Should You Use a Low Reading Level in Your Russian Medical Translations?

Some translation requests I have received specify that the translation should read at a 5th or 6th grade level. Intuitively, this makes sense—you want your audience, who may have a low level of education or health literacy, to understand your message clearly. However, this approach is based on assumptions that may not apply to Russian speakers in the US.

Level of Education

First of all, immigrants from the former Soviet Union tend to “possess higher levels of education compared with U.S.-born whites,” according to a study by Neil Mehta and Irma Elo. The same study reports that “middle-aged and older aged [former Soviet Union] immigrants are about twice as likely to hold a college degree compared with their U.S.-born white counterparts.”

One reason for this may be the accessibility of education in their countries of origin. Another reason for their educational attainment is that there may be self-selection among recent Russian-speaking arrivals. They may be coming to the US as international students or temporary professional workers. These statuses require proof of solvency and a certain level of education.

Furthermore, it is estimated that some 70 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union might be Jewish. Speaking about immigrant women specifically, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women points out that many were trained in STEM fields: “In contrast to the 16.5 percent of American women who worked as engineers, technicians, or other professionals, over two-thirds of Soviet Jewish émigré women had worked in these occupations prior to their arrival.” This means that overly simplified health communications may confuse this mostly highly-educated audience and even come across as insulting.

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on

Exposure to Medicine

In addition, the average Russian-speaking immigrant will have had more exposure to healthcare than an average American. In 2016, people in the US saw a doctor an average four times a year. To use Russia as a comparison case, in 2018, people there saw a doctor an average of 8.4 times annually. Whether or not more frequent visits are medically beneficial, it appears that speakers of Russian are more used to seeing medical professionals and, by extension, hearing medical vocabulary.

Furthermore, in Russia, a physical is often are required for schoolchildren, first-year college students, and job applicants. For instance, Russian children have extensive physicals at ages 7, 10, 14, 15, and 16, when they are seen by several specialists, including a neurologist, dentist, ophthalmologist, and endocrinologist, and get an ultrasound, a cardiogram, and a blood test. Again, whether such in-depth screening is medically necessary is beyond the scope of this article. Be it as it may, an average Russian will have some familiarity with the most common conditions and diagnostic tests.

Implications for Medical Communication

As a result, a Russian-speaking immigrant is likely to recognize words that may be considered specialized vocabulary in the US. For example, a person who had their blood work done many times in their country of origin will be used to the word eritrotsity (red blood cells, literally “erythrocytes”). Using a literal translation of “red blood cells”—krasnye krovyanye tel’tsa—in an attempt to make the text more accessible may have the opposite effect. In fact, I’ve once interpreted at a diabetes consult, where the medical provider said, “the organ that produces insulin,” only to have the patient say, “You mean ‘pancreas’?”

None of this means that your Russian-speaking audience will necessarily have a high level of health literacy or a good understanding of the US healthcare delivery model. That being said, Russian speakers are likely to be familiar with common biology concepts, such as names of internal organs or medical specializations. So what should you do to communicate effectively with this demographic? Consider the following approaches.

  • Focus on breaking down the more advanced diagnostic or treatment procedures, explaining what will happen at each step.
  • State the rationale for recommending a particular drug or treatment, keeping in mind that this treatment may be unfamiliar to your patient or different from what they have come to expect in their country of origin.
  • Define any potentially complex terms the first time you mention them. That way, you know the reader will have something to refer to if they are unfamiliar with the term.

Published by Maria

Russian health and human services translator based in Rochester, New York

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