Google Translate Still Too Risky for Health Care

There has been some recent debate (perhaps controversy!) about the alleged dubious quality of the Spanish version of the Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) website, (see CNN and Washington Post). Some are arguing that in creating the Spanish version of the site, authors must have employed a service such as Google Translate to have ended up with such awkward phrasing. No matter what you think about this practice or Obamacare, I am happy that there is a debate happening about the use of machine translation. Even with great advances in recent years, automated translation services, like Google’s and Bing’s, can yield unpredictable results. While it’s probably fine for me to use them to understand my Quebecois friends’ Facebook posts, using it in medicine is irresponsible and dangerous.

How It Happens

I was interpreting recently for a doctor and a Spanish-speaking family who were preparing to be discharged from the hospital. Generally, they discuss the instructions, resolve any questions, and sign off on a copy of the instructions in their language (usually translated from English by me). In this case, the resident had not actually written out the instructions and said she would be back later after she typed them up for the family to sign. When I asked if she would need me back at that point to translate them into Spanish, she said that it would not be necessary since she was going to run it through Google Translate and then ask the family to let her know if anything looked funny (a little part of my interpreter soul began to cry). I didn’t have authority to tell the resident what to do, but as we left the family, I implored her to be extremely careful with these translation services. In the end, I was able to convince her to at least run the translation by another resident originally from a Spanish speaking country to check for errors.

Why It Happens

In a place where so much care is given to best practices, safety, hand washing, and so on, why would medical providers be so careless with translation? This kind of practice is a recipe for disaster. (By the way, Google Translate renders the phrase “recipe for disaster” into Spanish as receta para el disastre, which hilariously means a prescription for the disaster when properly translated back into English.) My guess is that the resident simply didn’t know any better.

Fortunately many health care providers do. Boston’s Steward Health Care System, for example, uses Google Translate on their webpage, but provides the following warning:

Steward Health Care System provides this link to Google Translate as a courtesy to visitors to its website. Steward Health Care System does not own, manage or control any aspect of Google Translate, and is not responsible for the translations provided by Google Translate. Steward Health Care System does not make any promises, assurances, or guarantees as to the accuracy, reliability, or timeliness of the translations provided. Steward Health Care System can only verify the validity and accuracy of the information provided in English and, because of this, the English version of our website is the official text. Viewers who rely on information through Google Translate on our web site do so at their own risk. Steward Health Care System shall not be liable for any inaccuracies or errors in the translation and shall not accept liability for any loss, damage, or other problem, including without limitation, indirect or consequential loss or damage arising from or in connection with use of the Google Translate Service.

Google Translate seems like a quick, simple, cost-effective solution, yet once risk is factored into the equation, it’s easy to see why it might not be the best choice.

Education is the Answer

In the end, I think it’s the responsibility of those of us who work as interpreters and diversity & inclusion specialists to make sure that medical professionals are aware of the risks associated with using machine translation. I think that in the same way many people assume any bilingual person is automatically qualified to interpret, they assume that Google Translate is qualified to do their translation. To be clear, I absolutely support automated translation services and software, and I think they are making the world a better place, but when it comes to relying on them in medicine, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Questions about when Google Translate might be right for you? Contact us.

Affordable Language Services is a leading business translation and medical interpreter service provider based in the United States.


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