Consequences of Translation Errors
in Health Sector

translation errors, illustration to article about translation errors

What are the worst translation errors you've ever seen? Do tell!

      Photo courtesy of Fuyoh!

Needless discomfort and pain, loss of limbs and life… Reports of bad consequences of translation errors in the healthcare sector periodically show up in the media.

An example of this is a story of knee endoprostheses incorrectly implanted as a result of a flawed translation at a Berlin hospital. The story quickly spread through the German press and blogosphere in August 2007.

It cited prosthesis labels marked "Non-Modular Cemented" that had been mistranslated as zementfrei ("not requiring cement"). Due to this, 47 prostheses were implanted without cement and caused pain and suffering for patients. The hospital had to offer the affected patients costly remedial surgeries. The press reports also mentioned large compensation claims of the patients and claims from health insurance companies.

A manufacturer of the knee implants informed that the outer packaging was in English only, in full compliance with German law. However, a detailed manual in German was included inside each package.

According to the implant manufacturer, mistranslation of labels was not a language issue, but an issue of internal quality control procedures at the Berlin hospital.

Anyway, the language factor entered the story and caused troubles and problems for all parties involved – the manufacturer, patients and hospital.

Another horrifying case occurred in France in 2004-2005. At a hospital near Epinal in eastern France, men suffering from prostate cancer received massive overdoses of radiation treatment. As a result, four patients have died. Dozens of other patients were also affected.

The Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS), the regulator of the French healthcare sector, investigated the case and found out a lot of problems at the hospital, including language translation issues.

The dose defining software used for cancer therapy in the hospital at Epinal was in English only. A user manual in French was not available. So the hospital's administration relied on bilingual staff members who used the software.

Professional translators know that many bilinguals are not as fluent as they think. A self-proclaimed bilingual with a passing knowledge of a foreign language, who uses a bilingual dictionary to struggle through technical documents in the foreign language, can easily overlook or misunderstand fundamental points.

The overdoses went on for over a year. If French translation of medical software documentation were available to users (bilingual and monolingual stuff, physicians and paramedical personnel) that would protect the patients and public from those health care professionals who had not understood the documentation in English. Also, technicians would react more quickly to fix the overdose problem.

These tragedies remind once again that proper translations made by experienced and specialized professional translators form a safety net that can help to reduce risks of translation errors in the health sector.

What's the worst translation error you've ever seen?

This is the place to tell about mistranslation in healthcare or any other sector that has shocked you. Share your story and have your voice heard!

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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