Progress Notes

Responsibility to translate

Julia WangBy Julia Wang, MS 1

Translating literature from one language to another is often an art that requires devotion and integrity of both the author and the translator. It involves heated discussions about communication and the implicit versus explicit meaning of words.

As I continue to follow medical blogs and health related news online, I became interested in another type of translation. The translation of basic science papers to plain, everyday English.

A few skilled ‘translators’ I admire are regular contributors to The New Yorker and the Well blog of New York Times. Atul Gawande, for example, is the author of multiple best seller books and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He often compiles clinical studies and translates them into engaging and thought-provoking articles.

While trying to keep up with the literature in our own fields of interest, we know more than anyone else how difficult it is to digest the basic science and clinical papers on PubMed.

The correct way to interpret experimental and observational data is not exactly intuitive. The titles of the papers most likely do not mean exactly as they say. The results and conclusions drawn often come with multiple significant caveats and troublesome assumptions that make interpretation difficult.

Being literate in these nuances of medical advances can’t be taken for granted and should be utilized to help others understand what it means when news articles or commercials try to grab your attention by stating things like “oranges will cure multiple sclerosis.”

As medical scientists in training, we have a few additional reasons why we should write for the public’s eye. Since the progress of the medical field is enormously imprecise and fast paced, frequent updates are important. The knowledge pool is so large that not every physician can keep up, let alone the general public.

Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote an inspiring article on the involvement of public writing. He makes great arguments for the benefits of writing for the public about science and he embodies this idea by writing the most interesting books about the secrets of the brain.

Inevitably, we will travel through gray areas where we wonder if we are truly qualified to decide how to communicate important information to the public. Nevertheless, I feel a responsibility to carefully examine research conclusions and translate this information and its implications accurately to the general public.

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