family sued and won a $71 million settlement to cover his medical care for the rest of his life.

That small mistake ruined a family and an institution.

A medical interpreter has experience and knowledge to avoid such mistakes.


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Learn more about medical translation: 


  • Why are medical translation errors unacceptable, and how can they be avoided

  • Is there a difference in medical language between Quebec French and French from France?

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