Medical translation services for the Spanish-speaking community

Medical translation services for the Spanish-speaking community
Apr 3, 2020
Modern medicine has no borders, and language shouldn’t be a deterrent to quality care.

A diagnosis of a serious disease such as cancer is scary enough. For those patients who speak little or no English, communication is often an additional barrier between them and health care providers.

The medical industry relies on translation services to make treatments and medication understandable to patients speaking various languages. This makes efficient communication possible between physicians, patients, and other health care professionals.

After receiving her B.S. in Biochemistry, ICF’s Linda Saucedo spent nine years working at a small pharmaceutical company and as a research assistant at the National Institute of Health. That’s when she realized that a career in medical translation would allow her to use her health research background, bilingualism, and passion for language and culture. She then went on to pursue a master’s degree in Translation Project Management and Localization.

We sat down with Linda to learn more about the critical service ICF provides to Spanish-speaking individuals and Hispanic communities nationwide. 

Q: What’s the most unique product your team has worked on? 

A: Our main client is the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Office of Cancer Content Management. We translate information summaries about cancer (treatment for adults and children, supportive and palliative care, screening and prevention, and alternative and complementary therapies) as well as other content for the Spanish version of their website.

The PDQ (Physician Data Query) is NCI's comprehensive source of cancer information for both health professionals and patients. It contains summaries of cancer and drug information, plus dictionaries of general cancer terms, drug terms, and genetics terms. 

Our team translates and updates the dictionary of cancer terms into Spanish. There’s nothing else like it for patients. NCI’s Cancer Information Service contact center uses this dictionary as a resource for their information specialists. They use the dictionary to explain information to the callers and refer them to the website to get additional information in Spanish. 

Q: How do you ensure high-quality translations in your work?

A: Medical terminology—and cancer terminology in particular—is very specific, complex, and changes frequently. Our team does extensive terminology management. We created a terminology database, style manual, and glossary to ensure consistency across all PDQ content. The terminology is reviewed and approved as a team. Then we bring in the client as needed to come to agreement on the terminology we’ll be using, both for technical and lay language. 

We have well-defined processes in place, which start with an initial translation and research step. The original translator makes revisions and then assigns the document to a second translator for the first peer review. Final decisions are made on terminology, and then all documents go to a second and final peer review before publishing. Reviewers check the translated text for style and grammar, punctuation, format, links, translation accuracy, consistency, and compliance with the style manual for Spanish PDQ summaries.

We also support NCI’s PDQ multimedia projects, which include animated videos, illustrations, and audio recordings for the Spanish dictionary of cancer terms. Our team translates the labels and captions for all images. We also work with the voice-over specialists, medical illustrators, and animators to ensure that each video and illustration resonates with the Hispanic culture.
Q: What can go wrong if medical information is mistranslated?   

A: While medical translation is a step removed from direct patient interaction, medical interpreters do use our materials to look up terms to explain concepts and different treatment options to patients. Mistranslation could impact a person’s decision about health, treatment, medicine dosage, or general health outcomes. It’s very important that we get it right. 

Our translators know where to go (i.e., reputable resources) to get the right terminology, even for new and unfamiliar words. The word outbreak, for example, could be translated as “erupción,” “epidemia,” or “brote.” In the case of the outbreak caused by the new coronavirus, “brote” or “brote epidémico” can be used depending on the context.

We have a physician in our team and many physician contacts—including at The Royal Academy of Medicine of the Spanish Language in Spain—that we can ask questions if we’re dealing with a new term. They help us understand the nuances, determine the correct translation, and decide if we are capturing the correct meaning of the term for our intended audience.

Q: What are the key challenges in your work?

A: One of the biggest challenges is the diversity of Hispanic communities. Spanish-speakers and their cultures are so diverse. The vocabulary can be quite different depending on which country a patient comes from. There are differences in terminology, such as how they describe pain. There are also differences in grammar as some countries use the second-person pronoun “tú” and others use “vos.” 

Medical translators must be aware of the linguistic and cultural differences and the context in order to produce the right translation. Language evolves, and medical terminology is always changing. Years ago, it might have been acceptable to use an English term for a cancer treatment. If there’s now an approved Spanish term, we have to be aware of those updates and incorporate the new terms. We make sure to keep our terminology database, style manual, and glossary up to date. 

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that we’re providing valuable information to Spanish-speaking individuals. Our knowledge and cultural competence guide our decision-making on grammar and vocabulary choices. Our team’s educational and cultural background gives us the right experience to know the right usage of terms. 

As translators, we must be aware of the intended audience before we start our work (e.g., NCI's main target is Hispanics in the U.S.). By providing the latest scientific findings and information in their native language, we not only help patients understand their condition but also help them make informed decisions about their treatments and care.

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