Clarity Across Languages

The art and science of translating health information

World map made of colorful speech bubbles

Guest post by Fedora Braverman, team lead for the MedlinePlus en español website.

Communication can be tricky, regardless of what language you speak. Take, for example, this conversation I had some time ago with a Hispanic acquaintance:

Him (in a panic): “My friend has a tumor. The tumor is benign!”

Me (not understanding why he is panicking): “That’s great. That’s (kind of) good news.”

Him (looking at me like I had two heads and with his eyes wide open): “It was BENIGN!”

He thought “benign” (benigno in Spanish) meant cancer. He thought his friend had cancer.

I work for MedlinePlus en español, and moments like these make my job so rewarding because I can ease that man’s worries. By pointing him to our website with reputable and reliable health information, I can help him understand his friend’s condition.

But the conversation also made me think: if he thought “benign” meant cancer, then others might, too.

We work in the largest biomedical library. We are used to these words. Our audience is not.

Because our goal is to reach out to the Hispanic population as a whole, regardless of health literacy levels, our site needs to address disparities in health literacy by striving for clarity. So, the next day, after relaying this conversation to my team, we updated all instances of the word benigno on the MedlinePlus en español site, clarifying that it meant “non-cancerous.”

We are constantly learning and improving, refining our translation of the MedlinePlus en español site to enhance its cultural sensitivity and accessibility. It’s an art and a science. We use tools—from print dictionaries to Google searches and everything in between—to determine which word is used across Latin America  for a particular ailment, condition, or medical term. But translating text calls for far more than just swapping an English word for a Spanish equivalent. Word choice matters, as we try to accommodate regional linguistic and cultural differences along with the subtlety and nuance inherent in any language. That’s the art, as we not only translate the words but also adapt the text to our audience’s culture. Only then can we expect readers to connect with and understand the information.

Understanding the culture of our audience is imperative to building a site like MedlinePlus en español. Being knowledgeable about how Hispanics talk about their health issues (e.g., referring to diabetes as “this condition that affects the pancreas”), how they deal with certain hot topics or sensitive issues like sexually transmitted diseases, and what their health challenges are is crucial. That’s why my team and I work together, going back and forth until the text is as understandable and as culturally relevant as possible—even if that means re-working text we had previously translated.

So, whether you call it gripe, trancazo, influenza o gripa, benigno or no canceroso, NLM’s MedlinePlus en español is the trusted website for you.

headshot of Fedora BravermanFedora Braverman leads the MedlinePlus en español website’s operations, outreach activities, and social media platforms. She previously worked as a consultant for the US State Department and for the Library of Congress Hispanic Division. She has also served as an information specialist at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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