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Do you need a medical degree to be a good medical translator?

Whether you like it or not, there is so much demand for medical translators and very few medical professionals engaged in medical translation. As far as I am aware, most medical translation is carried out by translators who are not actively practicing medicine for the simple reason that medical professionals are already sufficiently stressed without having to engage in translation. I have a BSc in Clinical Medicine obtained in China and had practiced medicine very briefly during my internship before I switched to a career as a language service provider (LSP) (Yes, I may be insane, as many people have 'politely' pointed out ;) ). My medical degree has undoubtedly boosted my clients' trust in my ability to deliver top quality medical translation. However, does this mean you should only trust translators with a medical degree? The answer is no and here's why.

Medical translation is an extremely broad subject. There are so many genres and text types that not even medical professionals can say that they are familiar with all of them. Montalt and Davies (2007) have listed around 50 frequently translated genres in medical translation. These include research papers, clinical trial protocols, informed consents, medical histories, product information leaflets and popularising articles, just to name a few. Apart from genres, there are a large number of specialties in medicine. For example, a bi-lingual gynaecologist, despite being a medical practitioner, may not fully understand or be able to translate a research paper in stomatology and vice versa. Even if the gynaecologist in this example is also an expert in stomatology, s/he may not be a good writer or be familiar with the genre.

This is where professional medical translators step in. They are LSPs trained to handle certain genres of medical translation. They may not have in-depth knowledge and experience as do medical practitioners, but with rigorous learning, many medical translators can do an even better job. Medical translation, or any other kind of translation, is not just about getting the terms and jargon right. Equally great importance needs to be attached to the register, style and coherence of language so that the same meaning, not words, can be conveyed in the target language. A good doctor may not necessarily be a good writer and merely being bilingual by no means makes a person a qualified translator. This is not to say that medical education and profound understanding of the subject are not essential, but translation is more about the language than it is about knowledge.

In addition, professional medical translators can also offer many things medical practitioners cannot. As part of the profession, most translators routinely build up translation memory and termbase using Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools. Translation memory helps accelerate the translation process by retrieving data and suggestions from similar previously translated text and by automatically producing the same layout, fonts, design and file format as those of the original file. A termbase is a multilingual glossary of key terms and phrases that helps maintain accuracy and consistency of terminology and jargon. It enables translators to extract the translation of a term from the database by simply double clicking on the mouse, without having to look up the dictionary repeatedly for the same word or spend a lot of time searching for previous files where the same term was used.

Many people argue that errors in medical translation could cost lives and I cannot agree more. However, errors come in many forms. An error can be grammatical, stylistic, terminological, syntactic or simply a factual error due to poor understanding of the source language. All these types of errors could cost lives or lead to malpractice as they result in miscommunication. Only terminological errors, generally speaking, are relatively less likely to be made by medical professionals. Being a medical professional is not a guarantee that they do not make mistakes. We all do, as we are human. Of course, not all translators are capable of handling medical translation. It is the responsibility of translators to say no to subject areas or genres with which they are not familiar. To be a good medical translator, one has to have gained sufficient, though not expert, understanding of the subject area(s) and genre(s) in which s/he specialises. This level of insight can certainly be achieved with a professional degree, but is also achievable through a considerable amount of reading, research and practice.

In summary, a medical degree is with no doubt a wonderful bonus, but it is by no means gold key to top translation quality. Therefore, the most important trait to look for in a medical translator is not whether s/he has a medical degree, but if s/he has sufficient understanding of the subject area of interest and whether they have the experience and capability to produce a translation well written in the genre and style for which it is intended.


Montalt, Vincent. and Davies, Maria Gonzalez. 2007. Medical Translation Step by Step -- Learning by Drafting. Routledge. London and New York. pp. 30-31.

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