The current Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the immense importance of translators and interpreters who are skilled in translating medical documents and international communication between medical professionals.

Global Pandemic

Medical translators specialise in translating medical text. This could be in the form of research material, vaccine instructions, doctors’ medical notes, drug information, epidemiological data, public health statements and mandates. One of the features of the pandemic is that some of the worst health outcomes have affected lower socio-economic groups. These are often migrant communities in the more affluent west who don’t necessarily speak or understand the written form of the dominant language. Medical translators are used to get important health messages across to these communities.

Medical interpreters specialise in verbal communication and just like medical translation, the pandemic has demonstrated how vital the job of interpreters really is. Advances in tackling the pandemic has been a global obsession and this has involved collaboration between health experts, doctors, epidemiologists, biochemists, pharmacists, and government officials all around the world. In contrast to previous pandemics, the fact that internet access has become almost universal has allowed all these medical professionals to communicate and collaborate with the help of medical interpreters.

Medical translation and interpreting doesn’t just pop up when there is a particularly grave health outbreak of course. Translators and interpreters have been at work for many decades making sure that the myriad forms of medical communication take place as accurately and seamlessly as possible.

Who are the men and women who work as medical translators and interpreters?

Translating and interpreting are two separate but related professions. There are many different fields that translators and interpreters can specialise in and medical translating and interpreting just happens to be one of them, but a highly specialised field. Translators and interpreters who translate medical communication must have a reasonable background in medicine, fluency in at least two languages, a good working knowledge of medical terms in those languages and preferably training in either the skills of translation or interpreting. Most countries will have places of further education that offer courses in translating and interpreting and in some countries, a certificate achieved at the end of such a course may be a pre-requisite to be recognised as a professional translator or interpreter.

A medical background is often a route to a new career

Quite often, people who become translators or interpreters may have had earlier careers in the medical field but for one reason or another have decided to make a career shift into translation or interpreting, bringing their knowledge of medical terms and familiarity with medical procedures, medical technology or medications with them. 

The use of medical translators and medical interpreters is vital for effective public health outcomes

It is important for both public and private health authorities and management to make use of professional translators and interpreters in everyday health care. Relying on guesswork or even the use of someone who thinks they know another language may put patients’ lives in danger. Good public health care practice will ensure they have an ability to call in medical interpreters when there is a need to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand the language of the healthcare professionals treating them. There is no room for making mistakes as miscommunication about symptoms, treatment, patient history, and expected outcomes must be avoided as much as possible.

Similarly, whenever medical techniques are discussed, such as the results of new research or a new technological development, it is important that there are professional medical translators used to translate the information accurately into other world languages. A new form of treatment or a new drug or vaccine may be developed in a German-speaking medical environment but this then must be translated into many dozens of other languages so the benefits can be shared.