Why medical texts should be simplified – and how to do it


In translation, the golden rule seems to be reproducing a source text as faithfully as possible. But what happens if that could mean putting lives at risk?

Medical translators often do more than translate; they simplify translated texts to make them easier to comprehend.  For some people, this may sound invasive or problematic. But when you look into who’s reading and what’s at stake, it becomes clear that simplification is necessary. After all, medical texts can be anything from studies, to guides, to instructions and inserts for medication and devices. If patients can’t understand these texts, the mistakes they make could cost them their lives.

Unfortunately, several factors make it easy for the average person to run this risk.

For example, studies have found that in many countries where the majority of the population is literate, the average adult’s reading comprehension skills are lower than university-level. This is a problem, Michael Aldridge of the University of Colorado’s Nursing School points out, because most patient education-related documents are written at a high school or university level.

Even if a medical text is slightly simpler, it may contain medical jargon, which most laypeople find as incomprehensible as a foreign language. A study of American adults, for instance, showed that only 12% were able to fully understand medical jargon. This could explain why only 50% of chronically ill patients take their medications correctly.

Luckily, there are some tips translators can follow in order to create an easily understood medical text.  The most important one is for translators to communicate with the writers of the text, to clarify any points, if needed, and to be sure that the most important information is conveyed in the translation.

That should provide a solid foundation for a medical translation. But there are still many other things medical translators have to keep in mind when it comes to conveying important information in a simplified way. This guide from the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus contains an excellent list of helpful advice for creating simplified medical translations. Here are ten of the most interesting points.:

  1. Determine and research your target audience. Before translating a medical text, in addition to communicating with the writers of the original text, translators should use demographic information and studies, reach out to organizations that might work with the same demographic, and even conduct interviews, in order to truly understand their target audience.

  2. Be clear about why patients should or shouldn’t do something. To medical professionals, including medical translators, the reason for using medication or equipment seems clear and logical. But imagine if a patient is completely new to this treatment, or is resisting it due to their beliefs or personal issues. That’s why it’s important to clearly explain why this treatment or tool should be used. The Medline Plus guide gives this example of the type of sentence medical translators should include in instruction manuals and inserts: “Proper use of asthma inhalers helps you breathe better.” That may seem obvious even to many laypeople, but it may educate or convince a reluctant patient.

  3. Don’t assume that a low reading level means low intelligence. It’s always important to address patients with respect, not condescension. A medical translation should be simplified, but still keep a tone appropriate for adults, not children.

  4. Keep it simple and short. It’s hard for most of us to cut through wordy, complex sentences, even when their meaning is crucial. Medical translators should keep sentences short (the guide suggests no more than 10-15 words for each) and eliminating wordy, non-essential content.

  5. Explain or replace jargon, acronyms, obscure words, and abbreviations. This could be as simple as including the meaning of an acronym in parentheses, for example, “EMR (Electronic Medical Record)”, or explaining a medical term — for instance: “If you suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing or other noise in the ears…”. If a patient is likely to hear a term used by their care provider, a translator may even want to include a simplified parenthetical showing how to pronounce it.

  6. Give concrete examples. Most of us have a tendency to break or disregard the rules from time to time, especially when those rules are vague or don’t seem “real.” So, author of the guide suggests adding examples to instructions. For instance, they write, “instead of ‘Don’t lift anything heavy,’ use ‘Don’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk (about 10 pounds).’”

  7. Break it down to bullets. Instead of long paragraphs, try to distill information into an easy-to-read bullet list. Not only will this give the audience essential information at a glance; it also means they’re more likely to read the entire text, since it doesn’t seem as overwhelming as large paragraphs. Incidentally, this is advice you’ll often see for any kind of informative writing destined for the general public.

  8. Repetition can be good. Writers usually try to avoid using the same word all the time, but this kind of repetition is necessary in simplified medical translation. Patients need to understand very clearly that you’re talking about the same thing, not two different things. This is the case, the author writes, even for relatively common terms, like “drugs” and “medication” being used interchangeably. Just stick with one word for the entire text.

  9. Don’t use complicated graphics. Infographics are very “in” right now, and no wonder. They’re a way to break up text and show important or interesting information at a glance. But when you’re simplifying a translation, a hard-to-read infographic is as much something to avoid as complicated sentence structures. Make sure any infographics included in your text are extremely easy to understand and simply designed.

  10. Use readability assessment tools. These helpful online or software programs will determine the exact reading level of the text you’ve just translated. The Medline guide includes links to several of them. There is one downside to using these tools, though: you have to format your document to be paragraphs only – no headings, bullet lists, etc.

Speaking of resources, the CDC also has a page of helpful online tools.

Simplifying medical translations isn’t just a necessity; it’s a challenging task whose rewards are immeasurable. If you’re looking for a medical translator, or if you’re translating a medical text, remember that clarity can improve or even save patients’ lives.

by Alysa Salzberg

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