Lost in translation?

To accommodate the vast range of ethnicities living in the UK today, it is vital for healthcare professionals to have access to various forms of translation and interpreting services. But the issue does not just end there; the quality of the translation is also crucial. Any inaccuracies caused by a poor translation could, quite literally, result in life or death.

Risky business
When patients cannot communicate with health professionals, not only can this make their treatment stressful and confusing, but may also affect the doctor’s diagnosis. Health professionals need to hear an account of their patient’s illness and medical history in order to make a decision about treatment. If this is not obtained, it could result in failure to identify conditions and failure to take the necessary action. Needless to say, the consequences could be considerable.
There is also the negative impact on health professionals to bear in mind. By having no or a poor quality interpretation service, health professionals may be forced to compromise or lower their standards by treating patients without explanation or discussion. In addition, there is the worry of having to perform examinations or treatments on a patient that is distressed because he or she does not understand the situation.
Not using a professional translator and interpreter could also result in costly mistakes in terms of finance; if healthcare providers can get it right first time, costs can be kept down.

Translation services
The decision about whether to use a face-to-face interpreter should be judged on a case-by-case basis. As a basic rule, the more complex the communication, the more likely the need for face-to-face interpreting. Likewise, if the interview is going to be long, if the patient is vulnerable or if sensitive information or bad news is going to be disclosed.
An alternative service is telephone interpreting where the interpreter is at the other end of the line. The translation supplier should respond to calls any time of the day or night and should also be able to connect the call to an interpreter in the required language. The call is connected like a conference call between the patient, health professional and interpreter. This should be utilised when short but important pieces of information need to be communicated immediately. The charges are usually based on the time spent on the call.
Written text that needs communicating to the patient, such as a patient record, leaflet, brochure, website content, e-mail, letter or form, will need text-to-text translation in the required language.
Some suppliers offer text-to-speech translation. This is where a document is communicated to the health professional or patient orally or by audio in the relevant language. It can be a good option for the visually impaired or illiterate. One method is to send the document to the translation agency with the language required and the relevant telephone number. An interpreter will then call the relevant person to read the content of the document into the required language. Alternatively, the supplier may be able to supply the text as audio.
With the developments in technology, such as a videoconference, web camera and even the phone, healthcare professionals could be with a patient in a room and speak directly to an interpreter in real time and at very short notice. Many professional interpreters are equipped to perform this function.
Another service that is useful in today’s multi-cultural environment is ‘cultural understanding’. This is where minority groups give feedback on the cultural sensitivity of a document and highlight any issues that might arise due to cultural differences.

Choosing a supplier
It is important to make sure that the supplier can offer quality translation and interpreting services for the specific needs of the health sector. Knowing a foreign language alone is simply not enough in the medical profession. The meaning of a text or speech must be understood before it can be translated and if the text or speech is full of medical terms and jargon, then it is unlikely that a translator without medical knowledge and experience will be able to do a sufficient job.
Suppliers that are members of professional bodies such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) have to adhere to a strict code of professional conduct and can be a good place to start your search. Alan Wheatley, general secretary of the ITI comments: “Quality translation and interpreting is vital to the health sector, but differentiating between a professional and a non-professional can be difficult. Quality really is the key here; it takes years of study to become a qualified translator or interpreter – these are responsible roles requiring attention to detail and significant language skills – and then a lifetime of learning to remain abreast of specialist terminology and trends. The best way to source a professional is to thoroughly check qualifications and references and use directories such as ITI’s Directory of Members available at www.iti.org.uk.”