Independent Think Tank 2020health has sought to find out, through Freedom of Information requests, the full extent of recent NHS spending on language services and have published their findings in a probing report.

They found that many NHS trusts did not keep up to date records on translation spend. Significant, considering the huge £23.3 million total being spent in a year and the government’s endeavour to cut £20 billion from the health budget.

What can be painted by the findings is a lack of integration present within the UK; 120 languages have been interpreted or translated at a cost to the tax payer. However, it is a firm concept that we are a nation rich in diverse languages, therefore language services play a necessary role in maintaining the efficient services provided by the NHS as well as the police and the government.

Medical translation must be accurate

Some may suggest that the NHS should not provide language services, only healthcare, but it is important to remember that often translation is critical to be able to treat patients. For example, in cases where someone has visited the UK and fallen ill or moved here but their medical records are in a foreign language.

Nevertheless there are two significant steps that the NHS can undertake to reduce costs and allow for essential spending in other vicinities:

  • Producing ‘easy to read’ English documents, this will encourage non-English speakers to learn, and will assist those already seeking to improve.
  • NHS trusts can pool their resources to prevent duplicate translation costs occurring. This can be done through a central repository of information which has already been translated and can be shared throughout all sectors of the NHS.

Even Google don’t use Google Translate

One recommendation the report suggests is the prospect of using free web-based translation services such as Google Translate. The value of this service can be queried; it doesn’t take the context of the written text into account and translates it literally word by word, often producing a substandard or inadequate translation. This cannot be tolerated when using important medical terminology.

Interestingly, Google has human translators do its own translations. It does not use its own tool. Franz Ochs, the Head of Google Translate, has admitted on more than one occasion, that he does not use Google Translate much at all!

There is little worth in a service which uses statistical machine translation – meaning it uses the words users put into it to grow and produce future translations for others. The effect of this is that users are “giving” their text to Google to help them improve their system, meaning that you may be sharing sensitive discussions unknowingly.

The cost of translating documents has actually fallen

The reduction in translation fees is largely due to language companies using translation memory, software that collates repeated phrases or words within a document – meaning they only need to be translated once.

This benefits both the customer, who receives a lower price and the translator who can ensure an efficient, comprehensive translation and in a shorter time span.