Medical Translations: The Corporate View


Thanks to globalisation, demand for translations in all areas of science and technology is enormous and still growing. At the same time, competent specialist translators are in short supply. Practitioners of scientific-technical translation can be divided into two broad categories, based on the path they take into the profession: subject specialists and language specialists. The former have primary qualifications in a scientific or technical discipline, to which they add translation skills; the latter enter the profession as a result of their language skills (with or without formal qualifications) and subsequently develop a knowledge of the subject(s) they handle. In my experience, most sci-tech translators are language specialists.

It is not surprising that science graduates hardly ever consider translation as a career, since they expect to enter occupations where their qualifications are more obviously relevant. In addition, especially in the English-speaking world, relatively few are likely to know a second language well. Even if they do, it may not occur to them that they can combine the two sets of skills by becoming translators, bringing their scientific qualifications and experience to bear in much the same way as professional sci-tech writers or science journalists do. Almost by default, then, sci-tech translation is largely left to the language specialists.

My own career is a case in point. In 1987, having completed an MA in linguistics and German studies in Freiburg, Germany, the end of a temporary university contract presented me with a difficult choice: continue trying to finance a PhD with changing combinations of part-time university and teaching jobs or find a more reliable source of income for myself and my family, possibly by moving back home to Australia. In addition to applying for academic posts, I registered as a job-seeker with the local employment office and was referred to a German pharmaceutical company that was looking for an in-house translator. I had done plenty of translation while studying modern languages and linguistics and had occasionally translated academic and technical material on a freelance basis but had never considered becoming a full-time translator and had no idea what to expect.

The interview with the company?s head of research reawakened a dormant interest in chemistry and pharmacy, my test translations were well received, and the subsequent offer was too good to refuse. By the end of the year I was feeling my way through preclinical study reports, manufacturing and analytical procedures, and biomedical manuscripts. As an arts graduate, I was working hard to learn the fundamentals of pharmacology, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and the pharmacotherapy of stomach ulcers. It was a new, challenging, and profoundly fascinating world. Training was provided on the job by two experienced colleagues.

A year later, I moved to a job at Hoffmann-La Roche in Switzerland to work with a language services unit with five language groups, as well as copy editors and proofreaders. Here, professional development was much more systematic, and I attended in-house product courses (covering clinical pharmacology, indications, and usage), along with workshops on drug development, clinical trials, the regulatory process, and the basics of pharmaceutical marketing. The company also paid for external copy editing and medical writing courses and sent me for a 4-week medical writing internship in the United States. All of this was accompanied by continued mentoring from translator colleagues and our in-house network of expert consultants.

A large pharmaceutical company is a great place for a sci-tech translator. Its wide-ranging translation needs make for varied and interesting work. In terms of information resources, it is almost ideal, offering good library and technical documentation facilities, along with access to expert advice from R&D, production, and other specialist staff.

Another factor that probably helps to keep science graduates away from translation is its image. Translating is widely thought to be a straightforward, uninteresting task that requires no particular skill or aptitude other than an adequate command of two or more languages. There is a common misconception that knowledge of a second language automatically confers the ability to translate out of and into it; translators have only to find one-to-one sets of verbal correspondence, consulting suitable dictionaries when they encounter unknown terms. Despite a centuries-old tradition, translation is still a poorly defined profession whose image is not helped either by misconceptions such as these or by the lack of agreement even among experienced practitioners about such fundamental issues as standards, best practices, or minimum qualifications.

So what makes translation interesting and challenging? Put simply, it is the sci-tech translator?s job to understand the source text and render the information it is intended to convey completely, accurately, and appropriately in the target language, bearing in mind its intended use and audience. Translators have to recreate the messages and intentions of the original. A publication-grade translation should read like a piece of original writing in the target language, and even documents intended for lower-profile uses should be convincing and readable. This requires a special set of skills and aptitudes, and the complexity of the task is often underestimated. Lay translators--even subject experts--tend to produce overly literal or ?word-for-word? translations that follow source-language patterns, rather than finding a form of expression natural to the target language.

As basic requirements, professional sci-tech translators need in-depth knowledge of the source language (including an awareness of its specific rhetorical patterns and discourse structures), a good eye for detail, native or near-native competence in the target language, a flair for writing, and highly developed information-gathering skills. They really need to combine three kinds of curiosity--about language, the subject, and the way specialists talk and write about the subject. All other things being equal, the more a translator knows about the subject and its specialist language the easier the task will be and the better the result.

What can scientists bring to translation? Apart from in-depth knowledge and experience of their own specialty, they offer a broader scientific knowledge base, a scientist?s curiosity, and an insider?s understanding of how science and scientific discourse function. They also bring very specific information-gathering and literature-search skills. Not least, they bring their knowledge of the special language of science. All the same, scientists thinking about becoming translators need to assess their language and writing skills critically. And they should definitely consider formal translation training--it is the best, and certainly the fastest, way to develop professional-grade skills. As few sci-tech translators can afford the luxury of narrow specialisation, scientists considering translation as a career should also be prepared to extend their subject knowledge to include other fields.

The translation market is as diverse as the fields in which customers operate. For example, the sci-tech translation needs of a large pharmaceutical company cover a wide spectrum, from R&D, patents, manufacturing (chemical production, pharmaceutical formulation, and packaging), and regulatory affairs to product information, marketing, and science communications, with subject matter ranging from chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, pharmacology, toxicology, diagnostics, and medicine to chemical and process engineering and environmental protection.

Translation services are provided by freelancers (the bulk of the profession), in-house translators employed by companies and institutions, large and small translation companies (which employ both salaried translators and freelancers), and translation agencies (which subcontract work to freelance translators or translation companies). The market is highly fragmented, with large parts of it displaying all the characteristics of a cottage industry: The vast majority of translators work on their own or in small ?mom-and-pop? operations for widely varying piece-work rates. (Payment is typically per word or per page or line of text, though some top professionals can negotiate hourly rates.) Only a handful of translation companies have international reach. This makes it harder to find salaried employment, but the size of the market means that there are plenty of opportunities for specialised freelance work. It?s just a question of going out and finding it.

What are the rewards? In Europe, by and large, staff translators in industry earn good salaries, comparable to those of other professionals. The situation for freelancers varies considerably, depending on their skill and the market they choose to operate in. Competent translators with relevant scientific or technical qualifications are much sought after by industry, translation companies, and agencies. As a sci-tech translator, you may not be creating knowledge, but you will certainly be using your talents creatively to help disseminate it.

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