Earlier this month The BMJ published an original research article on the use of Google Translate in medical communication. The aim of the authors was to evaluate the accuracy and usefulness of Google Translate in translating common English medical statements.
The authors took 10 phrases, translated them with Google Translate into 26 languages (8 Western European, 5 Eastern European, 11 Asian, and 2 African) and then asked human translators (26 native speakers of the target languages) to back translate the results into English. The back translations were then analysed for errors against the original phrases.
So far so good. But you may be wondering why I’m reviewing this study in this (boring) factual manner. After all, it has already been widely shared and aired on Twitter, other blogs and forums.
I’m reviewing the article because there’s a twist to it.
Every year, The BMJ publishes a special two-week issue over Christmas. The BMJ editors give just the tiniest of clues about what makes this issue special in their instructions to authors: we […] particularly welcome colour illustrations. If you’re familiar with the Christmas issue, however, you’ll know that the colourful nature of these articles is reflected more in the text than in the illustrations. British tongue-in-cheek humour at its best.
(If you’re still not sure what I mean, read the results of an observational study published in The BMJ Christmas Issue two years ago, about why Rudolph’s nose is red.)
The funny side
Google’s efforts were a joke. A cardiac arrest turned into an imprisoned heart. A fitting child became one who was constructing. In Marathi, donating organs was translated as tools, and in Bengali, a need to be ventilated turned into a wind movement. For more juicy translations, see the full list.
Google only got it right 57.7% of the time!!! According to these results, only about half of all Googled patients would be properly ventilated, donate their organs and be consented for an operation. That leaves a massive 42.3% switching on electric fans, gifting their tools and agreeing to operate machinery.
The serious side
It’s very worrying that doctors have to resort to Google Translate. Healthcare workers should always have access to qualified, human interpreters.
In practice, if Google Translate is the only alternative in an emergency, then doctors should be trained to use it more effectively. They should avoid polysemy (fitting, organs) and medical jargon (cardiac arrest), and keep phrases short (has the opportunity to donate is too long-winded).
Conclusions (my own)
Medical translators and interpreters won’t be out of a job in the foreseeable future!