Translation corner: 7 “classic” cases of medical translation errors

Translation corner: 7 “classic” cases of medical translation errors

In medical translation, accuracy is paramount, when even a small mistake can cost the lives of thousands of patients. This article will introduce some examples of “classic” mistranslations to help readers understand the importance of a well-trained and skilled translator.

1. Intoxicado and Intoxicated – a term costs $71 million.

This is perhaps one of the most “expensive” error in the history of medical translation. It happened when Willie Ramirez was only 18 years old, in one time the young man went out to gather with friends. Ramirez suddenly had a severe headache and almost passed out. He was immediately taken to the hospital for treatment. Waking up from a coma, Ramirez was informed that he would never walk again. A intracerebral hemorrhage left him a quadriplegic for life. But it did not have to be that way. The hemorrhage was completely treatable. Unfortunately, his family did not have the support of a Spanish interpreter. That’s why, when Ramirez’s family told doctors at the emergency room that they believed Willie had intoxicado, he was treated in the direction of intoxicated, or drug overdose. Intoxicated means inebriated or poisoned, and in this case, the emergency physician understood that Ramirez was poisoned from taking too much of a stimulant. However, among Cubans, “intoxicado” is kind of an all encompassing word that means there’s something wrong with you because of something you ate or drank. Doctors only discovered the hemorrhage after many days of improper treatment. And by then, it was too late. The hospital took responsible for and compensated about $ 71 million to pay for Ramirez’s care for the rest of his life, for not appointing a professional interpreter to assist the patient and the doctors in the process of examination.

2. Teresa Tarry and the unnecessary double mastectomy.

British housewife Teresa Tarry lost both of her breast after a double mastectomy in Spain in 2007. The worst part? Neither of these surgeries was necessary. The lump she initially sought help for wasn’t even cancerous! It all came from a error when translating medical records. According to the Daily Mail, she claimed doctors believed that both Teresa’s mother and sister had suffered from breast cancer after a translation error ended up on her medical records. Then she struggled in speaking to the doctors. In fact, Teresa’s family had no history of breast cancer, so her mastectomy was completely unnecessary. After losing her job and living in “hell” for eight years, in 2015, she decided to sue the hospital for a compensation of up to 600,000 euros.

3. The translation error resulting in 47 failed surgeries.

Medical translation errors don’t have to be fatal to have serious consequences. Between 2006 and 2007, 47 cases of failed surgeries for knee replacement occurred in Germany resulting from a translation error. The Journal of Specialised Translation describes this incident as follows: Knee prosthesis comes in two types that should be used with or without cement. In the source language of the prosthesis package information, it said that the femoral component should be non-modular cemented. The mistranslation said that the component was without cement or non-cemented. Knee replacement surgery is a painful procedure that takes months of recovery. Over the course of a year, 47 people had to undergo that ordeal twice for no reason.

4. George Vs. Biggs – Informed consent requires patient understanding

In 2015, Sandra George, a Macedonian woman with limited English, went to the hospital to be treated for her vestibular nerve tumor. During her first visit, she asked a friend to translate instead of hiring a professional interpreter. When she left the hospital, she assumed that her tumor was malignant. But that was not the case. And in later visits, despite being assisted by professional Macedonian interpreters, she still believed that she had malignant cancer.

Dr. Biggs, one of the doctors in charge of Mrs. George’s surgery, accidentally cut her facial nerve during the operation, resulting in palsy on one side of her face. Just imagine how upset she must have been to find out that the tumor was not even melanoma!

This case shows the importance of professional interpreters throughout the examination process. Sometimes, misunderstandings are easy to happen, but to correct them is extremely difficult. It is best to do it right from the start.

5. Francisco Torres and the removal of the wrong kidney.

In 2010, Riverside Parkview Community Hospital Medical Center in California performed surgery on a Spanish-speaking patient named Francisco Torres. The purpose of the surgery was to remove the bad kidney of this man.

Following the instructions of the hospital staff, Torres signed the consent form for surgery with information about the kidney to be removed. This form is written in English. Without a Spanish copy or an interpreter, Torres could not know that the kidney that would be removed was the healthy kidney. After realizing the mistake, the hospital proceeded to remove the diseased kidney as well. This left him with no kidneys.

According to NBC, the Department of Health cited the hospital “for errors leading up to the surgery, including failing to follow safety protocol and failing to communicate accurately with the Spanish-speaking patient”.

6. Tragedy of the Tran family.

In this case, the patient, a girl of only nine years, was asked to interpret for herself until she collapsed as a result of a reaction to one of her prescriptions. At that point, her 16-year-old brother took over and attempted to translate for his Vietnamese-speaking parents By the time the doctor understood what was going on, the little girl had passed away.

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to have family members interpreting for patients. Relying on a child in distress to translate the information her parents need to make decisions about her care is even worse.

Additionally, when the girl was initially discharged from the hospital after being dosed with the drug that would kill her, none of the discharge instructions were translated into Vietnamese.

The patient’s family then sued and was awarded 200,000 USD. As an expert witness at the trial stated: “Conducting the communications without a professional medical interpreter failed to meet the standards of care applicable for the physician and the facility. The effect is [that] she did not receive the care she should have. The parents were not able to adequately understand and address her medical needs. In my opinion, the failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing [patient]’s death”.

7. Lin’s Case – When the interpreter was a minor patient.

In the Lin case, the patient, a 17-year-old girl originally from Taiwan but living in California, developed a brain abscess after being hit in the head with a tennis racquet. In the emergency room, she acted as interpreter for her parents until she went into respiratory arrest.

According to Pacific Interpreters: “Not only was the minor daughter acting as the interpreter for her parents, she was also interpreting complex medical terminology, and the life-threatening conditions she was communicating were her own”.

Since she did not receive timely treatment for the abscess, she died. There’s no way to tell whether or not better communication would have improved the outcome. But it is hard to imagine that the doctor, the patient, and her family were communicating effectively under those circumstances.


Professional medical translation and interpreting services save lives and improve quality of care. Controlling healthcare costs is on everyone’s minds these days, but translation and interpreting are not places to cut corners.

Translation corner: 7 “classic” cases of medical translation errors

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