by Ben Davis

Medical translation is generally considered difficult to break into. As a bare minimum, medical translators must be able to write well in their native language, have a near-native understanding of a foreign language and have in-depth knowledge about medicine and health care, among other things. It is hard enough to acquire one of these skills, never mind all three. Many, but not all, documents for translation are written by specialists for specialists, and require familiarity with the content. Translators working in this field must be able to write like a specialist, even if they are not. Work is required to get experience and experience is required to get work. So how can you become established as a medical translator with only limited knowledge and experience?

I admit that the barrier to entry may be slightly higher than for general translation or some other specialties such as business or public relations. The difficulties are by no means insurmountable though. Having worked at a pharmaceutical company, translation agency and other companies using the services of freelance medical translators, I can say with certainty that competent medical translators are in short supply, meaning those who can consistently produce quality work are always busy. It goes without saying that companies need good translators just as much as translators need clients.

The first thing to note is that there are very few people who have formally studied biomedical sciences, a foreign language and medical writing to a high level. The vast majority of medical translators have to work on at least one or two of these skills through self-study. While experience counts, interest in the field and perseverance are just as important in determining long-term success. Translators who are fascinated by the material they translate tend to enjoy their work and devote significant time to background reading, which naturally brings rapid improvement in knowledge and skills.

Medical translation can be demanding, requiring various different skills and specialist knowledge. It is not all bad news though. There is usually a considerable amount of reference material available on the Internet and elsewhere, a sizeable amount of which is available in both Japanese and English. There is possibly no other field of translation with the same amount of reference material at one’s disposal. Sentences are usually quite short, which can be a welcome change if you are more used to deciphering the logic of long sentences in contracts, patents or annual reports. Although in medical translation there is always an objective to be met, the focus is more on conveying information accurately and concisely rather than selling an idea with highly persuasive writing. Good medical translators usually have more than enough work to keep them busy, and demand seems relatively unaffected by economic conditions.

It is important to remember that not all medical translation is about cutting-edge research. For some documents such as patient education materials and users manuals, only limited medical knowledge is required. If you read around the subject as you work, you will gain knowledge, skills and confidence, even with relatively simple material.

The road to becoming a full-fledged medical translator can be likened to training for a marathon. I ran my first marathon (42.195 km) in April 2006, finishing in a respectable time of just over four hours despite only being able to run a few kilometers when I started training. The key is persistence. You have to keep pushing yourself, increasing the distance you run, without pushing yourself too hard. Of course, you become fitter and stronger as you train. Running 12 km is not too difficult for someone who has done 10 km a few times; it would most likely be torture for someone who has never run more than a few kilometers though. The same applies to medical translation—always stretch yourself to develop your abilities, but know your limitations. When you translate something, you become intimately familiar with the material, which is great exercise for your translation muscles. Translating highly specialized documents would be daunting for a beginner, but it is by no means impossible with the right training.

I began my career as medical translator about six years ago translating marketing reports and annual reports for pharmaceutical companies. This material would not be so difficult now, but it was very challenging at the time. After that, I moved on to patient education materials and abstracts for medical conferences. This was more demanding than the reports I had done previously, but the jump was not too great. Doing this work enabled me to make the transition to more difficult material such as medical papers and clinical trial related documents. Of course, I always try to do as much background reading as possible to expand my knowledge. This works best if you are genuinely interested in the subject. I would never have read up about semiconductors or politics, for example, in my spare time as these subjects do not interest me as much.

In addition to translation, reading and study, there are many things you can do to improve your skills. Checking or editing work done by other translators is enormously beneficial. Checking quality translations can give you good ideas about the best way of translating tricky expressions, while working on mediocre translations will give you confidence if you can improve the overall quality of the finished product. You also may be able to obtain translation memories or similar reference materials from clients to help you with your translations. Asking a more experienced translator to give feedback on your work may also be helpful. Of course, you should expect to pay for such a service.

Conferences and seminars such as those organized by Japan Association of Translators (JAT) are good for developing your skills, exchanging information and meeting fellow translators. Do not become discouraged, however, if everyone you meet seems to have more experience than you—everyone was a beginner at some stage, and the vast majority of seasoned professionals are more than happy to lend a helping hand to people starting out.

Always give yourself plenty of time to finish your work, including any research that may be required. Specialized material can take three to five times as long to translate as general documents. Challenging work like this may not be so lucrative without significant experience, but you can guarantee that you will learn a lot from doing it, provided that it does not stretch you too much. That said, you should always refuse work when it is beyond your capabilities or you do not have enough time to do it well. There is no faster way to lose the trust of your clients than submitting substandard work or missing deadlines.

It is possible to develop one’s skills as a medical translator, while taking on more general work to pay the bills. Experience has taught me that it is a good idea to call yourself a medical translator right from the outset though, even if you do not think you are ready to be called a specialist. No one else will have confidence in your abilities if you do not.

Finally, always ask if you are not sure. Documents to be translated are often produced under severe time pressure and can be vague. Far from revealing a lack of knowledge, asking for confirmation will show your attention to detail. Sadly, some translators do not bother to check when they are in doubt about something, which often results in mistranslations the client must fix. It is safe to say that by being conscientious and submitting your work on time, you can put yourself ahead of at least 80% of translators.