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Medical Translation Services From Karen Schafheutle

Medical translation services

Looking for medical translation services? Karen Schafheutle is a freelance medical translator & interpreter working in English-German and German-English, and specialising in scientific and medical translation. She operates under the name Lingualogic (www.lingualogic.net) and is based in Manchester in the UK.

Hello Karen, many thanks for taking the time to speak to German Translation Tips & Resources. With a PhD in Epidemiology, an MSC in Environmental Analysis and Health, and a BSc in Environmental Biology - not to mention an MA in Translation Studies, you must be one of the most qualified medical translators in the business!

How did you get into medical translation? 

Well, it is true that I have had a number of agencies and CROs tell me that most of their freelancers have either training in medicine/research with language skills or happen to be linguists with an interest in medicine/research.

For most of them I am the first person offering medical translation services with training and experience in both.

After working at the University of Manchester for about 10 years, mainly in medical research (and, more specifically clinical trials) and research management , I took voluntary redundancy in order to do an MA in Translation and Interpreting.

I had finally accepted that although very good at what I was doing, I wasn’t happy as I found research frustratingly slow and the academic environment stifling.

What I always did enjoy the most, though, was the communication of science and medical writing, so I was hoping to combine this with my language skills.

Initially, I actually considered simply going into medical writing full-time. Having been told by my PhD supervisor that he could see me as the editor of the BMJ (British Medical Journal) one day, I knew I definitely had what it takes.

In the end, however, I opted for the MA in Translation and Interpreting.

This way, I was hoping to get the best of both worlds: supporting medical writing in the English language (offering consultancy services to academics and researchers who wish to publish in English-language journals) and supporting the communication of medical writing across borders.

The fact that this would also provide me with the freedom to move to other countries should I wish to do so in the future, was an added bonus.

My getting into medical translation may have seemed quite a sudden change for most people who knew me professionally, but in a way I was simply coming full circle.

Before I started my university career in science and medical research, I had already completed four semesters at Heidelberg’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting and obtained what was called the “Vordiplom” [a first diploma, taken after the first two years of a three-year course] in translation studies, with the language combination German/English/French.

At the time, I always thought I would come back and finish it once I had completed my first degree (and thus having gained some experience in a specialist subject not offered as part of the course). 

Well, life happened, and things just took a little bit longer… 

That reminds me, I still do French-English and French-German translations but so far I have been doing my best to stay away from medical translations in those language combinations. Never say never, though - and now that I am also learning Spanish, who knows what the future may hold? 

Is there a lot of work around for a medical translation service provider? I presume you can pick and choose your clients?

Touch wood, I have had a relatively easy time of it in terms of getting started full-time two years ago.

Most people who did the course with me did struggle to find work in translation/interpreting and most had to take other types of jobs (at first). 

I suppose that even though I was effectively a “newcomer” to the field of translation/interpreting, my clients realized that in practice I had considerable training and experience, and my CV has proved an easily verifiable endorsement of my skills and professionalism as a medical translation services provider.

This just goes to show that specialization is the way forward for any translator!

Karen Schafheutle is a German medical translation services provider in my interview series. She thoroughly recommends anyone serious about medical translation to consider investing in Medical Translation Step by Step, Learning by Drafting.

"I've not found another book that manages to explain the basics as well as this one."

There's a lot of work out there, particularly in my language combination. I often have to turn down work because there is simply too much.

Saying that, I have also noticed it is becoming more and more common for agencies/clients to try shopping around for the cheapest providers.

You suddenly realize you have not heard from a certain client for a while, but I have learned not to worry because they tend to suddenly reappear, having gone through some really bad experiences with what I refer to as the bargain-basement types (or the monkeys, as they work for peanuts!).

I have noticed that once the client has come full circle on that little experiment, they tend to stick with you because they realize that trust is vital and trying to cut down on what they might at some point have considered non-essential costs actually cost them a lot more in the long run (either in financial terms or terms of their reputations – or both)!

To a certain extent this is the free market economy at work, of course.

Unfortunately, however, there is also a lot of ignorance out there with regard to what it is medical translators do, that it is not just a matter of replacing words in one language with words in another, that there is a creative process involved, and that this process requires a person who is a fairly decent writer in the target language.

If you wanted to buy a newspaper, for instance, would you buy the cheapest one or the one that gives you quality journalism?

If the cheapest serves your purpose, OK, why would you spend more, but if you are looking for accurate information or good quality writing, why would you go for the cheapest when you know that the better paper is better because it has managed to attract the best journalists – who happen to be worth that little bit extra!

As with most things, you will get what you pay for.

Although I offer medical translation services in English-German and German-English, most of the work I do is German-English.

So far, I have been flying solo.  I simply have not found other translators yet who I would trust enough to work with on a permanent basis.

I have had a few nasty experiences with (native) English speakers who simply could not deliver. This was either due to a lack of knowledge of the subject area involved, major terminology problems, or a lack of knowledge of scientific writing conventions (including style).

The translations I received back were certainly written in English, just not in scientific English, so everything effectively had to be re-done. 

I have had similar experiences with English to German as well, with lack of knowledge in the subject area, as well as source language issues. And this does not just apply to really tricky, specialist terminology; it can be quite basic things!

For instance, I was recently asked to proofread an English-German translation of a “Master Patient Card”, a card given to participants enrolled in a clinical study that provides details of the study, any study drugs involved, study contacts, emergency telephone numbers etc.

These details are provided in case a physician wishes to obtain more information on the study/study or in case of an emergency requiring unblinding (e.g. if the patient needs to be given a medicine that might interfere with the study drug, the physician needs  to find out whether the patient is receiving the study drug or a placebo). 

The translation I received gave this as “Hauptpatientenkarte “ [main patient card], which anyone who has ever worked on a clinical study will find odd as there is only one card, which the participant is meant to carry with them at all times.

So the translator’s mistake was a combination of source language deficits (with regard to “master “referring to “template” in this case) and a lack of specialist knowledge in relation to the conduct of clinical trials (what a patient card is and how it is used).

You took the MA in Translation Studies run by the University of Manchester. Can you tell us something about the course.  Did it meet your expectations and has it proved valuable in your career as a provider of medical translation services?

The course no longer exists in the exact same format. It has now been split into translation-only and interpreting-only rather than being offered as a combined course.

I believe the decision was based on the fact that the two disciplines are very different and require such different skill sets and types of training.

However, I must admit that I consider myself lucky now that I was able to do this combined training as I was able to get the best of both worlds, so to speak.  

For instance, in spite of the fact that I appear to have a natural talent for interpreting and absolutely loved it (as a matter of fact, it is what kept me going when things got tough!), I am rather limited in terms of the types of assignments I can take as I am a single mother of two children and cannot travel for work as much as I might wish or need to.

I always knew that translation would be my bread and butter, so the opportunity of training specifically for translation as well was fantastic, even though I felt that there was too much general theory involved and assignments were geared towards the academic rather than the real world.

I suppose as a scientist I found it particularly difficult to accept the notion of translation science (except where this was combined, say, with neuropsychology or similar “proper” science – here you go, I am a science snob), simply because the research methods are so different, with opinions and schools of thought appearing to replace hard facts and evidence.

I was, however, able to customize my training to a certain degree and had the opportunity of choosing options that I found more relevant to real-world scenarios, including training in translation technologies (incl. TRADOS) and specialist training in technical and scientific translation.

I should also add that, as surprising as it may seem, I would even go so far as to say that my training in interpreting has been invaluable for my work as a medical translator!

It has provided me with the ability to move away from source text sentence structures (where appropriate) and to focus on the transfer of meaning, message and intent.

Specialist translators need specialist dictionaries which are often expensive. Is there one medical dictionary every medical translator should invest in? What are your must-have recommendations?

The problem I have with specialist dictionaries is that:

  • they're expensive, and
  • they can't keep up with developments or differences in usage of terms across countries that share the same language.

Everyone is different here and everyone has a different skill set and level of experience within the subject matter and its various specialties and sub-specialties, so it is difficult for me to give advice.

Many translators, especially those without any formal training or experience in the subject area, may very well benefit from specialist dictionaries and encyclopedias. 

Personally, I find dictionaries a lot less helpful or important than parallel texts/ corpora, for example, Eur-Lex* provides the legislation of the European Union in English as well as the official 23 languages of the EU), specialist literature, including information/guidance published by national/international specialist associations (e.g. The Renal Association or Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nephrologie) and other national/international subject-specific guidelines (e.g. NICE).

As a matter of fact, I wish more translators would consult these (usually very topical and frequently updated) reference materials.

Not only do these help the translator keep up-to-date on developments (good old CPD), but they also provide essential guidance regarding current terminology usage (and preferred terms), which is where a lot of translators appear to stumble.

In some instances it is even mandatory that certain terminology (and stylistic!) preferences be adhered to, such as for instance when dealing with Summary Product Characteristics (SmPCs), i.e. the very detailed information that is required by the regulators in relation to the approval of new drugs.

The European Medicines Agency * provides a bit of a reality check with regard to the sheer scope of information and guidance available just in relation to the submission of SmPCs. 

It's clearly not enough to absorb this information once. Instead, the translator needs to keep abreast of changes, just like the authors of the source texts (and they do not always, so the translator has to be sharp enough to spot their errors, too, and to make suggestions as to how to improve the original!).

Now you work as a translator and an interpreter; do you interpret in a medical environment? Is most of your work translation or interpreting?

Most of my work is medical translation, simply because of my personal situation (see above).

When my children are older there may be more scope for interpreting at medical conferences and such like (I love simultaneous interpreting) and I am certainly looking forward to that!

So far, medical interpreting has been limited to supporting German-speaking patients receiving treatment in this country and English-speaking patients receiving treatment in Germany.

Naturally, I also offer general interpreting services and have even interpreted at a wedding!

Does a German translator need qualifications similar to yours to become a good medical translator? Or can one acquire sufficient medical terminology and understanding through experience?

Gosh, that's the million-dollar question!

My experience so far has been that there are some qualified translators out there who in some cases have been doing medical translations for many years but who I would not dream of working with as they simply cannot cope with the subject matter or medical writing.

Then again, there are just as many medically trained people out there doing medical translations who simply should not be doing it!

They may have formal medical training and/or experience but they have absolutely no idea how to write medical English! This may come as a surprise to some but it is not uncommon at all.

Medical training does not qualify you as a writer!

This is one reason why there are so many books on medical writing, and also why I offer consultancy services in medical writing geared towards researchers/medics who wish to publish their work in English-language medical journals.

Personally, I wouldn't work with anyone who hasn't got some level of experience in either sciences or medicine and, in most cases, also some level of experience in research or the research environment (either academic or private industry).

There are some things you simply cannot learn by reading! There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, and I would be very happy to be proved wrong!

I speak to Karen Schafheutle, a German medical translator based in the UK who offers German and English medical translation services with her agency Lingualogic

(Part two of the interview continues here...)

(* These sources are included in my recommended glossaries for German legal translation and medical translation)

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