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  • Writer's pictureHernán J. Droguett

A word on translating into Spanish for the healthcare industry

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

There truly are challenges to translations into any language and in any field or industry. Healthcare in the United States is a world of its own, and regional variations of Spanish only add to the list of things translators need to be aware of when tackling a project. Ah, and of course, throw in a sprinkle of state agencies and a pinch of the federal system to add even more flavor to this mix.

As we've discussed before in this blog, translators make different word choices when translating. These decisions are based on the translator's country of origin (or variety of Spanish learned), educational background, experience, client requirements, target audience, etc. In the case of healthcare in the US, Spanish translators have to consider all of these factors, and then some. A business can decide on the terminology and its corresponding translations, and thus, several companies within the same industry can have different translations for the same terms. One good example is "nursing home," which has been translated (and approved) into Spanish in a few ways: hogar de ancianos, residencia para personas mayores, asilo de ancianos, casa de reposo, and a few others. Although one could argue these terms are not perfect synonyms, in practical terms they are used interchangeably.

Why are different Spanish terms used in the first place? In some cases, it's as simple as the choice of the first translator who did the work, and in order to stay consistent in future projects a decision was made to keep that term as "approved." Notice the example below.

"Health care" is one term that can be translated in more than one way - even seasoned translators may very well disagree on this translation. Yet, whether a translator likes atención médica or not, the State of California has deemed it approved and official at the very least for all services related to Medi-Cal (the state's Medicaid program that serves millions of people!). So, if a translator is faced with the task to translate for Medi-Cal, or any other organization that works with Medi-Cal (hospital network, private insurance, etc.), it would be advisable to stick to atención médica - especially if we consider that there's probably a large amount of existing content where that term is used.

And just to illustrate this point about different official Spanish translations for the same English term, see below.

It would appear that the State of California went a little rogue with their Spanish translation for "healthcare," at least in the sense of deviating from "cuidado de salud," which is what was adopted at the federal level. And yet, California is not the only state that adopted its own translation. HealthFirst Colorado, which is that state's Medicaid program, uses cuidados de salud for all its materials in Spanish.

The list goes on and on. And although these differences may seem minor, confusion can arise when two different translations appear on the same document, or perhaps when the reader is referred to a related source for more information (website, link, mobile app, etc.) Let's say, that at the doctor's office a patient is given a flyer on prenatal care. One paragraph may mention the importance of doing ultrasounds during pregnancy, and even refer the expecting mother to a website where she can learn more on the subject. The flyer in Spanish may say ecografía, while the reader may be taken to a website that uses sonograma or even ultrasonido. This can be very confusing for the reader, as it may understandably create the notion that there are different procedures and not the same ultrasound. Let's picture another patient reading through a list of services or procedures covered by his or her insurance. The needed procedure may or may not be on the list, but it would be difficult to know if the Spanish name does not match what the patient has previously read or was told at the doctor's office.

And speaking of doctors, don't get us started on Primary Care Physician in Spanish. Oh boy...

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