In our current globalized society, medical translators are fundamental to provide efficient healthcare and to share scientific advancements in the medical field.

In this article, we’ll go over what being a medical translator entails and give you an overview of the steps to becoming one. We’ll also go over the concept of medical interpreters and the differences between these two professions to help avoid confusion.

  1. What is a medical translator?
  2. What does a medical translator do?
  3. What is a medical interpreter?
  4. What does a medical interpreter do?
  5. What is the difference between a medical translator and a medical interpreter?
  6. How do I become a medical translator?
    1. Study a foreign language
    2. Get a bachelor’s degree
    3. Take specialization courses
    4. Get to know local laws
    5. Gain experience
    6. Find work
  7. How do I become a certified medical interpreter in the US?
  8. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI)
  9. The National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters
  10. Final thoughts

What is a medical translator?

A medical translator is a specialized professional that translates medical documents from one language into another.

Medical translation is a highly-specialized area of the translation industry. In addition to proficiency in the relevant languages, medical translators require a deep understanding of medicine, biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Medical translations require absolute accuracy as the consequences of potential errors can be quite severe.

What does a medical translator do?

Medical translators work on various healthcare-related documents. Some of the documents they translate include academic journals, medical reports, and pharmaceutical information. Medical translators also work with clinical trials, protocols, and regulatory documents.

Certified Translation Services

Get your documents translated and certified by a professional translator in 60+ languages for just $24.95 per page with 24 hour delivery.

What is a medical interpreter?

A medical interpreter facilitates communication between patients and healthcare professionals that do not speak the same language. They work in a variety of health-related settings such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes.

Medical interpreters need to have extensive knowledge of both medical terminology and the colloquial or slang equivalents. Here, accuracy is also essential, but so is using oral language to achieve efficient communication between patients and healthcare professionals.

What does a medical interpreter do?

Medical interpreters relay information about medical diagnoses and treatments to patients. They also translate any question the patient may have back to the relevant healthcare professional and assist medical staff during follow-up care.

Medical interpreters may also translate paperwork related to hospital or doctor visits, such as intake forms, pamphlets, or medication information.

What is the difference between a medical translator and a medical interpreter?

The main difference between these two professions is that translators work with the written word while interpreters work with the spoken language. Moreover, while medical translators have more time to work with the text provided, medical interpreters work in real-time. This means medical interpreters can only rely on their memory when helping patients and healthcare providers communicate.

Another difference to note is that, while the working material of translators is the text in the document, interpreters don’t just work with what they hear, but also pay attention to verbal cues, body language, and visual context.

If you want to learn more about the differences between translation and interpretation, you can read this article.

How do I become a medical translator?

There is no definite path to becoming a medical translator in the United States. However, there are some basic steps you can follow. Below, we’ve put together some tips to help you succeed in this profession.

Study a foreign language

We know this might seem obvious, but studying a second language is the first step toward becoming a translator in any area.

In an ideal situation, you would start studying a foreign language in high school. This helps make sure you reach a higher proficiency level, but you can also take up your second language later in life.

You might be lucky enough to have grown up in a bilingual household. This, however, does not mean you get a free pass from studying the languages you are fluent in. You should still do so to ensure you have the proper skills to be a good translator.

When it comes to language skills, what matters is that you are fluent and have a good understanding of grammar, syntax and word choice in both languages.

Get a bachelor’s degree

Having a bachelor’s degree is not compulsory for translators in the US, but it is highly advisable. Many agencies and potential employers will expect you to have one.

You could take on your second language or translation studies as a major and might choose a science-related minor so you can start picking up the necessary technical knowledge. You might also want to focus on biology, medicine, or chemistry for your major and pick your second language as a minor or work on it on the side, or pursue a master’s in translation studies later on.

Take specialization courses

It is important to note that there are many subareas within medical translation and translation professionals usually choose one to specialize on.

There are plenty of specialization courses available for those who wish to become medical translators. These will both help you get acquainted with the relevant terminology and are also useful as part of your continued education.

For example, UC San Diego has an online Medical Translation: Internal Medicine course. For Spanish translators, Aula SIC has a variety of courses on medical translation, clinical trials, women’s health, and sample analysis, among other specializations. The University of Arizona also offers a four-month Medical Translation course. Finally, this article shares five free courses related to the medical and healthcare fields that are useful for medical translators.

Get to know local laws

There are specific regulations that govern medical translation. Therefore, you should make sure you are acquainted with them.

Different countries will have their own set of regulations whether regarding medical devices, patient privacy, or translation quality. You can find more information on this topic in this article.

Gain experience

Once you have the proper training and developed your language skills, it is also important to gain some experience. Jumping directly into the job market might not be the wisest choice, particularly in such a high-stakes area of translation. You can find volunteer or internship opportunities that will help you get experience in the medical field. NGOs are a great place to start. You can also translate medical documents that you find online to practice your skills and find a mentor to give you feedback. These experiences will allow you to make mistakes while minimizing risks.

We’d also suggest you draft your own translation glossary with the terminology you come across in your studies and your work. This will save you time and ensure accuracy in your translations.

Find work

Now that you have all the tools you need to be a great medical translator, it’s time to find work.

A safe bet for beginners is to get in touch with a translator agency. You can apply to be an in-house translator or just work for them as a freelancer. Working for an agency saves you the time and effort of finding direct clients and it’s a great way to start your career as a medical translator. Some translators even prefer to keep working in this manner for their entire careers.

However, if you prefer, you can also start looking for clients as a freelancer and slowly build your portfolio. If you prefer a fixed job, you can work for a private company, such as a pharmaceutical company or a medical center.

How do I become a certified medical interpreter in the US?

We’d say the process to become a medical interpreter in the US is quite similar to that of a medical translator. The main difference would be that there is some required training and certification for medical interpreters.

Medical interpreters are required to complete at least 40 hours of training. This training includes topics such as the foundations of interpretation, medical terminology, medical ethics and standards, and interpreting in medical specializations.

One of the options to carry out this training is this 160-hour course by The Medical Interpreting and Translating Institute Online (MiTio). This course is backed by the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA). You can also get training from the California Healthcare Interpreting Association, among other institutions.

Once training is completed, there are two certifications for medical interpreters available in the United States. We’ll take a look at these below.

The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI)

To get the CCHI certification, applicants must sit a written exam with 100 multiple-choice questions that cover the basics of medical interpreting. The certification is available for all languages but Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish also require an oral exam.

In addition to completing 40 hours of medical interpreting training, applicants must be at least 18, have a high-school diploma or GED, and prove their linguistic proficiency through documentation.

You can find more information in their Examination Handbook.

The National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters

The National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters offers certification for only six languages: Spanish, Russian, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.

In addition to completing 40 hours of medical interpreting training, requirements for applicants include being at least 18, having a high-school diploma, and demonstrating oral proficiency in English and linguistic proficiency in your primary language.

To get this certification, applicants must pass both a written and an oral exam. The written exam contains 51 multiple-choice questions. The oral exam lasts between 45-60 minutes and includes two sight translation exercises and 12 mini-scenarios.

You can find more information in their Candidate Handbook.

Final thoughts

Being a medical translator is not without its challenges, but it can be an extremely rewarding profession.

We hope this article has provided you with the tools you need to start your career as a professional medical translator.

Updated October 18, 2022 in Translators