Starting Out in Medical Translation

By Edith Nkwocha
In Translation
Jan 29th, 2018

How to Break into Medical Translation


Let’s be honest, medical translation can be a very profitable niche of translation. Having said this though, before you leap in, stop and consider a few things that could make or break you in this area.


Know Who You Are

Medical translation is very rigorous both mentally and in terms of the strict checking that your work will undergo, often at various levels. The stakes here are quite high, more so than other areas of translation. A poor translation can be extremely costly both to you, and the end-client. I’m mentioning this because there are some personality types that are simply unable to keep to deadlines or be rigorous, as a matter of principle. If this is your case, then medical translation is probably not for you.  


It Can Be Complex

Medical translation is very broad, and sometimes complex. However, there are quite a few options available to you. These include:


  • Medical History Documents: Among these are: medical examinations, medical market research surveys and  medical device translations, to give just a few examples.
  • Pharmaceuticals: These include patient information leaflets, marketing materials, etc.
  • Clinical Trials: This is one of the more lucrative areas of medical translation. Clinical trials documentation includes Protocols, Opinion papers, Informed Consent Forms, Adverse Events Reports, Placebo-Controlled Studies, etc.

Note that you really need to know what you’re doing, in order to succeed here.  Medical translation is not something you just decide to get into, and try your luck.


Okay, now that you have some background info on what medical translation entails, the next big question is whether in fact it is possible to become a medical translator if you are not a doctor or nurse or other medically qualified personnel.  Well, it truly depends on who you’re talking to. There are some clients/agencies that won’t touch you with a ten foot pole if you don’t have any qualifications in the medical/healthcare fields. They feel and sometimes strongly so, that it’s not possible to produce quality medical translations without having trained in the field. With this category of thinkers, it’s almost impossible to get your foot in the door as the door tends to remain firmly shut. Mercifully however, there are others who believe that a conscientious, diligent translator can through persistence and accrued experience, become quite a good medical translator.

If you’re looking to get into medical translation, this is the sort of client profile you should be targeting as your prospective clients.



Like everything in life, don’t try to do it all at once and attempt to apply for every type of medical translation job that comes your way. I’ve already mentioned that medical translation is very rigorous, so you want to begin with an area that you see a future in. For example, don’t jump straight into translating clinical trials if you don’t even have a clue what they’re about. Instead, start with something less demanding like medical products marketing materials or medical research surveys. This will be easier as there is generally less jargon involved, making it more straightforward..



Many people try to get into medical translation by simply choosing to accept projects and attempting to gain the experience via the volume of translations that they handle. This is an option, but really not the best, or fastest or even the easiest.  This makes a strong case for taking the time to make the investment in getting yourself properly trained and equipped for medical translation as a whole. Organizations like the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) or the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), are good places to start. Even if you’re not willing or unable financially to go through the entire certification program, they do offer short courses that will be of great benefit. There are also other reputable organizations that offer well-respected certification and training programs such as The American Translators Association (ATA). Although they do not offer training, another professional body to consider joining is  TREMEDICA (The International Association of Translators and Editors in Medicine and Applied Sciences), among many others.



This option is only for those individuals who are self-motivated and have the discipline to read, study and research on their own; in many cases, while still managing a family, raising children and often working a regular job. Some simply do not have the self-discipline and/or the personal life circumstances to go this route. Aim for the easiest and most pragmatic way to break into medical translation that fits your current life situation.


When you’ve acquired the necessary education whatever route you choose, here are the next few steps to take that will move you closer to your goal:


Gain Experience

The only way to improve as a medical translator is to do the work that yields the improvement. Everyone started from somewhere so it’s important to have a portfolio of work and testimonials that speak to the quality of your work.


There are so many ways to do this, but in an ever-competitive market, you must think creatively. Yes, of course you can volunteer and offer free translations, but you really want to position yourself in a way that allows you to start getting paid clients as quickly as possible. There are translation portals such as Proz, for example, but really, one of the best ways (and more profitable too) is to aim for direct clients, as opposed to working for agencies. Not only do you stand a better chance of getting repeat work but they also pay better and in most cases, on time (very important consideration). Remember that if you deliver on time, you have a right to expect to be paid on time. Insist on it (unashamedly). Apart from translating this will be one your first experience building issues to work on  – your ability to deliver on time quality translations, and consequently demand on-time payments.



This is where the real work begins: the age-old question of How do I get new clients? The answer is simple: look for them. You can start by contacting your local chamber of commerce to get access to companies that might need your services. Also, don’t neglect the fact that you must market yourself online via a professional website and paid online marketing. Of course you know that you’ll need to be active on social media. Facebook is a good starting point. You could also attend trade fairs and other events that potential clients might likely attend. Hand out your business cards at every opportunity, and let people know that this is what you do. One of the advantages of medical translation is that very often, people do tend to keep the business card of a medical translator because the thinking is: “You never know, I might need it when I travel or something.”


Be sure to have your website translated into other languages. You offer a specialized type of translation service, so your clients are definitely out there. Harness the power of the internet and help them to find you, while you are looking for them.


Continuous Education

DO NOT ever allow yourself to get to the point where you feel you know it all. No matter how many degrees and certifications you have, we live in a constantly changing world, and medical translation is no different. As laws and regulations in the medical field change, the only way to remain relevant is to keep in step with these changes and it’s not possible to do this with an “I’ve arrived” mentality. Keep studying, researching, attending relevant conferences, and consistently too, and you will always remain relevant and your services in demand.


So in a nutshell, here is your basic action plan that works:


  • Exhibit Integrity: Know your abilities and limitations professionally and individually, and let them be the deciding factor to move ahead with this, or not.
  • Choose your area: Research the specific type of medical translation you are interested in AND are able to do.
  • Focus: Choose a niche or niches within your selected area(s). You can’t do everything.
  • Training: Choose your path of entry wisely – self-study or certification, and apply yourself accordingly.
  • Build your portfolio: You gain the experience by translating either for free initially, to build your portfolio, or by going straight into paid translation work.
  • Market your services on a regular basis. No marketing, no clients. It’s really that simple.
  • Remain Relevant: No amount of knowledge is ever enough in this field, so never stop . Your clients will love you for it.


Of course there are other things that you can do, but I detest long stories because for someone trying to break into any field, it’s challenging enough, so I like to cut to the chase and offer actionable steps that can be easily followed, lead to the desired end-result as quickly as is possible.


Don’t be discouraged. Remember the 4Bs: Be diligent, professional, dedicated, and consistent. Persevere and you will get there regardless of how many other people are into medical translation. No two individuals bring the exact same skill-sets to the table. Follow the above steps, explore, learn, go for it!


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Edith Nkwocha is a technical translator She translates from: French – English-US Spanish – English-US Catalan – English-US You can find her Prox profile here:

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