Translation fails are usually good for a laugh, unless you’re directly affected by them. But medical and pharma translation fails are the exception. Not only can they make companies and service providers lose clients, money, even entire markets; more seriously, they can put patients’ health and even lives at risk.
Here are a few notable pharmaceutical and medical translation fails:
Recently, Chinese pharmaceutical company Guangdong Zhanjiang Jimin Pharmaceutical Co. was about to release a product to the US market. Unfortunately, one of its components had been incorrectly translated. This disparity caused the drug to be barred from the US.
The case of Willie Ramirez is legendary in the medical translation community. One day in 1980, Ramirez suddenly came down with a headache and almost lost consciousness. His Cuban Spanish-speaking family brought him to the ER, saying he was intoxicado. In Cuban Spanish, the word essentially means “food poisoning”, but to the English-speaking ear, it’s a cognate of “intoxicated.” No one consulted a Spanish medical interpreter, and Ramirez was treated for a drug overdose, rather than what was actually wrong: a brain hemorrhage. Left untreated for so long, this resulted in Ramirez becoming paralyzed for life.
A nurse at a care home in Wales barely spoke English or Welsh and relied on Google Translate to assess her patients’ needs and complaints. It’s always better to use a person rather than a ‘bot for translation – and on top of that, Google Translate is especially bad with Welsh. Patients’ needs were lost in translation and many ended up dehydrated and lacking proper medication or care.
In 2014, the British Medical Journal conducted a study on the use of Google Translate in the medical field. The results were troubling : Google only got medical terminology correct 57% of the time. As the author of this blog post writes, some of the translation fails were surprising, or even funny. Take my personal favorite, English to Marathi translation where “Your husband had a cardiac arrest” becomes “Your husband had an imprisonment of heart.” Of course, the humor is quickly lost when you realize that mistranslations like these can be deadly.
Even non-medical translation mistakes can have a direct impact on people’s health. Take this example of a company that translated “May contain nuts” to “Peut contenir des noix” on its French product labels. Unfortunately, while noix does translate to “walnuts”, those aren’t the ones people are usually allergic to.
How do these translation fails happen? Many times, it’s because of something called literal translation. In other words, a translator (or ‘bot) simply translates word-by-word, without accounting for things like differences in terminology, culture, idioms, and slang.
Literal translations are usually due to:
the translator or bot not having enough knowledge of the target language and culture, including things like idioms, expressions, slang, pop culture references, and history.
an inexperienced or unprofessional translator. As you might imagine, anyone might get tired and simply start translating word-for-word. An experienced professional would know how to avoid this, and what to check for when looking over their work.
a tight deadline. If an employee or inexperienced translator is under the pressure of a tight deadline, they might do a rush job, not stopping to carefully consider if a word is actually part of an expression, or if a medical term can’t actually be translated word-for-word into the target language. If a ‘bot’s being used, a tight deadline might mean no one takes the time to read over the translation. Speaking of which…
no proofreading or review. Often for budgetary or deadline reasons, companies will simply take it as a given that a translation is correct and will release it without any kind of checking.
blind trust. As in the example about the Welsh nurse, many people simply take it on faith that translation technology can’t be wrong, and will simply use whatever translation is produced.
false cognates. Additionally, medical and pharma translations are even more complicated because of the many false cognates (intoxicado does not mean “intoxicated”; “arrest” doesn’t always mean imprisonment). These can trip up ‘bots and inexperienced translators.
If literal translation can happen so easily, how can you prevent it? First, it’s crucial to understand that, as translator Kevin Hendzel aptly puts it, “translators do not translate languages or words. They translate ideas.” It’s not enough to think you know the equivalent of each word in a sentence – what is the sentence really about? Are any idioms, false cognates, or other socio-linguistic features shading its meaning?
Culture should also always be considered. For example, I’ve written about how a medical trial questionnaire had to be adapted in a specific way in Turkey. Instead of asking how often study subjects used shampoo, the word “soap” was substituted, since many Turks use soap to wash their hair.
Knowing that translation isn’t word-for-word should help clients understand how important it is to choose an accredited human translator – not a random person who speaks a language, and not a machine. Ideally, the person you choose should also have extensive experience with medical translation in particular.
To be extra safe, when a translation is finished, hire a localization specialist or simply find a reliable speaker of the target language to read over it and be sure it’s understandable to the target culture.
These choices will cost more than using a buddy or a free translation ‘bot. But they might be a question of life and death.