Machine Translation: OK for Your Clinical Trial Materials?

by Sian Jones
machine translation for clinical trials

The number of global trials grows every year, with study teams reaching out to increasingly diverse patient populations. These broader populations bring a growing variety of languages, cultures and experiences – all which need to be considered when recruiting or interacting with clinical trial participants.

At the same time, clinical trials and patient materials are continuously adapting to better reach patients and populations with increasingly imaginative and interactive recruitment strategies. For example, activities like crossword puzzles and interactive games have now become common tools for better engaging patients.

The demands on the translator keep getting more complex. What role should machine translation play?

What is machine translation?

The American Translators Association defines machine translation as the use of automated software that translates text without human involvement. This technology is not to be confused with computer-assisted translation tools.

Machine translation came to fruition in the early 1950s. Today, with the rise of well-known apps and free web machine translation tools such as Google Translate and Microsoft translator that provide generic machine translations, it has become a household tool. However, these tools differ greatly from customizable machine translation, which is taking hold within the translation industry. Customizable machine translation are believed to be more accurate, as they focus on field specific terminology, for example, within law or medical terminology. It can even be adapted to focus on client-preferred language or terms.

Over the years, machine translation has advanced, thanks to technological developments. The latest phase of neural machine translation is proving to be the most promising, providing the most fluid and accurate translation results to date. But the technology is still an emerging technology. Like most – and possibly all technology — machine translation has its benefits and pitfalls.


  1. Increased productivity. Machine translation capacity far outstrips any professional human translator. This can result in vastly reduced timelines, especially when handling large translation texts.
  2. Cost saving. With the increase in productivity comes a decrease in costs, as less time and fewer vendors are required to fulfill a translation request.
  3. Enhanced consistency in translation across large amounts of text. This can also enable consistent use of client-preferred language in translation that may not be possible with a multi-human translation team.


  1. Machine translation stumbles when it comes to cultural nuances. Machine translation still does not have capacity to handle cultural nuances or slang in translation as a human native translator would.
  2. Lack of standardization. There is a wide range of software available. Developers on the frontier of machine learning are trying new approaches with varying and somewhat unpredictable results.
  3. Less reliability with languages spoken by small numbers of people. Machine translation relies on large amounts of bilingual text or data. With languages of limited diffusion, or rare languages, machine translation struggles to output as sufficiently as with common languages.

Machine translation plus the human touch

Best practices indicate machine translation requires post-editing, and depending on the text, pre-editing by a qualified human translator to deliver an optimal translation product. Pre-editing by a human translator can ensure nuances, such as changing Fahrenheit temperature to Celsius, can be tackled ahead of machine translation. Post-editing enables the translator to review the translation output to ensure translation accuracy and enhance the fluidity of the final product.

It is undeniable that machine translation has vastly progressed since its conception. It is a great aid if utilized appropriately. However one would argue that for complex translation, including needs applicable to clinical trial materials, is it not yet capable of being used as a single source.

Post-editing and potentially pre-editing is vital to ensure the optimum product is delivered. As for translators, with the rapid increased use of machine translation and other technology we have seen, and foresee in the future, their skillsets are ever expanding and evolving. This will forge a stronger collaboration between humans and technology in the field of translation. It will be fascinating to see these developments.



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