SAM at a Glance

By Anne-Charlotte Giovangrandi

A veteran SAMiste shares her experiences at the 2018 Medical English Seminar in Lyon-—will you join her in 2020?

Photo credit: Indelebile photographe.

Photo credit: Indelebile photographe.

Short for Séminaire d’anglais médical, SAM is organized every other year in Lyon, France, by the Société française des traducteurs, the French sister association of the ATA. Presented as a medical English writing and terminology training, it is geared toward translators working in French and English who specialize—or wish to specialize—in medicine. It attracts linguists from all over the world, most coming from France and the UK. This article focuses on the 2018 conference, which was held over five days at the University of Lyon School of Medicine. As registration for the 2020 conference will open early next year, now seems to be a good time to spread the word about it. → continue reading

Slow Translation, Scamming the Scammer, and More – Translorial Fall 2016 Edition

Translorial Vol 38, No. 2

NCTA members can download the Fall 2016 edition of the Translorial in print and downloadable PDF versions, covering a variety of topics.

If you are not an NCTA member, you can join here.


Table of contents of the Translorial Fall 2016 edition, Vol. 38, No. 2: → continue reading


Considered a “dead language” by some, Latin continues to flourish in the world of Science and Medicine. Bootcamp attendees get the breakdown. BY MIKE KARPA

Marlene V. Obermeyer guided interpreters and translators through the lingo of medicine and the human body in an eight-hour medical terminology bootcamp held June 30, 2012, six floors above Market Street at the San Francisco State downtown campus. Obermeyer, a long-time registered nurse with a Masters degree, offers online training in medical interpreting and terminology from her base in Kansas through Culture Advantage and Virginia College. She also gives a handful of medical terminology bootcamps annually around the country through the IMIA. Carlos Garcia of the IMIA has been trying to schedule a bootcamp in San Francisco for some time, and he and NCTA organizer Sarah Llewellyn were delighted to be able to jointly host Obermeyer. → continue reading


A workshop with a panel of experts gave attendees some valuable information about the specifics of medical translation. BY KAREN TKACZYK

The medical translation panel workshop was held in the ever-excellent location of the Mechanics Institute Library, and was well attended. There were three speakers, who had been selected with a view to providing diverse information that would both increase attendees’ understanding of the field and provide practical tips for our daily work. They achieved that. → continue reading


With rates under increasing pressure from globalization and other trends, many translators are turning to specialization. But the leap is not always easy.


This article was inspired by recent postings from several NCTA members inquiring about transitioning into certain fields, and the respective pay rates that one might expect. In today’s general translation marketplace, with more competition and lower pay, translators are looking to focus their content expertise, and specifically in the specialized fields of medical and legal interpreting.

Many translators and interpreters are what I would call generalists. A random peek into their profiles shows the ability to work in a variety of fields, ranging from finance, engineering, and education to telecommunications, law, medicine, and science. These professionals tend to work on a few projects in each area, allowing them to (justifiably) tout the range of their capabilities.

Other translators and interpreters, however, specialize in one or two fields at the most. A specialist can be a generalist, but not vice versa: even the slightest interpreting errors in fields such as medicine and law can have grave consequences for the limited English-proficient (LEP) client. As an interpreter in these two highly specialized disciplines, I know that success requires significant dedication, study, and training. It can take anywhere from four to six years to be a proficient interpreter in either of these fields.

The best medicine

Working as a medical interpreter, I am of course well-versed in medical terminology but am also familiar with many medical procedures as well. When a doctor gives an NOP order, I know exactly what that is (no oral products). When a patient requests a DNR order, I also know that he does not want to be resuscitated in a life-threatening circumstance. It’s not reasonable to expect a translator who doesn’t have such training—a generalist—to walk into a medical interpreting setting and be able to know what these terms refer to.

Other times, the medical translator specialist will be required to work in emotional and stressful conditions such as emergencies or life-and-death situations. There was an occasion where I interpreted a religious prayer conducted by a hospital chaplain for a terminally ill patient. This event had nothing to do with medical interpreting, yet of course it was an important part of the job.

Rules of law

In the field of legal interpreting, many will find the compensation fairly good. Legal interpreting is one of the most comprehensive interpreting fields in that it requires broad knowledge of numerous other subfields. For example, family and probate law will require knowledge of financial terms. Criminal cases will require knowledge of science and medicine pertaining to forensic evidence. Civil suits involving worker’s compensation or personal injury will require knowledge of medical, vehicle, and insurance terms. Immigration, small claims, juvenile, and other specialized areas all have their own terminology. And, needless to say, courtroom interpreting can be challenging and intensive when opposing lawyers, witnesses, and judge are all talking at once.

When generalists take on the work of specialists without the proper training, few of them will be able to render acceptable translations or interpretations. Once, a medical glossary translated by a generalist provided me with incredulous comic relief. The term athlete’s foot was literally translated as “the foot of an athlete”; hives was translated as “disease of beehives”; and speed (methamphetamine) was translated as “velocity.”

The client comes first

A generalist may go into a medical or legal interpreting setting believing that he can render an interpretation without the adequate training, and thinking that no one will know if he makes an interpretation error, but this may not be the case. I have known of some interpreters being sent away in the middle of a job for poor performance.

On one occasion, I provided interpretation for a couple whose child was hospitalized. At the end of the session, the father posed several questions to the doctor in perfectly good English. I inquired afterwards why they needed my services if the father was proficient in English. The father answered that my services were for the benefit of the mother, who did not understand English; that even though the father’s English was good, it did not mean that he could accurately interpret for his wife. They were more comfortable employing an interpreter. Another time, while interpreting in a deposition, the client, client’s attorney, and I all spoke the same native language. If an interpreting error was made, the client’s attorney would definitely have noticed.

Some generalists will accept assignments that they are not qualified to do for financial reasons. I view being a translator or interpreter as a noble profession that is rewarding in so many ways. We are the conduits that enable LEP clients to have fair access to a number of services that might not have been possible because of language barriers. Without them, we wouldn’t be working. Therefore, we owe it to them to be properly trained and qualified so that we can deliver the exceptional service that they deserve.

Three Events in One Weekend!

By Raffaella Bushiazzo

This year our fall general meeting was a very special event, as translators and want-to-be translators were able to dedicate an entire weekend to increasing their professional knowledge and exchanging business cards and tips with fellow translators and agencies in an elegant environment.

To coordinate with ATA’s Medical Translation Seminar and our own NCTA MultiTerm Workshop for Trados users, we moved our quarterly meeting to Sunday, September 17th at the Embassy Suites Hotel in South San Francisco. The NCTA general meeting started with the traditional New Member Orientation, to help those who have recently joined NCTA learn more about the association.

Trials and questionnaires
Since the ATA seminar was on medical translation we chose to present on a connected topic. We invited David Himmelberger from Health Outcomes Group in San Francisco ( to explain how clinical trials and health care questionnaires are designed and translated for multinational use; the translators role in this process; and what is expected from translators. Dr. Himmelberger’s presentation was rich in practical examples, detailed guidelines, and, not least, hilarious anecdotes.

Since the mid-1970s, Mr. Himmelberger has been involved in analyzing the results of medical treatments in terms of cost and quality of life. After many years as a biostatistician at Stanford University and experience in the pharmaceutical industry in strategic planning, international marketing research, and outcomes evaluation, Mr. Himmelberger founded Health Outcomes Group in 1987.

Today, there are no medical tests to prove that a treatment for a disease is working. For this reason, questionnaires are needed, to calibrate medical procedures to a common standard. But often these questionnaires need to be translated before they can completed by patients in different environments.

The translated documents must be absolutely true to the source, but at the same time in readable, natural-sounding language. Typical projects involve twenty countries at a time, where English is almost always the source language translated into other target languages, and adapted to each culture. The translation process is usually lengthy, involves a number of people, and presents difficult challenges to be solved.

The person who writes the original questionnaire, the source author, has an interest in staying involved at each step of the translation process—both to ensure accuracy and to make sure he or she shares in any additional fees. Two translators will then translate the text, working independently of each other. The resulting translations are sent to a linguist living in Italy who combines the two versions into one. This version is then back-translated back into English. At this point the translation is reviewed by the author, as well as by doctors and experts for a linguistic validation.

They take a small sample of users and conduct a dialogue with the patients to see if they fully understand the questionnaire and all of its nuances.

To be effective, a translation of this kind needs to meet two nearly paradoxical requirements, which is what makes the task so challenging. First, the source text is fixed and unalterable; since the developer doesn’t want to change the questionnaire in the original language, the linguist has to work around that to come up with solutions. Second, the translation also needs to sound natural in all the target communities and cultures!

How do we know what patients understand when they answer a questionnaire? Several techniques are used, often involving putting the patient at ease, listening to the vocabulary he or she uses, watching for visual cues, having questions prepared that address issues identified in the translation process, and the use of different interview techniques. Lastly, the translation is sent back to the target language linguist for a final approval.

Networking and goodies
Dr. Himmelberger’s fascinating talk was followed by a treat—a buffet of delicious cheeses and exotic fruit, elegantly served on the hotels fine china. It was a landmark weekend for NCTA, because we were able to offer our members so many professional enrichment events in such a short time. I was pleased to see the enthusiasm shown, as well as the number of first-time NCTA attendees and attendees from outside Northern California who joined us for this first-class event and presentation.