May 22

How to become a medical translator?

You probably know that there’re two schools of thought on this subject: you either need to have a medical background or you become a medical translator through being persistent, through training and accruing experience. I’m the second type, but I’ve always been interested in medicine, and at school I was good at biology and chemistry. But I also loved English, and though this love won, I now successfully combine these two areas of interest. But back on track.

What’s „medical translation”?

The term is very broad and can include many different types of documents. Let’s try and group them by starting with what I do which is clinical trials and pharmaceutical translations.
Clinical trials
Clinical trials documentation can include: Study protocols, Patient Information, Informed Consent Forms, Standard Operating Procedures, correspondence between Contract Research Organisations and Regulatory Authorities, Study budgets, Study agreements, Case Report Forms, Adverse Events Reports – this list can go on.
With pharmaceuticals, I usually do: Summary of Product Characteristics, Labels, Patient Information Leaflets, medicinal products marketing materials.
Next, there are, of course, publications for medical journals, patients’ medical history documents, hospital discharge documents, medical market research surveys and medical devices translations which have a big share in our market.
This is just to give you an idea of what types of documents you might deal with, because examples are countless.

How to start translating medical texts?

I assume you have an excellent command of both your target and source languages, and you are generally interested in medical translation (unless you like doing things you don’t enjoy). Firstly, you cannot translate everything that lives under the umbrella of “medical translations”. Not just yet. You need to find your niche, something to begin with.
If you choose to translate SmPCs, Labels and PILs, first you should find out about the drug approval process in your relevant countries. In the EU, for example, there are four approval procedures called: national authorisation procedure, decentralised procedure, mutual recognition procedure and centralised procedure (you can read more here).
Once you start reading, you’ll also find out about EMA QRD templates that are to be used in all EU countries and about various guidelines on style, readability etc. If you’re serious about becoming a medical translator, than you seriously need to go through a lot of reading first, as with this knowledge you’ll just feel more confident about your translation work.
If you’ve never done any SmPC translation, you can start practicing in a very effective way. Simply, go to the EMA website here, search for an SmPC for a given drug in your source language, and start translating. Once you finish, you can then in the same area of the EMA website download the target version, and see how you did. You could also start building glossaries by referring to this excellent database, and make SmPCs your bedtime read, too! Yes, that’s the level of involvement needed in order to be successful.

How to develop your skills?

I’ve already covered this briefly – by reading and doing CPD. I do a lot of translations for clinical trials, so what I did a while ago was to read some specialised books on the subject. The books I read, for example, were titled “Badania Kliniczne: Organizacja, Nadzór, Monitorowanie” edited by Marcin Walter or “Umowy w Badaniach Klinicznych” by Piotr Zięcik and Krystyna Bartkowiak. There may be something wrong with me, but I enjoyed both of them, and try to review these books every now and then to keep my knowledge fresh.
Medical knowledge
But there’s something else. Something even more important that all this background information. It’s called medical knowledge. How do you know which verb goes with “concentration”? Do you “measure” it or perhaps you “mark” it? What’s the difference between a stroke and a heart attack? For this kind of knowledge you need to “go back to school”. To remind yourself of how the human body works, you can start with materials aimed at young learners so that you build up your knowledge gradually, rather than getting discouraged by the jargon you see on professional medical websites. At the same time look for books for nurses which should be relatively easy to follow and have a look around for some online courses.
On-line resources
You should definitely check out this website – Coursera which offers a wide variety of courses absolutely for FREE. You could also try eCPD Webinars and Alexandria Library which occasionally offer medical CPD courses.
There’s also an abundance of medical journals which form an advance resource for medical translators. For some portals, you’ll need to subscribe by simply creating an account, and for others you’ll need to be a medical doctor to have access. I managed to obtain access to a full version of Medycyna Praktyczna, and use this resource a lot when translating, doing research or when I want to do some CPD. You can find a list of medical journals here.
Internet portals are great, but you also need dictionaries. Good medical dictionaries. Perhaps the most popular one will be Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. This link takes you to the online version, but it isn’t an exact copy of the paper edition which I happen to have. Try these two links for lists of medical dictionaries: MedWord and HealthPlus.
These all use English which happens to be my source language, but if your language pair doesn’t include English, you’ll also be able to find plenty of resource online or you can ask for advice on translators’ forums such those at

How to get medical translation experience?

This can be a rocky path. It’s obvious no one will want to hire you for paid work if you don’t have any medical translation experience, and on no account you should lie about it when later offering your services! Try volunteering for some NGOs a list of which you can find here. Draft a letter or an email and state things as they are. I’m sure this will help you get your foot in the door of medical translations.
Remember that you can include in your portfolio all the translation work you did at university and when self-studying. All this adds to your experience.

5 traits you should hone

1. Be inquisitive – never assume and always check medical terms.
2. Be focused and alert. If something isn’t logical, point this out.
3. Remember about your audience: you’ll use different language in Patient Information and in a medical publication.
4. Be meticulous and check numbers. In medical translations they can be critical.
5. Be involved – proofread your work even a few times – you want your professionalism to show.

Long-term goals

There’s one thing medical translators and medical doctors share – they both need to develop their skills and knowledge. So once you establish yourself as a medical translator, don’t rest on your laurels. Always invest in yourself to stay ahead of the game. Last year I decided to become certified in Medical and Pharmaceutical translations, and passed an exam with the UK ITI. So set and attain new goals, such as developing a new sub-specialisation, and always think that the future’s bright! For medical translators, that is.