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The NHS: Shocking Cost of Poor Translations

It’s always shocking to hear of taxpayers’ money going to waste in vast quantities: especially when it’s easily avoidable. Likewise, it’s always shocking to hear of suffering or death where this is easily avoidable. One of the key concerns for the NHS in the current savings drive is to ensure that services can be provided efficiently: helping people with healthcare needs for the lowest possible spend. When lives are on the line, quality cannot be compromised: price cannot be the bottom line.

A recent Freedom of Information Act request revealed that over £59,000 is spent on translation services2 every day in the UK3 within the NHS: and the immediate response to this information was panic. Advice was given to find a cheaper solution in machine translations, or cutting foreign language provision in favour of plain English. Responses were centred around cutting costs and minimising provision, with little concern for solutions that worked for both provider and user. However, experts in the fields of linguistics can point out the flaws of approaches that put translation costs as the bottom line; and can suggest logical ways of reducing costs and maximising efficiency without compromising on provision- indeed often offering savings in the long run.

One such expert is Katy Pritchard of Kwintessential. With an in-depth knowledge of both the public sector and the translation industry, she has today released a video outlining where the NHS could save money without compromising on quality.

In the video (, Katy outlines how literal translations can be more costly than they are effective. Translations must not only reflect the original meaning of a document, but they must also be suitable for their target audience. In order to ensure that translation spend is efficient, producing a well tailored piece, and ensuring that it is made available in an appropriate manner is vital. Machine translations are unable to correctly and consistently translate grammar and contextual meaning. In the long run this can mean that time spent producing flawed and unusable translations will result in unnecessary suffering. In the long term, providing well translated information to assist patients with prevention offer the opportunity to save money in the long term.

Translation in the health industry gives a high return. It really is a case of spending to save, but this spend must be in the right area. Imagine if the NHS Direct website was multi-lingual. Surgeries and hospitals up and down the country would no longer need to translate their own documents on conditions or treatments, as they would be available centrally. Not only would this save the repeated spend, but also hours of administrative and doctors’ time would be saved as patients could access information online without the need for an appointment and in-person interpreters. These provisions would be available to all regardless of where they lived.

Developing a Translation Memory is critical. Translation Memory is a tool which records the translation of specific words, phrases and sentences, with consideration given to their context, which can then be used in future translations. This technology, which is very different from literal online machine translations such as Google Translate, can provide a considerable cost saving as words that have been used in a set context before do not need to be charged for translation again. The user gains all of the benefits of a high quality human translator with a good knowledge of the subject matter, and documents can be produced consistently and cheaply up and down the country.

Translation and interpreting facilities are essential provisions in the modern day NHS, but unfortunately are not ones that are ingrained into its structure. Living in a multicultural society it’s inconceivable to suggest that we should preclude individuals who need healthcare - who are already facing enough barriers in accessing this due to cultural norms or expectations - from being able to communicate with experts or understand the information which they need. Before panicking when sourcing translation in the NHS, the industry encourages provisioners to work smarter; and to reap the rewards.


    1. Kwintessential was established in 2003 and offers linguistic services and cultural awareness training.

    1. ‘Translation’ is rewriting text from one language to another. ‘Interpretation’ refers to oral translation only. The report linked below incorrectly uses the two terms interchangeably.



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