Psychology translations (I). Psychology translation as a specialism

“Psychology is easy”

 As a psychologist, I've heard this countless times from people around me.

This idea is more widespread than we might think. After all, if what comes to mind when we think about psychology is what we read in self-help books or see on talk shows, we could be forgiven for assuming it's all straightforward and self-evident. Do people really need to study all those years to arrive at obvious conclusions? How hard can it actually be?

These preconceptions affect practitioners in the different branches of psychology, but why does it matter when talking about translations? Let me shed some light on this.

Psychology translation is easy (?)

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We behave, so we can be experts in behavior, right? We're all armchair psychologists in our day-to-day. But if people confuse pop psychology and common sense with psychology as a science, they may take this idea with them when they need translations and might end up with professionals who are just not up to the task.

If you're not sure about what psychology as a science is (and isn't), check out popularization books like these: “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology”, “Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology”, or “Psicología para no volverse loco” (Spanish). These books, and others like them, are based on evidence and address common myths and questions in popular psychology.

Psychology has a lot in common with today's trending topics. Take the wellness industry, for example: If a person shows curiosity about people, behavior, and the mind, it's a great starting point for specialization, but it's probably not enough on its own. Psychology and wellness are not the same thing.

Broadly speaking, psychology tends to have either a social science focus or a healthcare science focus (it is, of course, more complex than this, but humor me for argument's sake). Regardless of the focus, psychology has very specific and specialized methods and techniques, which can be technically demanding.

Specialized psychology translators for specialized psychology content

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Psychology as a discipline is replete with obscure terminology that makes little sense to the nonprofessional. Similarly, there's a risk of misunderstanding a term that is used in everyday language but that has a specific meaning in psychology; the word “punishment” is a case in point. As a layman term, it means unwanted (or even painful) consequences and usually refers to the person (“his parents punished him”). But on the technical side, it's part of the operant conditioning terminology and psychologist use it referring to behavior. It means something very specific: the process in which the consequences that follow a behavior make the behavior less probable to be repeated in the future.

Some disciplines, like neuropsychology, are part of neurosciences. A translation in this field would require some knowledge of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and psychometrics.

Psychometrics is a branch of psychology that relies heavily on calculations, data analysis, and the use of specialized software. It's also vital for understanding routinely translated instruments in clinical research, like clinical outcome assessments (COAs).

Another example is social psychology translations, where the translator might need some understanding of current trends in other areas of social sciences (e.g., anthropology, sociology).

Why not just a generalist translator?

Most people are aware of the damaging potential of mistranslation in some fields. For example, when translating medical reports where people's lives are at risk, or when translating finance or legal texts where there is the potential to lose a lot of money.

Psychology translations are no different: Things like tests and reports that have diagnostic and interventional aims have a huge impact on people's lives, especially when there are minority groups involved. Misdiagnosis, delayed intervention, miscommunication with parents and teachers, refusal of benefits or accommodations, lowered grades, and missed promotions are all real consequences of poor psychology translations.

I've talked before in detail about what's at stake in other situations when people take the risk of not collaborating with professional translators. In those cases, the risks are not just for the patient or subject, but also for the researcher, the project manager, or the agency, as it could cause delays, rejection of drafts, etc.

What to look for in a psychology translator

Specialized translation tasks call for specialized approaches. The translator selected for a project might or might not be a psychologist, but as with any other specialized translator, what they must have is a proven track record.

The translator should be able to demonstrate (e.g., through samples, translator tests, CVs, colleague recommendations):

  • they have invested in specialized education and CPD;
  • they have access to technical resources and professional networks; and
  • they have experience and practice specific to the complexity of the project.

For an example of how this might look, check my About page where my résumé is available as an English to Spanish translator specialized in psychology translations. Of course, mine is just one example of the many specialized translator profiles that exist, as there is no one path to get there.


To wrap up, if there's a key takeaway from this article, it's that psychology is as specialized as any other field. Bear this in mind, and it'll be easier to determine the type of qualifications and level of specialization needed.

In the next post, I'll go into more detail about the qualifications for a psychology translator. This will be of interest if you're a potential client looking to identify the right translator for your project or if you're a translator looking to specialize.

This is part of the Psychology Translation miniseries:


Karol Tapia de Moya

is a psychologist and English to Spanish translator. She specializes in the fields of psychology, healthcare and medicine, and education. In this blog, she writes about everything she knows or has learned that could be useful or of interest to you!