Certified Medical Translator – How to Become One

    Danilo Coviello

    Medical translation is rapidly becoming a growing industry due to the need to translate highly specialized medical documents that maintain the same standards globally.

    Contrary to popular belief, if you wish to become a certified medical translator and excel in your career, it is not essential to have a medical degree.

    However, you need to gain sufficient exposure to the world of medicine because even a minor error in translation could result in severe consequences in patients. Let us delve a bit more into medical translation and the ways to become a certified medical translator.

    Who is a Medical Translator?

    Many times, documents need to be translated for perusal in different parts of the world by patients, caregivers, and pharmacy dealers in the language they are comfortable with.

    It is the medical translator’s job to ensure these documents are translated efficiently and with a hundred percent accuracy. The reason medical translators need to be more precise with terminologies as compared to regular translators is that complications, sometimes even fatal, could arise due to a single misnomer.

    Imagine a patient, who does not understand English, buying a pill for sinusitis, and finding in the brochure that it is incorrectly spelled out as a pill for migraine, in a poor translation to her language, even though it is, in fact, a pill for sinusitis.

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    All she would do in such a circumstance is throw the pill out, but other times, repercussions could be severe in serious illnesses. One small error in patient-history and the doctor could be forced to prescribe an incorrect medicine. One misquoted symptom in the case filings and an erroneous procedure fatal to the patient could be executed. In medical translation, every single word is critical.

    Some of the documents that a medical translator is required to deal with include case reports, study agreements, study protocols, contracts, standard operating procedures, patient information, patient forms, leaflets, brochures for medicines, medical device information, and marketing material for medical product manufacturers or dealers.

    Is It the Same as Medical Interpretation?

    The short answer is ‘No’. Although both professions require certifications in translation, the two jobs differ in execution.

    While a medical translator deals primarily with written material, an interpreter is more of a conversationalist who facilitates the communication between two parties in the medical fraternity, if there happens to be a language barrier.

    In a typical workday, a medical interpreter could be seen at the bedside of a patient who speaks a different language than the visiting doctor, effortlessly translating every word the patient tries to convey to the doctor, and vice versa.

    They could also be spotted at international medical conferences where medical experts convene from all over the world, speaking in different languages. Interpreters, unlike translators, are required to be proficient in colloquial forms of the language pair including words to convey symptoms or illnesses that are not necessarily part of a formal medical dictionary.

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    A medical translator and a medical interpreter are both required to be experts in a language pair, but a medical translator typically has time to sit through the sources, research the material, and then produce a translated document, while an interpreter has to translate on the spot.

    However, regardless of whether a person is a medical translator or a medical interpreter, accuracy is a must and there is absolutely no margin for an error.

    How to Qualify as a Medical Translator?

    If you are serious about becoming a certified medical translator, you should begin with the basic requirements.

    At the very least, you should have a high school diploma and be proficient in a language pair. Typically, it is expected of a medical translator to be an expert in English and any other native version of a regional language.

    Being fluent in two languages is only the first step to becoming a medical translator. To succeed or even begin to get hired in this field, a certification from a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited program is a must.

    The value of the certifications lies in the fact that an in-depth knowledge of medical terminology and an absolute understanding of its usage is key to becoming a translator who is in demand. The National Board of Certification of Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) offers one such accredited certification you could look into.

    The NBCMI’s approach to certification is through written and oral examinations, for which they provide various preparatory materials such as the handbook, webinars, and QandA sessions.

    If you wish to take up a full-fledged training program before the certifications, there are certain International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) approved programs you could attend.

    Keep Growing in the Profession

    Although certifications could open a gate of opportunities for stepping your foot into the medical translation domain, your true growth lies in how you expand your knowledge in the field. Medical terminology is vast, and in some ways never-ending because of new research and definitions coming to the forefront almost every single day. Here are a few ways to survive and grow as a medical translator.

    1. Start small: Try to delve into one category of medical translation. For beginners, it makes sense to get into non-critical areas such as translating product information or product characteristic summaries. You could also look into translating marketing documents for medicine or medical device manufacturers. As you become more familiar with the terminology, you could work your way up to translating case histories, patient information, diagnosis, and so on.
    2. Invest in medical books: In the medical field, you can never stop learning. Hence, it is a good idea to invest in well-known medical books and journals to get yourself up to speed and keep abreast of all the latest developments. You will not learn every medical detail in one day, but will certainly get there if you keep reading.
    3. Work with NGOs: It could be challenging for newbie medical translators to land a job in a reputed healthcare center or a relevant company. This is because the requirements of a hundred percent accuracy are taken seriously in this industry. Begin by working with NGOs and enlist some experiences on your resume to present yourself as a person who could be trusted by bigger companies.

    Medical translation could be a lucrative career option if you have a passion for languages as well as for medicine. It is not an easy job and perfection is non-negotiable. However, as a certified medical translator, you could acquire the skills through training programs and your learning, using which you could be a crucial contributor in this domain.