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The three official language versions of the Declaration of Helsinki: what’s lost in translation?
  1. Robert V Carlson1,
  2. Nadja H van Ginneken2,
  3. Luisa M Pettigrew2,
  4. Alan Davies3,
  5. Kenneth M Boyd1,
  6. David J Webb4
  1. 1Medical Teaching Organisation, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  2. 2Homerton University Hospital, London, UK
  3. 3Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  4. 4Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences, Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R Carlson
 Archie Duncan Fellow in Medical Ethics, Medical Teaching Organisation, University of Edinburgh, Chancellor’s Building, 49 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh EH16 4SB, UK; rcarlson{at}


Background: The Declaration of Helsinki, the World Medical Association’s (WMA’s) statement of ethical guidelines regarding medical research, is published in the three official languages of the WMA: English, French and Spanish.

Methods: A detailed comparison of the three official language versions was carried out to determine ways in which they differed and ways in which the wording of the three versions might illuminate the interpretation of the document.

Results: There were many minor linguistic differences between the three versions. However, in paragraphs 1, 6, 29, 30 and in the note of clarification to paragraph 29, there were differences that could be considered potentially significant in their ethical relevance.

Interpretation: Given the global status of the Declaration of Helsinki and the fact that it is translated from its official versions into many other languages for application to the ethical conduct of research, the differences identified are of concern. It would be best if such differences could be eliminated but, at the very least, a commentary to explain any differences that are unavoidable on the basis of language or culture should accompany the Declaration of Helsinki. This evidence further strengthens the case for international surveillance of medical research ethics as has been proposed by the WMA.

  • DoH, Declaration of Helsinki
  • WMA, World Medical association
  • Declaration of Helsinki
  • ethics
  • research
  • linguistics
  • international health problems
  • World Medical Association

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  • Competing interests: At the time this work was conducted, RC’s post was supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Johnson & Johnson Ltd.