Lutheran Medical Center translates written documents to help its diverse patient population understand their financial responsibilities and find sources of insurance coverage or other assistance. The hospital begins the translation process for its patient financial documents with content that is written in English at a fifth-grade reading level. Marina Chilingarova, the system’s cultural initiatives coordinator, and Virginia S. Tong, vice president, cultural competence, share their advice about getting those documents translated effectively.

Hiring translators. Someone who is fluent in a given language is not necessarily a good translator. Choose individuals who are certified by the American Translation Association, who provide translation services for a living, and who can provide references verifying their experience in the medical field. “They must be familiar with the terminology―both for medical and billing―that pertains to the healthcare industry,” Chilingarova says.

Controlling quality. Most languages have dialects and regional variations that must be taken into consideration. For example, Chinese has nearly 150 dialects and Arabic is spoken in 23 countries, Tong says. “We try to capture the original document in words that will be understood by the vast majority of people who read that language,” she says. 

Staff members who work in the department that uses the document and who are native speakers of the language review each translated document. “We talk to real people,” Chilingarova says. “We ask them to evaluate whether it reads well and whether the translation will come across as authentic to the patient.” 

Corrections and suggestions for easier understanding are sent to the translator for consideration. “A form is ready for use when we come to a consensus,” Chilingarova says.

Contracting for services. A 100-word document in English may have up to 25 percent more words when translated into Spanish or Russian, Chilingarova says. The contract should stipulate that payment is based on the per-word rate in English, regardless of the number of words in the translated document. Translators should deliver the document in the original format they receive it; thus, a PowerPoint presentation in English should be delivered as a PowerPoint presentation in the target language.

Chilingarova says Lutheran Medical Center typically pays about 20 cents per English word for translation, although some languages—Arabic, in particular—can be significantly more expensive. The contract should specify the translator’s charge for content changes.

Choosing agencies versus freelance translators. Agencies are typically more expensive and may charge extra for formatting documents or quick-turnaround requests. In general, Lutheran Medical Center avoids them for those reasons. However, Tong points out that the hospital’s in-house capabilities—including staff members who are native speakers of many languages—are not available in most health systems. Thus, paying an agency for multiple levels of editing and quality control may be money well spent for some organizations.

Quoted in this article: 

Marina Chilingarova is cultural initiatives coordinator, Lutheran HealthCare, Brooklyn, N.Y. 

Virginia S. Tong is vice president, cultural competence, at Lutheran HealthCare, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Publication Date: Monday, November 18, 2013