It is widely accepted that medical translation and interpretation are absolutely vital. One wrong word could result in serious injury or death, so it’s essential that medical translations are given the respect they deserve. It seems obvious that in a situation where the stakes are so high, medical translation and interpretation must only be done by highly qualified linguists, but it is startling how often this simply does not happen.

In a previous blog, we touched upon the extreme importance of medical interpretation in reference to the harrowing case of teenager, Willie Ramirez, in which Hospital staff mistranslated the Spanish word ‘intoxicado’ (which translates as ‘poisoned’) for meaning ‘drunk’. This resulted in Ramirez receiving the incorrect care for several days, resulting in permanent quadriplegia (and a 71 million dollar lawsuit).

Unfortunately, this is far from the only time an error in medical interpretation and translation has had life-altering consequences.  For Example, in 2007, a translation error on the medical notes of a British woman living in Spain, Teresa Tarry, led doctors to believe that she had a family history of breast cancer, when in fact no such history existed. Furthermore, no interpreter was provided for her hospital appointments and as a result, Tarry was under the impression that the lump in her breast was cancerous, and a double mastectomy was required to treat her, which she undertook.

Unbeknownst to Ms. Tarry, the mastectomy was actually performed as a preventative measure based on the incorrect notion that Tarry’s mother and sister had suffered from breast cancer, making her double mastectomy completely unnecessary, as it was later discovered the lump was benign. All of Tarry’s physical and emotional pain and turmoil could have been avoided with correct translation of hospital documents in the first place, and subsequent professional medical interpretation for hospital appointments. It is simply not acceptable that patients across the world are not being given the basic right of an interpreter for their medical appointments.

Nothing illustrates this point more clearly than the tragic death of a 9-year old Vietnamese girl from a reaction to a drug given to her at the hospital. Despite the fact the young girl’s parents primarily spoke Vietnamese, no professional interpreter was used whilst she was at the hospital. Instead, the 9-year-old patient herself and her 16-year-old brother were forced to interpret for their parents whilst at the hospital. This is far from an isolated incident, children and are constantly asked to translate for parents, and even themselves whilst in hospital.

When the 9-year-old was discharged after being given the drug that would cause her death, her parents were given written hospital discharge instructions which included warnings to return to the hospital if certain symptoms presented themselves. Astonishingly, none of these crucial documents were translated into Vietnamese. This meant that the parents had no way to recognise the symptoms of their daughter’s deathly reaction to the drug, and she sadly passed away. In the subsequent lawsuit, it was determined that “the parents were not able to adequately understand and address [the patient’s] medical needs—the failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing [patient]’s death.”

It is clear then, proven by tragedy after tragedy, that medical language services are so incredibly important. Always use professionals for the translation of any medical documents and never rely on a relative or friend for interpretation. You must ensure you have a qualified interpreter for all hospital appointments conducted in a language you do not speak, able to clearly explain your medical condition and what treatment you are being given.


For Medical Translation and Interpretation