The Challenge of Translating for China’s Medical Sector

The Challenge of Translating for China’s Medical Sector


Translators play a critical role in the pharma supply chain, and translation requirements seem to be increasing globally. The global market for medicines and medical services is more interconnected than ever before, leading to increased demand for medical services such as translating.

It’s also increasingly regulated, bringing in new requirements for assessing the quality of medical translation work. This not only expands work for translators but also for related services, such as quality control.

China is an increasingly active market in the areas of life sciences and pharmaceutical development, and it’s a growing consumer of medical services and products from other markets.

As a result, demand for medical translation into Chinese languages is higher than ever. China’s high level of activity in clinical trials is also leading to a raised demand for translation services.

Relaxed rules

Chinese authorities have recently committed to trying to improve the speed at which new drugs are licensed for use. The proposal includes plans to relax some requirements for foreign companies wanting to license new medicines in China.

It’s likely this will encourage more foreign drug companies into this market and also create more demand for translation services.

One example is clinical trial data. Presently the rules state that no clinical data will be recognised if the trials took place overseas; instead, foreign drug companies need to repeat trials within China in order to secure a release in the market.

If the new rules remove this requirement it will probably mean more clinical trial data from trials conducted overseas needs to be translated into Chinese languages. Relaxed rules probably mean more drugs will be licensed in China and hopefully at a faster rate, all putting pressure on translators working in this area.

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China’s regulators for medical devices have recently implemented new regulations requiring foreign companies making medical devices to translate basic company information about themselves into simplified Chinese if they want to supply this market.

It’s another hoop to jump through in order to reach this market – but demand for medical devices is a growth area in China so many companies are perfectly willing to do this.

Skills shortage

Although the demand for translators may be increasing, supply isn’t always elastic enough to meet market needs. It’s considered best practice for professional translators to translate into their own mother tongue. This requires native Chinese speakers to have extremely high levels of ability in whatever language is being translated from.

As English is usually the dominant language for scientific and medical research, it’s often this language they need to translate from. It’s not that unusual for Chinese native speakers to have strong English skills but it’s less common to find an English-Chinese translator that also specialises in medical translation.

Doctor analysing samples

With translation training failing to meet industry demands, Chinese institutions are currently in the process of partnering with foreign institutions to meet the translation demands of the medical and legal sector.

People with this specific combination of skills can’t quickly be found, and it’s hard to retrain into this area of work quickly. Translation training supply is far behind market demand in China, with few specialist translation courses on offer in educational institutions.

That’s part of the reason why it can be expensive to find translators with the specific skill combinations required. Remember that China’s booming economy combined with high levels of globalisation and internationalisation mean that translators are also in demand in other sectors too.

Medical translation is one area where accuracy is absolutely vital, which is why high-quality translators with specialist medical knowledge are in demand. There are consequences to getting it wrong.

It’s important to find translators with strong skills and experience but this can be challenging in a market where supply lags behind the expanding demand.

China is presently tackling many inadequacies in its healthcare system, including a shortage of both clinics and doctors and long delays getting new medicines approved for market release.

The vaccine against the human papillomavirus was only given approval here in 2016; a full decade after the drug was licensed in the US market. Chinese patients are increasingly heading abroad for treatment not easily available at home, and that’s fuelling demand for interpreters in other markets.

It’s thought Chinese consumer demand for foreign medical procedures grew by 500% in 2016.

Plastic surgery and routine health checks make up a big part of demand. But some countries are seen as the best option for particular kinds of procedure – Korea or Thailand are popular destinations for cosmetic procedures, the US for fertility treatment and health checkups.

Some overseas clinics are partnering with health tour operators to bring a stream of Chinese clients into their practice – and hiring Chinese language interpreters and translators is just part of the business plan.

Translating traditional medicine

Chinese consumers are placing demands on the healthcare sector as never before. Their expectations for accessing medical services are higher than the market can fulfil, and the country is struggling to meet demand. But it’s not just conventional medicine that’s in high demand.

Consumers are also showing increased demand for traditional medicine – and that’s not just within China.

Chinese traditional medicine is also popular in the wider Asian region, as well as with consumers and Chinese diaspora in Western markets. Treatments include acupuncture, medical massage, nutrition, and herbal remedies.

Acupuncture Statue

Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine and there is a wide range of acupuncture theories based on different philosophies.

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on very different approaches to conventional medical practices, and that makes it hard to approach from a translation perspective.

It’s based on complex cultural ideas about the body and requires a comprehensive understanding of classic Chinese language and clinical Chinese medicine to really make a thorough translation.

Translators are often forced to use terms from more conventional medical practices, which doesn’t help give traditional medicine any credibility.

Whether it’s in conventional medicine or China’s own traditional remedies, medicine is a growth area in China. The translation industry is just one allied industry that’s struggling to respond to consumer demand in this market.

Consumers have every right to expect to access health products in their own language but it’s not an easy need to meet in a market as dynamic as this one.

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