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google translate for medical translations

13 Aug Why Google Translate is not your friend for medical translation

Although huge strides are being made in machine translation and its usefulness in certain contexts should not be ignored, medical translation is not yet one of them. By way of illustration, we refer you to some original research carried out by the British Medical Journal a few months back on the use of Google Translate in medical translation.

The experimental set-up replicated a common scenario in medicine: a health professional having to communicate a patient’s medical condition or requirements to the patient without the help of a human translator, turning instead to an online translation service. Ten common statements were selected and Google-translated into 26 languages. The accuracy of the resulting translations was assessed by asking native speakers to back-translate them into English.

The full report can be found at the above link, but by way of summary just 57.7% of the re-translated English statements were usable in this context. This is simply not an acceptable accuracy rate in medical translation.

Breaking down these results, we see that the more closely-related Western languages scored higher accuracy rates (74%) than the more distant Asian and African language families (46% and 45%, respectively). Even so, would you trust your medical communication to a translation service that was three-quarters of the way to accurate?

And let’s not forget that, beyond avoiding the life-threatening and the nonsensical, communication in this context has another role to play: it must inspire trust in the patient and the patient’s family, and to do so it must be empathetic. The factual content of a message like “Your husband is now ready to donate” is not hard to extract, but the message lacks all tact and may not therefore lead to an optimal outcome.

It must also be natural, meaning “as used by a native speaker”. In Spanish, for instance, nasal haemorrhages, plantar fasciitis and myopia are perfectly commonplace, but such diagnoses would set alarm bells ringing for an English-speaking patient. In this language, Latinate terms are the preserve of doctor-doctor interactions, medical journals… and serious illnesses – not nosebleeds, jogger’s heel or short-sightedness. So while Google’s translation would be perfectly correct, it would also be perfectly incomprehensible to your average native English speaker.

To reiterate, Google Translate has its uses, but where patient well-being is at stake, we strongly recommend the services of a trained language professional.

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