Medical Miscommunication

Medical Miscommunication in Translation

Medical Miscommunication

From Poor Handwriting to Google Translate, Medical Miscommunication

Doctors’ handwriting had always been considered a menace around medical wards and general practices until recently a new one surfaced: Google Translate.

Anyone who has ever resorted to using Google’s alternative machine translation tool, even for non-medical reasons, knows what confusion it can cause.And yet this hasn’t discouraged medical staff from using GT during treatments. Typically, medics have to make quick decisions about a patient’s condition where no interpreters are present. In rolls Google Translate. It’s quick and easy allowing medical staff to get the gist of what their foreign national patients were saying.

Lost in Translation

A survey was carried out for the purpose of understanding what GT would return after translating 10 common medical phrases. The auto-translated phrases were then back translated by native human speakers of those languages — the results revealed all sorts of horrors. In one particular case, the medical English word “fitting”, a past participle of “to have seizures” was used: a mistranslation by medical staff whereby the English read, “your child is fitting”, in Swahili, it became “your child is dead”.

Another slightly less terrifying one was the Polish translation of a suggestion offered to relatives of a patient who either deceased, or nearly — “your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs”. To Google Translate and this in turn becomes, “your husband can donate his tools”!

Many other phrases churned out almost poetic translations such as one into Marathi (an Indian language) which read, “your husband had a cardiac arrest”. GT came out with, “your husband had an imprisonment of the heart”. In Bengali, the phrase, “your wife needs to be ventilated” resulted in, “your wife wind movement needed”. Imagining doctors and nurses alike repeating these poetic phrases adds a little humour. Perhaps not so much for the patients and their families.

Google Translate cannot recognise the context of the sentence or phrase it is translating, which results in mistranslations. Anybody relying on GT for formal communication may well find themselves in trouble, despite the hilarity of some of its flaws.

Have you ever come across any embarrassing mistranslations? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

The STAR Team

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