Scientific language in general and medical writing in particular must be characterised by its veracity, accuracy and clarity: it is absolutely essential that nothing in a scientific text be false, ambiguous or incomprehensible. Exactly the same thing applies with medical translations: quality is of huge importance when there are lives at stake…

Willie Ramírez and the $70 million word

Cuban-born Willie Ramírez was just 18 the day he went out with some friends and began to feel a headache coming on. By the time he reached his girlfriend’s house he was almost unconscious. He was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state and when he woke up he couldn’t walk. A cerebral haemorrhage had left him quadriplegic for life.

It needn’t have been that way. The haemorrhage could have been treated but the Ramírez family didn’t have access to a professional Spanish interpreter. They told the emergency physicians that Willie had eaten a hamburger and thought he had been “intoxicado”, which in Spanish can mean food poisoning. However, a bilingual staff member translated it as “intoxicated” so the doctor thought Willie had consumed alcohol or drugs and treated him for a drug overdose. The haemorrhage was discovered after days of inappropriate treatment and by then it was too late. The hospital, which should have provided a professional interpreter, was sentenced to pay the family €70 million in compensation.

‘False friends’ like ‘intoxicated/intoxicado’ abound in the field of medical translation. Further examples: ‘abortus’ does not mean ‘abortion’ but rather “a human foetus less than 12 weeks old or weighing at birth less than 17 ounces”; ‘constipado’ does not mean ‘constipated’ but rather a cold; ‘disorder’ in medical language usually means an alteration, disturbance or disease; ‘mortal’ is used in Spanish when in English the term would be ‘fatal’; the Spanish word ‘sano’ is not ‘sane’ but ‘healthy’, etc.

These examples of incorrect medical translations show how important it is to use medical translators and interpreters who are native-speaking professionals with a high degree of specialisation, because a serious translation mistake can have terrible consequences…