Translating Drug Labels

Better Languages logo

Many areas of translation work can cause serious problems if you get it wrong. However, nowhere is this more true than in the field of drug label translation. When translating drug labels, there are some vital factors which could literally mean life or death for the patient. An area which is crucial is dosage information. Wrong dosage information could have extremely serious consequences. Here the translation needs to be extremely accurate, but also thoroughly QA checked.

The extreme risk of machine translating drug labelling

We read an interesting article this week about how the City of New York has passed well meaning legislation. It requires pharmacists to make drug labeling available in 12 minority languages. Of course this is additional to US English. Great idea, you might think. There are great potential benefits to patients here. Understanding their prescription is definitely a good thing. However, there is a rather large snag. Pharmacists have been trying to use machine translation. The result has been producing rubbish on drug labels.

This isn’t just worse than providing English only. It is positively dangerous. The article cites the example of the English word “once” (as in once a day). This was translated as “once” in Spanish (same spelling as the English, but meaning eleven, so eleven times a day).

Methodology when translating drug labels

When we translate we always use highly trained professional translators, translating into their native language, and working with specialist terminology with which they are familiar. Trying to use a machine to translate something like a drug label is extremely dangerous, and indeed the article claims that the example stated above led to at least one fatality. The problem with machine translation is that it produces a literal word by word translation, and even that is of poor quality. We have written a good article on why “free” translation tools are not a good idea.

Professional drug labelling translation

The only way to ensure accurate multilingual drug labelling, is by specialist human translators doing the work. We only select the best translators, and so should you. Compromising on price can bite you here. QA and linguistic validation is vital to ensure accuracy. Even the best translators make mistakes. It is therefore vital to check and recheck to ensure total accuracy.

It is also important to realise that any manipulation of text risks error. This means that printing, or producing label artwork is a risk, and must be QA checked. If your printer misses half the label, you will probably spot it in English, but would you know in Kazakh or Arabic?

Next steps

Contact us to discuss any aspect of translating drug labels.