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Medical Translation and Medical Interpreting During the 2020 Pandemic

Healthcare and Language Access Series - Translation

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), comprised of 27 Institutes, Centers and Offices, is a house of heroes in 2020, our year of the COVID-19 Pandemic. As the world lives concurrent social, political and economic nightmares, NIH is hard at work to solve the problem in the only way possible: science. They make the headlines daily, and on July 27 they announced that a phase 3 clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 has begun.

Quoting Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony S. Fauci, M.D:

“Although face coverings, physical distancing and proper isolation and quarantine of infected individuals and contacts can help us mitigate SARS-CoV-2 spread, we urgently need a safe and effective preventive vaccine to ultimately control this pandemic.”-Anthony S. Fauci, M.D, Director of NIAD

At Ad Astra, we are driven by a purpose to build, support and enrich our communities. To that end, we feel it is our duty to support our NIH clients as fully as possible during this critical time.

On Tuesday, July 28, Ad Astra’s Chief Operating Officer, Ryan Foley got the chance to sit down (over Zoom, of course) with key NIH staff to discuss best practices for medical translation and interpretation during the Pandemic. Ryan emphasized the need to hire the right medical translation or interpretation team during the pandemic, or any time, the importance of consistency, the wisdom attainable by knowing your audience, and the critical nature of getting the details of the message right.

Ryan Foley smiles and looks at the camera in front of a DC landscape.

Ryan Foley, (Former) Chief Operating Officer, Ad Astra, Inc.

We really enjoyed the talk with NIH, and we’d like to share the content with you. We asked Ryan about what he thought were the most useful take-aways from this presentation for anyone involved in medical translation and medical interpreting, whether Over-the-Phone (OPI), In-Person, or Virtual Interpreting (VI).

  1. Right Linguist, Right Job. 
    The best brain surgeons are not necessarily the best clinical physicians. In the same vain, the best In-Person, Over-the-Phone (OPI) or Virtual Interpreter (VI) for a surgery may not be the best written translator for medical device manuals. These are nuances that NIH or anyone performing medical translation and interpreting should keep in mind.
  2. Consistency = Health.
    For written translation and oral interpretation, consistent delivery and terminology will make the difference that saves lives. Our NGO partner, Translators Without Borders, has been working to combat COVID-19 misinformation and bring forth better and more consistent terminology. for example, lamentably, “social distancing” is a term that does not translate well across all cultures and languages, and under-analysis of this term’s impact has had a grave cost.Dona Petkova of Translators Without Borders is interviewed by Ad Astra.
  3. Know your Audience.
    The “Plain Language Act of 2010” requires “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Former US President Obama’s administration saw the need to communicate with the public more clearly in English, though this principle is applicable across languages and cultures. Ryan emphasized the particularly critical nature of keeping your audience in mind in medical translation and interpreting where the stakes are high. This advice is key for the pandemic but will continue to ring true far after this dark cloud clears from our society.
  4. The Devil (or Virus?) is in the Details!
    In the sentence “do not take this medication while pregnant,” the word not is critical. Nonetheless, it is possible that your translator will inadvertently omit that word and dangerously change the meaning. Do you have the quality assurance measures in place to catch that error? As scary as it may seem to commit an error like that, the right system in place will absolutely guarantee that it won’t happen.

Ryan’s full presentation to the NIH is fun and very informative, with a ton of insights like the ones summarized here. Be sure to grab it from the link below!