Translation Clinic Medical Translator or InterpreterClinics and hospitals use the services of medical translators and medical interpreters, but what is the difference between the two? The answer lies in the type of communication involved.

Translation is the transfer of written text from one language to another, and interpreting is the transfer of spoken or signed communication into another oral or signed language. While there are some key skills common to translation and interpreting, a good translator will not always make a good interpreter, and vice versa.

The core language, cultural and subject-matter skills required by medical translators and interpreters include:

  • Excellent command of their working languages
  • Understanding of cultural differences
  • Knowledge of anatomy and physiology
  • Knowledge of medical terminology
  • Understanding of health care concepts
  • Understanding of ethical issues

In addition, medical interpreters also need particular communication and personal skills, including:

  • Clear speech or sign language
  • The ability to work bi-directionally, actively producing both languages
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Understanding of dialects and regional language
  • The ability to think on their feet
  • Strong listening and memory skills
  • Note-taking skills
  • Ability to interpret non-verbal cues

Interpreters must also remain independent and objective at all times, which is not always possible when the interpreting is provided by family members.

As can be seen from the list above, although being bilingual is a key skill for medical interpreters, it is not sufficient to ensure success in the role.

Medical translators work in a very different way to interpreters, as their end product is in the form of a written document. This means that translators must have an excellent written command of the language that they are translating into, so this must usually be their native language. The process of translation includes thorough reading of the original text, analysis, research, the translation itself, and then editing and proofreading.

As well as the core skills listed above, medical translators also require:

  • Excellent writing skills in their native language
  • Knowledge of a wide range of medical concepts and terminology
  • Strong reading, analysis and research skills
  • Access to appropriate resources and reference materials
  • Excellent editing and proofreading skills
  • Computer and translation technology skills
  • Project management skills

When working with translators, having a second translator proofread all translations is highly recommended, to ensure error-free text. Your translator may be able to arrange this review for you, or it can be organised independently.

Medical translators and interpreters are often members of the same professional organisations, and undertake the same professional development in medical terminology to enhance their subject-matter expertise. But due to the very different skills involved, it is good to be aware of the difference between medical translation and interpreting, so you can choose the right professional to meet your needs.


What’s in a Word? A Guide to Understanding Interpreting and Translation in Health Care


Please note that I do not have a commercial relationship with any of the organisations mentioned above.

By Jayne Fox, German-English medical translator and editor. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Head over to Google+ or Twitter to continue the conversation!