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The Challenge of Translating Medical Notes

Going to see a doctor due to an injury or illness is a common practice that takes place every day around the world. After diagnosing the patient, the doctor prepares a handwritten note so the patient may purchase a prescription. The handwriting on the note is often indecipherable to us, but we are confident that the pharmacist will be able to understand what it says. So this leads us to ask ourselves: why is it that doctors’ handwriting is almost always illegible? Additionally, this is something that may even be cause for concern; for example, imagine what would happen if the pharmacist misunderstood the name of the medication and gave us another that could very well make us even sicker!

While it is difficult to understand medical notes, it is even more challenging to translate them. Hospitals, health insurance companies, or other health care companies often require translation of prescriptions, medical records, notes from different doctors, forms filled out by hand, etc… So how should we approach this seemingly impossible mission?

In order to translate these documents, first we must convert the original text into an editable text format. However, since there tends to be a large amount of handwritten text, an extra step is often necessary: pre-editing. During the pre-editing process, the translator fills in the converted text with all the information that was not recognized by the converter… or at least what he or she is able to understand. Often, many fragments must be marked as “illegible” because of indecipherable doctor’s handwriting, poor quality of the original text, or both. Occasionally, it is not even possible to recognize the language. Of course, a doctor may be consulted to ensure that the text has been understood correctly.

In order to produce an accurate and reliable translation, it is vital to provide good copies of medical texts. If at first glance it is difficult to understand what the text says, it never hurts to ask for clarification from the doctor, or ask him or her to type it out. Luckily, today, it is becoming increasingly common to store this kind of medical information in a digital, editable and understandable format. But for texts written the old fashioned way, examining them with a human eye is the best way to ensure a quality translation, which brings to mind one of the greatest challenges in the history of mankind: human beings trying to decipher other human beings.