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Challenges in Medical Translation for Outsourcing Clinical Trials

[fa icon="calendar"] May 16, 2017 / by Vinodh Nedyavila



The clinical trial process for medical drugs can take up to two decades and cost over $1 billion. It can be quite a challenge to translate medical terms, clinical trial information and results, but it’s a vital component of the process. In order to carry out the translation of clinical trial documents successfully, it is important to understand the requirements and potential pitfalls that come with medical translation.

Overview of Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are broken down into phases, as summarized in the following table:

Phase Goal Dose # of Participants Success Rate
Pre-clinical Drug testing in non-human subjects to gather efficacy, toxicity, and pharmacokinetic information Unrestricted N/A Varies
Phase I Drug testing on healthy volunteers for dose-ranging Sub-therapeutic with ascending doses 20-100 healthy volunteers (or cancer patients for cancer drugs) Approx. 70%
Phase II Drug testing on patients with medical conditions to assess efficacy and side effects Therapeutic dose 100 - 300 patients with specific medical conditions Approx. 33%
Phase III Drug testing on patients with medical conditions to assess efficacy and safety Therapeutic dose 300 - 3,000 patients with specific medical conditions 25-30%
Phase IV Post-marketing surveillance (monitor drug use by public) Therapeutic dose Anyone seeking treatment from physicians N/A

Source: Wikipedia

Due to the high cost of clinical trials, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies have started outsourcing their clinical trials to Contract Research Organizations (CROs). Some CROs serve all phases of the clinical trial process, whereas other CROs focus on a specific phase.

According to, the global CRO market was worth $27 billion in 2014, and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 6% over the next 6 years. One driving force behind this growth is outsourcing of clinical trials. North America houses the largest share of the CRO market, followed by Europe. Asia-Pacific is the fastest growing region for CRO activity.

Outsourcing clinical trials requires complying with regulatory requirements, approval processes, and medical conduct in the respective countries where CROs operate. This means documents such as clinical summary reports, investigator brochures, and patient informed consent forms may need to be translated by medical translators into local languages. Medical document translation requires far higher attention to detail than other types of translation, as people’s health and lives are at risk. In other words, outsourcing clinical trials requires the impeccable translation of clinical trial documents. 

Medical document translation, however, presents several challenges to medical translators. Below, we explore some of the challenges faced by medical translators when dealing with the translation of clinical trial documents. 

Medical Translation Challenges

1. Target Audience: Layperson or Medical Professional?

Medical content is generally meant either for patients or medical professionals. The type of terminology and phrases used in medical texts depends on the target audience.

Therefore, when carrying out medical terminology translation for clinical trials, medical translators must carefully consider the target audience (layperson or medical) in order to determine the appropriate terminology and phrases in the target language. For example, the medical terms “hypotension”, “myalgia”, and “tinnitus” are defined in layperson terms as “low blood pressure”, “muscle ache”, and “ringing in the ears”, respectively. It is not easy to translate medical terms, which is why medical terminology translation must be carried out by experts in the field. 

For a table of English medical terms and their layperson definitions, click here.


2. Euphemisms, Medical Eponyms, Acronyms, and Synonyms in Medical Document Translation

The medical world is full of euphemisms - mild or indirect expressions used in place of harsher or blunter expressions, or in reference to something unpleasant, awkward, or difficult to talk about. For those working to translate medical terms and documents, it is important to keep in mind that euphemisms in other languages may be completely different from their English counterparts. For example, euphemisms for death vary greatly across languages, as shown in the table below:

Language Euphemism(s) for Death Literal English Definition

"to pass away"

"to go peacefully"

"to not make it"

"to do everything we (doctors) could"

"to no longer be with us"


"Avaler son extrait de naissance"

"Fermer son parapluie"

To swallow one's birth certificalte

To close one's umbrella


"De pijp uitgaan"


To get out of the pipe

To leave/depart



"Estirar la pata"

To expire

To stretch one's leg

Japanese "他界する" ("Takai suru") To move to another world

Medical eponyms – diseases or medical conditions that are named after people – are regularly seen in the medical field. For example, in English, Lou Gehrig’s disease is the eponym for “motor neurone disease” or “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” In French, the disease is called “maladie de Charcot” in layperson terms and “sclérose latérale amyotrophique” in medical terms. Bottom line - both the layperson’s and the medical terminology for medical conditions in other languages can be entirely different. This is just one of the reasons why it is exceptionally difficult to translate medical terms. 

Acronyms – abbreviations formed from the initial letters of other words – are frequently used in medical workspaces, including clinical trial facilities. For example, the English medical acronym “ALS” for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (medical term for Lou Gehrig’s disease) becomes “SLA” when translated into French, because the French medical term for Lou Gehrig’s disease is “Sclérose Latérale Amyotrophique.” So, medical translators should use acronyms for medical terms in the target language only after the accuracy of the medical term and the existence its acronym in the target language are confirmed.

Synonyms – words having the same or similar meaning as other words – are also common. For example, in English, “diarrhea” has the following synonyms: “dysentery”, “flux”, “food poisoning” and “the runs” – some which are medical terms, and others which are colloquial or slang terms. However, the word for diarrhea in other languages may have completely different synonyms in those languages, and it’s crucial to understand this before starting medical document translation.


3. Medical Drugs: Brand Name AND Chemical Name

Medical translation becomes slightly complicated when dealing with translation of medical drug names. For example, aspirin (common medical drug for pain, fever, and inflammation) translates to “aspirine” in French. These, however, are just the brand names of this drug, and say nothing about the chemical composition of the drug. The chemical name for aspirin is “acetylsalicylic acid”, or “l’acide acetylsalicylique” in French. So, for target audiences in other countries, it does not suffice to translate only the brand name of medical drugs. BOTH the brand name AND chemical name of medical drugs should be translated so that target audiences are clear about the chemicals in the drugs they consume.

To say the least, anyone looking to carry out translation of medical trial documents needs to be extremely mindful of their target audience, the various euphemisms, medical eponyms, acronyms, and synonyms that exist in the target language, and the chemical names in target languages that correspond to medical drugs. Medical translation of clinical trial documents is no easy business, but the end result is cost savings for pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies and easier introduction of successfully tested drugs into local marketplaces.

Want to learn about how localization service providers (LSPs) overcome the hurdles of medical translation? Check out part two of this blog “Tackling Medical Translation for Outsourcing Clinical Trials,” or schedule a free consultation with us by clicking the link below.

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Topics: Medical Translation

Vinodh Nedyavila

Written by Vinodh Nedyavila

Vinodh is an Account Manager and Marketing Specialist at SimulTrans' HQ in Mountain View, California, and focuses on new business development, inbound marketing, and creative writing. With a background in Economics and International Relations, and experience working in the US, Singapore, and Japan, he is a valued member of the ever-expanding SimulTrans team, and passionate about bringing the world closer together through localization services.