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Any good writer creates drafts of their work, refining them with each read-through until they have constructed a final, quality product. A translator is very much a type of writer, so when he/she is asked to provide her translation services for a client, the work goes through a few drafts.
For me, the number of drafts depends on the document: the more challenging the French text, the more drafts I need. For example, I am currently working on an academic article about a rare form of uterine cancer, and the author has used obscure medical terms and unconventional syntax (i.e. the arrangement of the words). It’s driving me crazy!
So, I have taken off my perfectionist hat and put on my hard hat for the layer-by-layer construction of this translation. I accepted that I will not get the sentences “right” the first time and that there will be many terms left untranslated in my first draft. My secret is to use a symbol (an asterisk or exclamation point) as a placeholder where I have yet to find the correct term/meaning in English.
Once I have written a VERY rough draft, I search for the placeholders and zero on in them. I find that, especially with academic articles, the challenging words will be repeated later in the text. Those later instances will often be variations that give me more context to accurately translate them.
If I cannot translate a sentence/term with 100% confidence, I will make a note for the agency. If I am working in Wordfast (the CAT tool I use), I will place the word in brackets, then add a note using the appropriate menu at the bottom of the screen. If I am working in Word, I will add a comment, found under the review menu, which highlights the problem-spot and points to the note with a dotted line.
This leaves room for discussion with the agency or editor. It is a way of admitting that there is a possible error in my translation, but I provided the best translation I could within my means. Thus, the agency/editor can review my comment and decide how to best handle it.
In summary, rough drafts are valuable when translating difficult French medical documents. Don’t be afraid to use them. They will help you provide a more honest and accurate final translation.
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My focus this week has been on mentally and physically surviving the historical cold that hit Oklahoma. That has mainly consisted of painting my house to get it ready to sell, training jiu jitsu, seeking gratitude to keep panic at bay, and finding ways to entertain my dog indoors (snow + below zero temps).
So, I haven’t been thinking very deeply about science or translation. I did manage to articulate my 2 least favorite and 2 favorite types of translation jobs. Have you ever made that distinction? I believe this will help me decide which projects to take and which to avoid going forward. In therapy talk, that would be called setting boundaries.
2 Least Favorite Types of Translation Jobs
1. Large volume of numbers/dates in post-editing
These projects require “post-editing” a file directly in a CAT tool with an associated translation memory. They contain loads of numbers that need decimals to replace commas without accidentally changing one of the digits (i.e. 1,8 becomes 1.8, not 2.8). They also require a client-specific date format. What reads as 12/01/2021 must be changed to 01/12/2021 or maybe 12 JAN 2021. I dislike these projects because I hardly consider it translation when I’m simply re-formatting dates and numbers. Any monolingual person could do that. Plus, it’s mindless work that still requires a certain amount of focus. By the time I finish one of these projects, my brain is fried, like an egg.
2. Reports riddled with spelling/grammar mistakes or missing words
I have to guess and make lots of notes in files like these. The source was usually prepared by a resident or nurse who wanted to quickly record the notes and move on to another patient. So, they did not take the time to check for spelling errors. Sometimes, they are prepared using voice dictation, which causes confusion since that technology is imperfect and misunderstands the speaker on occasion. At this point, it becomes my job as the translator (far removed from the actual situation being reported) to GUESS what word is missing, what the author meant, and what the word was supposed to be in the first place.
2 Favorite Types of Translation Jobs
1. Academic articles
I have a routine with articles, since most follow the same layout. A title, list of the authors with their associated institutions, an abstract, the body of the text, and, sometimes, images or figures. I format and translate them section by section, making it easy to track my progress. Also, they’re easy to read since they tell a distinct “story” with a beginning, middle, and end.
2. Post-editing clinical trial documents (informed consent form, patient information leaflet, trial protocol, etc.)
When post-editing is done right, it’s a fantastic tool. Many clients need these types of documents translated, which means the agency has a rich translation memory. As a result, the files I am given have very accurate machine translated segments, making the work go faster and smoother. In addition, the documents are written to be understood by a non-technical audience. Literary, flowing sentences are frowned upon. Simple is better. This makes for straightforward sentences (the opposite of #2 above) that are easily translated.
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Sometimes, I’m conflicted about indirectly working for pharmaceutical companies. If I focus on the fact that my work contributes to medical research, then the conflict dissipates quickly.
This conflict is grounded in the fact that pharmaceutical companies have a rather deplorable reputation. By way of example, I present to you an episode of a TV medical drama. Doctor M. agrees to help a pharmaceutical company enroll a certain number of patients in exchange for a fee. He has a difficult time finding consenting patients, so, he ends up bribing another doctor to refer patients to him.
First, bribery is obviously unethical. Second, the plot emphasizes that doctors and drug manufacturers are profit-driven, which means that doctors can be bought to convince patients into trying experimental drugs.
This serves as a broad picture of how American society perceives clinical trials, scientific research, pharmaceutical companies, the healthcare system, etc. Easily manipulated and only serving to generate profit.
However, this is only one perspective. As with every story/argument, there are many possible perspectives. I adopt a perhaps less popular one when I’m translating, and that motivates me to sit down, focus, and put my all into every project.
Of course, these companies are profit-driven! They’re large, private corporations. This doesn’t change the fact that they are devoted to advancing medical research. They want to help stop cancer, find a cure for AIDS, create a COVID-19 vaccine, etc. While imperfect, drug manufacturers are kept in check by regulatory measures when they conduct clinical trials. Such measures ensure their research is accurate and ethical.
Thus, for all the corrupt doctors/manufacturers, there are just as many, if not more, scientifically-sound practices and associated players (i.e. ethics boards) making sure the drug development process produces safe, effective drugs and potentially saves lives.
As a translator
I take comfort knowing that I participate in the scientific branch of this drug development process. (I would never succeed as a doctor or sales rep because I’m an introverted linguist.)
The discharge and SAE reports that I translate are original documents describing real patients’ conditions. The academic articles that I translate are based in research, and I can only presume will be used to inform the development of certain drugs. The ethics materials that I translate bolster consistency between the science and morality.
Therefore, my work as a translator is intended to support medical research, not big money or corrupt practices, as some Americans might imagine. And I’m okay with this.
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In my experience, those of us translators who work for translation agencies, as opposed to direct clients, rarely get a chance to work with an editor. That is why I appreciate one particular agency for which I translate scientific journal articles regularly.
This agency is unique in that it encourages the editor and translator to collaborate. As a result, each project I translate for them becomes an opportunity to get feedback and practice communication, but I had to get past my insecurity and pride to understand that.
Take it from me, fellow medical translator, if you ever get a chance to collaborate with an editor like this, don’t let your ego get in the way. Please take advantage of the situation, and your work will improve as a result.
At first, this translation agency’s process made me anxious. Accepting a project from them,would turn the volume up on a prideful voice saying that I provided perfect translations and didn’t need feedback. Seeing the edits, an insecure voice would also pipe up, saying “You suck, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
At first, I submitted my work to the editor assigned to the project with my fingers crossed that he/she would understand all of my choices. After a few jobs, I noticed a pattern. The editor would catch my trouble spots and explain how to improve them or why they were trouble spots in the first place (scientists/doctors are not usually great writers and write difficult-to-translate articles).
Then, I realized two things. One, the editor wasn't critical. He/she just wanted to help. Two, he/she would always catch my mistakes. So, I decided to be proactive and point to the problem areas in my translation by using comments in Word.
My comments provide an explanation about my choice and maybe a website reference, thereby giving the editor some context to take into account. Oh, and, of course, I boldly ask for the editor’s opinion. It turns out that this, unexpectedly, generates dialogue between us, and I end up with detailed feedback. The editor also appreciates it because he/she can quickly zero in on tricky spots in the source.
So, you see, I figured this out only by turning the volume down on my ego and admitting that my translation was imperfect, then using a little confidence to open up a discussion that would help me improve my work in the future.
For example, atteinte
Just this week, I incorrectly translated atteinte, a tricky word that has multiple translations in English. I have to choose the best one based on the context of the disease or disorder being discussed. In this case, I translated it as impairment, but the editor had changed every instance to involvement. So, I told her that this word had caused me trouble in the past and that I was hoping she could provide some clarification. Why did she change it? Sure enough, she was happy to help, and I have a better understanding of this concept now.
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My friendship circle is far removed from my professional circle, so my job as a translator is quite obscure in social situations. I even get a twinge of anxiety when someone asks me, “What do you do for a living?” as a way of making small talk.
I say, as plainly as possible, no technical jargon, “I am a translator. I translate French medical documents into English.” But, that simple statement is full of landmines waiting to explode and create confusion. First, most people picture an interpreter (in-person, oral translation) when they hear translator (at-home, written translation). Second, those who understand that distinction imagine that I must be translating books and legal documents (the two most “famous” types of translation), even though I said medical documents. They cannot grasp why or what medical documents would need to be translated.
That is why I am writing a short series of posts called What Medical Translation Entails.
I dedicate this series to anyone who says “you do what?” when I tell them what I do for a living.
Translation for pharmacovigilance
To start, take a moment and note that pharmaceutical companies and drugs are international. For example, furosemide (the INN) is manufactured worldwide by Pfizer, Sanofi, Mylan, and many others under different brand names. French, German, Tunisian, Italian patients take furosemide to treat edema and hypertension.
Occasionally, a drug induces a serious adverse event (bad side effect) that must be reported in a database. Such databases are used for pharmacovigilance regulation and reporting. As I explain on my services page, pharmacovigilance concerns “the detection, assessment, understanding, and prevention of adverse effects or any other possible drug-related problems.”
By way of example, if 50 patients in France experience an adverse event, followed by 25 in Italy and Tunisia, the drug that caused it will be investigated so that future problems can be prevented. Now, think about the paper work/documentation, and notice that, since drugs are international, they are going to be in different languages. Therefore, for English-speaking practitioners and institutions to read them, they must be translated.
That’s when I step in…
Well, the translation agency does. The drug manufacturer (for example, Pfizer, Roche, Merck) whose drug is being investigated will contact a translation agency with the documents they need translated (pharmacovigilance reports and any documentation associated with them), then that agency contacts me.
Therefore, in this context, my translation services help pharmaceutical companies improve their medicine and contribute to the prevention of serious side effects. See? It's clear as mud now what I do for a living, right?
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This term (RCIU harmonieux) caught my attention in an SAE report, and I will admit that it almost tricked me.
Harmonieux generally has a positive connotiation, as, I’m sure, non-French speakers could guess. However, RCIU is the French abbreviation for intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). So, you can see how IUGR would PROBABLY not be described in a positive context.
Thus, I searched the phrase, hoping to resolve this conundrum. An online medical school answered my question. Apparently there can be RCIU dysharmonieux (ou asymétrique) and RCIU harmonieux (ou symétrique). Per the website, “Le RCIU harmonieux (ou symétrique, ou homogène) concerne tous les paramètres biométriques (périmètre crânien, taille, poids). Il témoigne d’un processus pathologique survenant précocement au cours de la grossesse. Il est de moins bon pronostic (origine constitutionnelle et anomalies génétiques fréquentes).”
Being a common term in French, I translated it as symmetrical IUGR and searched THAT term. Numerous hits came up from reputable websites! Sure enough, I’d found the correct translation.
This was a lesson in translation that emphasized the distinct differences between literary and medical language. As a translator, I have to pause when I am thinking about applying literary language to a medical text. It is important that I research any terms that are unfamiliar to me, in order to make sure the client has an accurate translation of their document.