The challenges of scientific translations

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

“Can a machine translation engine produce reliable scientific translations?”

That’s the question I asked ChatGPT today. Here’s its answer:

Machine translation engines have progressed considerably in recent years, but as yet they are not quite capable of producing reliable scientific translations on their own.

Here’s why:


  1. Specific terminology: scientific texts often contain highly specialized terminology and complex technical concepts. Machine translation engines can struggle to understand and translate these terms properly without a thorough knowledge of the domain.
  2. Context and nuance: translating scientific texts requires an understanding of the context and nuances of the concepts covered. It can be difficult for machine translation engines to grasp these intricacies and produce a translation that is accurate and faithful to the source text.
  3. Precision and accuracy: scientific texts must be highly precise and accurate in order to convey information correctly. Machine translation engines can sometimes produce approximate or incorrect translations, which can compromise the quality and accuracy of the results.
  4. Presentation standards: scientific texts often follow specific standards of writing and presentation. Machine translation engines may not be able to adhere to these standards, which can result in translation that falls short of the expectations of the scientific readership.

In summary, although machine translation engines can be useful for translating texts on general themes, they are not yet reliable enough to guarantee accurate and high-quality translation of scientific texts without the intervention of a human translator with specialist knowledge.

What are the most difficult scientific domains to translate?

The translation of scientific terms varies for different fields, with some presenting particular challenges. Theoretical physics, neuroscience, genetics, quantum computing, astrophysics, organic chemistry, environmental sciences and medicine are among the most difficult. Rapid advances in fields such as genetics are constantly adding new terms. A thorough understanding of the source and target languages is essential in order to translate successfully in these specialized areas.

Erroneous scientific translations can have serious consequences

Translation errors in the instruction manuals of medical devices pose a serious public health problem. It is essential to take all necessary measures to guarantee patient safety by ensuring that medical information is translated accurately and reliably.

Here are some examples of erroneous scientific translations that allegedly had serious or even fatal consequences (source: Google Gemini).

1 • Misuse of artificial respirator:

In 2009, a hospital in France used an artificial respirator whose instruction manual had been poorly translated. The erroneous translation led to misuse of the device, which resulted in the death of several patients.

2 • Cochlear implant malfunction:

In 2018, a patient in France suffered a malfunction of his cochlear implant after installing a mistranslated version of the device software. A cochlear implant is a medical device that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to regain partial hearing. The device software is responsible for processing sounds and transmitting them to the implant. In this case, the French version of the software contained translation errors that led to programming errors. As a result, the device became unusable and the patient suffered temporary hearing loss. The patient filed a complaint against the manufacturer of the device and received financial compensation.

3 • Incorrect translation of a medical article:

In 2006, a medical article was published in a Chinese scientific journal. The article described the results of a clinical trial of a new drug for the treatment of lung cancer. The article was translated into English and published in an international scientific journal. However, the translation contained several major errors. One of the most serious was the translation of the Chinese term “肺癌” (pài ài) as “breast cancer” in English. As a result of this error, a patient received medication for breast cancer although he was suffering from lung cancer. The patient developed serious side effects and died soon after.

4 • Incorrect translation of an autopsy report:

In 2018, an autopsy report was translated from Spanish into English for an insurance company. The autopsy report concerned the death of an American tourist in Spain. The incorrect translation led to an erroneous conclusion on the cause of death. In Spanish, the report stated that the death was due to “internal bleeding”. In English, the translation indicated that the death was due to an “external hemorrhage”. As a result of this error, the insurance company refused to pay the insurance benefit to the family of the deceased. However, said family filed a complaint against the insurance company and were successful.

In conclusion, scientific translations call for much more than just knowledge of two languages. They require specialized expertise to ensure that the content is translated accurately, clearly and consistently while preserving the scientific integrity of the information.

At Birdwell, we have expert linguists in various technical-scientific domains such as nuclear, medical and pharmaceutical, among others. We are able to offer you specialized translation services in most of these scientific fields. For more information, feel free to contact us. Our managers will study your project and offer you a tailor-made quote.

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