Need 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 and is based in Manchester in the UK.
(Interview Part 1) / Part 2...
Can you tell us a bit about your work as Lingualogic; do you work with other medical translators and interpreters? How do you market your medical translation services?
I am currently forming important contacts with other medical translators with my language combination but also with other language combinations (that include English), but so far I have not found anyone who quite comes up to my standards, or who has sufficient availability to become a long-term collaborative partner.
A lot of translators seem to work part-time and others do a little bit of freelance work just to top up their in-house translator salaries, so this side of the business has been a bit frustrating.
For the time being, Lingualogic medical translation services remains a one-person business - but I will say with confidence that it is unlikely to remain that way!
The classic question for translators working in two directions – in your case English to German, and German to English - is what do you say to the much quoted claim that one should "only translate into one's native tongue"?
My usual response is that rules of thumbs are very useful as long as one does not elevate them to laws of nature!
In many cases, the rule of thumb does make sense. This usually involves translators who live in their countries of birth, translating languages they learnt over the years, either through formal study or through stints abroad.
One thing I would have to add to the rule of thumb is “if resident in a country that speaks their native tongue”.
A translator wishing to translate into their mother tongue must be immersed in that language. This is why a lot of bilingual translators have one stronger language, the one they are constantly immersed in, at home and work.
I was born in Germany and lived there until I was 16, I finished school at the German school in Brussels, and I spent two years at university in Germany.
Do I feel comfortable doing translations into German? It depends. I know exactly what I can and cannot cope with. If I am not 100% comfortable, I do not take the job.
And I must admit I prefer translating into English, it’s easier in so many ways because my training and study, as well as my entire working life have been conducted in English.
I have lived and worked in the UK for the past 20+ years, so English has become my dominant language, and medical English has become second nature – whereas I have to put in work to keep my German up to scratch.
I do sometimes surprise myself, though, particularly when I proofread the work of other German translators and I find that “I can do much better”.
I suppose I am overly critical of my own German these days, so can at times forget the fact that I have the scientific/research experience under my belt, which means I still manage to outclass a good number of other translators.
I should probably mention that I would much rather work with a non-native English speaker who has an excellent command of English and in-depth knowledge of, and experience in, the subject matter involved than with a native English speaker who has “read around” the subject but has no first-hand knowledge.
It is so much easier to correct a couple of spelling mistakes or minor grammatical errors than having to correct terminology errors or re-phrase whole paragraphs to make them read like proper medical English.
You work with the CAT tool SDL Trados. Is this a real help? Would you recommend CAT tools for all translators?
I know there are a lot of translators out there who prefer not to use CAT tools. I also know there are a lot of agencies out there who have developed their own CAT tools or systems (e.g. spreadsheets with bilingual file presentation). I also know CAT tools can be expensive.
I am sure that for some translators they make no sense at all. If every single project tends to be different from the one before, what is the point?
Also, I personally do not like the section-by-section presentation. Translation is more than replacing words/sections in one language with equivalent words/sections in another.
In fact, in many cases, I would even go so far as to say that CAT tool may harm the quality of the translation produced as it encourages the translator to stick to the sentence structure.
Those issues aside, however, CAT tools can be very useful, particularly when used in parallel with a terminology management tool.
They are absolutely essential when working on projects that involve updating of previously translated documents (common in technical, scientific and medical translations), and when working with clients who have certain preferences with regard to style and/or terminology.
Why make your life harder than it has to be, yes they can be a very useful tool. The thing with tools, of course, is that you need to know how to use them, and how to use them safely…
How do you see the future of human translation in medical translation services?
As I briefly mentioned earlier, there is a distinct tendency amongst clients and agencies buying medical translation services to look for bargains.
Experience tells me that you tend to get what you pay for, so a lot of these clients/agencies eventually return with their tails between their legs, hoping they did not offend you too much by telling you your rates were beyond their budget.
There is definitely a need to educate clients.
I get pushed for lower rates or shorter deadlines and my response is always the same: as the service provider, I can only tell you what I can deliver in the time frame I consider sufficient to be able to produce a quality product, and what this is likely to cost you.
Whether you wish to go with my estimate for medical translation services is entirely up to you.
is common sense, is it not? If you are buying a new bathroom or kitchen and you
want to have the best quality and be able to tick all the boxes on your wish
list, it is unlikely this is going to be the cheapest option.
If you want cheaper, you will need to compromise on some level, either with regard to quality or the extent of the work to be done.
Well, it is exactly the same with medical translation services. My services may not suit the bargain basement shopper, but they are certainly appreciated by those who need a quality product from a reliable service provider.
Personally, I refuse to buy in pound stores or cut-price clothes stores. I would rather know I buy a quality product and that the people who made it worked in decent conditions and received a decent wage.
Why on Earth would I want to allow anyone to have a detrimental effect on my own working conditions and quality of life, or to disrespect me by asking me to take what is effectively a wage cut so that they can benefit financially?
Saying that, machine translation is a fact of life and is here to stay.
I am sure there will be immense improvements over time but I cannot see it ever replacing human translators.
Human communication is a tricky thing; we do not need to speak different languages in order to manage to misunderstand one another.
Naturally, in a specialist area such as medicine or science, the focus on bilingual glossaries and corpora is understandable but most written material is about more than facts and figures, it is about the communication of the writer’s opinions, reasoning, intention, style, subtleties of meaning and so on.
In addition, differences in scientific conventions (including style) mean that certain texts require stylistic adjustments (for instance, the level of hedging in scientific/medical English as compared to the German equivalents) in order to fulfil the requirements of the target audience.
How is machine translation going to cope with the challenge of deciding at which point hedging might be required, and to what degree?
For instance, the difference between “our research has shown that drug x benefits patients with [condition x]” and “our research suggests that drug x may benefit patients with [condition x]” is a massive one in English medical writing – one expresses absolute certainty (with the reader expecting an appropriate level of evidence to support the claim), the other expresses a toned-down (hedged) claim that is far more acceptable to the English-language reader as it accepts the limitations inherent in research and statistical analysis.
German medical texts are usually a lot more direct and express a lot more certainty – even where that may not be justified!
In such cases, the translator has to work with the author(s) to a certain extent, to discuss the requirements of the target audience and how to make the necessary adjustments without changing the author’s intent.
From your viewpoint, what’s the ideal medical translation job? How often do you they come along?!
Initially, I wanted to say that the ideal medical translation job has to be the one where your translation memory suddenly fills in a nice big chunk of the translation because you have translated the same or similar documents before.
That is always a joy, particularly when it is a tedious project!
But tedious projects do not make ideal translation jobs.
The ideal one, I would say is one that is out of the ordinary in terms of the subject matter, or involves something you are particularly interested or skilled in.
It does happen to me that a translation is absolutely fascinating in terms of the subject matter involved and I love every minute of it. Unfortunately, they do not come around all that often.
Another thing I really enjoy as part of my medical translation services is providing assistance with the source text when I feel there is a real need, either in terms of medical writing or specialist advice regarding some inconsistencies in terminology or style, or even blatant mistakes.
Sure, there is always a risk that suggestions for improvement (or warnings that certain content may be regarded as going against professional ethics or even lead to breaches in regulations– yes, this has happened) might be taken the wrong way, but most clients really appreciate the service as something they had not expected a translator to provide, and on more than one occasion the clients even decided to pay a generous bonus for my troubles.
Any pet translation hates?
That would have to be the “monkeys”, those so-called translators who happen to know a little bit of language x, y or z and offer their services in return for peanuts!
It is an insult to the entire profession, because a. it suggests that all it takes is to know some words in another language (not many and certainly not much of the grammar), and b. it encourages cut-price cowboy mentality in a profession that is already struggling to receive the recognition it deserves.
After all, what is more important for people than communication that WORKS?
Naturally, it is a fact of life, our industry is very much governed by supply and demand, so if there is less supply of one language pair, the client simply does not get as much choice. They have to take what they can get – and manage. That is life.
However, living in a globalized world does not mean that it is therefore OK to use this particular yardstick for all translators/interpreters. If all you want to offer your client is to be able to tell them “I am sure you will manage somehow”, then by all means, make offers that you cannot back up and sell at bargain basement prices.
If you want to take pride in your work, however, and if you want to be considered a professional, if you want to show respect to your profession and your fellow medical translators/interpreters, you will want to act accordingly, not like a cowboy.
This means training, skills, experience, qualifications, integrity, quality and, last but not least, knowing your own limits.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you ever received or given about translating as a profession?
If you want to start out as a full-time freelancer, make sure you have a substantial financial cushion to help tide you over what may be a very slow start (I certainly needed it!).
Alternatively, it may be an idea to consider medical translation services as a part-time job. Not only does this sort out some of the financial uncertainties but it also provides a much better bargaining position for the inexperienced medical translator, i.e. you will not feel such pressure to accept assignments you are either not sure you can handle or fees that are simply too low!
The second-best piece of advice in my case was being told to get a web-enabled mobile, so I could be available at any time. When an agency sends an offer out, this goes to a number of translators and you will need to be quick in responding.
To do so, you need to have had a chance to actually look at the assignment and what it involves (you should never accept an assignment without having looked at it, or at least a sample of what it involves.
Oh, and there is no shame in admitting to yourself that an assignment is well outside your comfort zone!), so being able to access your emails via the phone is a must.
My number one tip for anyone thinking of buying medical translation services?
As with everything else, you get what you pay for.
When it comes to medical translation, the essential ingredient is trust, trust in the translator’s skills and reliability.
After all, if you need something translated, chances are you will not be able to judge how good the end product is until it is too late – i.e. someone else points out that it is useless. Only, by that time, the damage may have been done!
When we buy things we do not have sufficient knowledge of (e.g. having the roof tiled, a bathroom fitted, undergoing a medical procedure that causes us concern), what would we do? Go for the cheapest option or try to find out who is skilled and reliable and who we could feel you can trust?
If you find someone who is approachable and willing to work with you and takes the time to explain the process, you are likely to be on a good track.
They should certainly ask about the assignment as they need to assess whether they can help you. They should also be happy to answer your questions, including about their qualifications and experience (after all, if someone wants to fix your boiler you will check if they are CORGI registered).
If, however, you come across someone who tells you they can do absolutely anything, in record time, and at bargain basement prices, ask yourself why they have to sell themselves like that. Quality pretty much sells itself!
Do you have a few tips for anyone starting out in
Personally, I think qualifications are essential.
After all, this is a specialist service we are providing and our clients should be offered reassurance as to our level of training and experience.
Naturally, training is not available for all languages/language combinations and the situation is very different with minority languages. This is not to say that translators cannot be excellent. Of course they can.
However, it is being used as an argument that undermines the notion of professionalism within the entire industry: well, they never had training and they can do it, so why should I not go ahead and call myself a translator because I happen to know a bit of language x, y or z?
This attitude is a sign of the times, of a globalized world.
I would recommend a career in translation because.....
At the end of the day, this profession is about communication.
If you like writing, if you like the intricacies of successful communication (written or oral), if you enjoy fiddling with the written word and getting it just right, then there is a lot of joy and fun to be had as a translator.
And it can be highly satisfying to know you are aiding communication between people who would not normally be able to exchange their thoughts and ideas!
In my particular case, with languages and sciences/medicine, I get the best of both worlds, I can continue to work and develop in a field I am passionate about whilst having the luxury of being able to focus on what I have always enjoyed more than actually doing research/science: the communication of science.
Languages open minds as well as doors to new opportunities. Translation (and to a certain degree, interpreting) is a profession that does not tie you to one particular country. You can live and work elsewhere if you wish. You may even choose to live somewhere completely unrelated to your own languages and learn a new one or two.
After all, as freelancers our working lives are conducted electronically, via email/fax, skype, other web-based forums (online interpreting platforms) and the telephone (including telephone interpreting), so we can take our office anywhere!
Do you have a favorite translation joke?
Not a joke, just something I saw posted on a translators’ forum, about a telephone conversation one of the translators had just had with a potential client:
Client: You are a certified translator, aren’t you?
Client: I need some birth certificates translated from Mexican [sic].
Translator: I am sorry, I am only certified for English…
Client: On your website, you call yourself certified! I would expect that to be for all translations!
Translator: I am afraid…(gets cut off by the client)
Client: That is ridiculous!!! (puts the phone down)
Just goes to show what we have to deal with at times!!!
Many thanks Karen, you’ve certainly provided a lot of valuable insights into life as a medical translator for anyone considering working in this field.
If you're interested in Karen’s medical translation services, please contact her directly.
Interview Part 1 / Part 2