When a medical report lands in my inbox I know it’s going to be a challenge. It’s probably going to be a scanned PDF or image file. If the client is the patient, he or she will need to be guided through the translation, invoicing and payment workflow. The report itself may be full of abbreviations, none of which will be glossed. Here are some tips for translating medical reports efficiently.
1. Agree on what needs to be translated
A client may not need a 20-page report translated word for word. I sometimes offer an adapted or summarised translation service, especially if there are time or budget constraints. The exact content depends on the purpose of the translation. If the target reader is a doctor in the patient’s home country, he or she won’t need to know the patient’s hospital bed number and other details.
- Hospital reports are sometimes issued on complex forms that are only half completed. Ask your client if you can omit blank fields if they are not relevant.
- Abnormal lab results are usually starred or marked with an up or down arrow to show that they are out of the reference range. Ask if you can just translate the abnormal results and attach the full version in the source language only.
- The patient’s name, address, bed number and medical record number may appear scores of times in a long medical report. Suggest translating these details just once, the first time they appear.
You’ll need to use your discretion when offering this type of service. If you don’t feel confident about what you can omit, translate the whole report. If the translation is for a different purpose, such as an insurance claim, then you will need to translate the document exactly as it is.
Personal details may have to be redacted if the report is part of clinical trial documentation. This will preserve the blinding process.
2. Arrange prices, invoicing and payment before you start
Make sure this is all tied up in advance. Think carefully about your quote. Charge a fixed price that will cover the time you need to complete the whole project. A per word rate won’t apply for this type of text, which may be scanned, have abbreviations to research and need more time than usual to format.
Don’t forget to tell your client whether VAT will be applicable. (In Spain, the invoice will be subject to VAT unless the client lives outside the EU.) Payment should be on receipt of the invoice. Upfront payment is advisable; you can still make a start on the translation while you’re waiting for the transfer to come through.
3. Use an OCR tool
If the report is scanned, I recommend Abbyy FineReader to convert the text into an editable format. Make sure you prepare tables in Abbyy, and then convert the file in plain text to Word and complete the basic formatting there. Exact copies with hospital logos are probably going to be overkill for a medical report.
Revise the converted text carefully. Be particularly wary of typical OCR errors. “1” and “I” and “0” and “o” look very similar in some fonts (2o March 2oI5). Certain letter combinations can be misinterpreted by an OCR tool, especially in the case of proper names that aren’t in the dictionary (e.g., “Emesto” instead of “Ernesto”).
Why not just start with a blank Word document?
I use OCR for two reasons. First, to save time copying long numbers, names and addresses, and second, to translate the source file in a CAT tool. In Trados Studio I’ve built up a good medical glossary over the years, full of drug names, procedures and abbreviations.
4. Decipher unknown abbreviations
This is usually the most time-consuming part of the translation. A 300-word medical report splattered with abbreviations isn’t going to be a 30-minute job. The standard recommendation to “ask the client” when you have doubts doesn’t apply here. If your client is the patient, or even an agency, they won’t be able to help you.
Strategies for solving abbreviations:
- For Spanish abbreviations, Cosnautas is THE place to go. Access to Siglas médicas en español is free of charge. The latest version, released just a few days ago, contains 30,000 entries and 90,000 meanings.
- The abbreviation might be in English already. Check it out at MediLexicon, an excellent resource for English medical abbreviations. You’ll find the MediLexicon search box on my website.
- When you discover what the abbreviation stands for in your source language, find the equivalent in English (or your target language). Try entering the meaning in Google, together with the word abbreviation.
If you can’t find the target abbreviation, don’t worry. Gloss the meaning rather than inventing an abbreviation yourself.
- Look for other clues. Is the abbreviation in the blood results’ section? Is it a procedure? Is it written out in full later on in the report?
5. Deal with drug names
Medical reports may just give a brand name for a drug. Don’t replace it with an equivalent brand name in your target language. Keep the source brand name and add the INN (International Nonproprietary Name) in brackets afterwards.
6. Check the legibility of handwritten texts
I only accept handwritten texts if I feel confident I can decipher them, and I always charge by the hour for these projects. Unless the writing is very clear, I don’t recommend you take them on. If there are more than just a few words you can’t read, the end translation will no longer be functional; inserting illegible won’t help the target reader. Misinterpreting a poorly-written number could have even more serious consequences.
A final tip:
Don’t take on the job if you’re out of your depth. If you don’t understand the medical content of the report or will be playing a guessing game with the abbreviations, recommend a more experienced colleague.
I hope these tips come in useful the next time a medical report drops into your inbox. If you have any more recommendations, please add a comment below.