Translation technology | 12.04.2010

US survey highlights the perils of machine translation for medicine labelling

What automatic machine translation makes up for in productivity, it certainly loses in accuracy. This may be a valid compromise when conversing with a friend over the Internet, but unacceptable in the medical sector where mistranslations could prove to be fatal.

The National Post reports that in 2009, a law came into effect in the US which required New York pharmacies to provide multilingual medicine labelling. In a city which includes an estimated 50% of citizens who speak a language other than English in the home, it was hoped that these steps would ensure an equality of care for those who do not speak English as a first language. Following this law, a study (published by Pediatrics® in April 2010) was carried out with the objective of evaluating the ‘accuracy of translated, Spanish-language medicine labels among pharmacies in a borough with a large Spanish-speaking population.’

The study covered pharmacies in the Bronx area of New York and the results provided information about how many pharmacies produced medicine labels in the Spanish language; how often machine translations were used; and the quality of the Spanish translation produced.

The results were astounding: 86% of pharmacies providing Spanish translations used machine translation with only 3% employing professional translators; 43% of the total labels evaluated contained incomplete translations and of an additional 6 labels studied, misspellings and grammatical errors resulted in a 50% error rate.

WSFA news reported on the some of the translation errors. A common problem was ‘Spanglish’ – the mixture of Spanish and English – resulting in instructions which were difficult to read and a source of patient confusion. Mistranslations were another problem, e.g. the use of the word ‘once’ which means ‘eleven’ in Spanish – a difference in meaning between English and Spanish which could cause a potential overdose. Misspelling included ‘poca’ instead of ‘boca’ (‘little’ and ‘mouth’ respectively in Spanish) and under the heading of poor translations, ‘Take 1.2 aldia give dropperfuls with juice eleven to day’ was a salient example.

There has been a call for standardisation and improvements in this area and patients have been advised to request the services of professional translators and interpreters to ensure complete understanding of the dosage instructions. But with only 3% of pharmacies employing professional translators to carry out this work, it would seem that adequate access to language services and the provision of accurate translations are not a high priority.

The survey was carried out by Iman Sharif and Julia Tse and their results concluded that the ‘quality of the translations was inconsistent and potentially hazardous’. The need for better regulations and funding in this domain was identified, which Sharif stated ‘is probably something that belongs within the health reform conversations’ (The National Post).

Medical translation is a highly qualified field and it is almost incomprehensible that machine translation is deemed an acceptable resource. Language professionals in the US and abroad will no doubt be interested to see whether these issues will be sufficiently covered in the health reform discussions currently underway, as any mistranslations here could well be the difference between life and death.

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