Medical translation and the related difficulties

Translation is one of the oldest actions which occurred with the first communication cases between ancient tribes and nations. The study of specialized fields, especially trade and agriculture, in translation dates back to the Middle Ages or even earlier. It has developed a lot with time and has even transformed into a professional skill which nowadays people even are trained to enhance. Today there are many classifications of translation and one of them is according to the sphere or theme of the text to be translated. The first evidence of “technical” translations, which include medical, chemical, mathematical and astrological, was documented in Ancient Mesopotamia. During the last few decades, specialized translation has become increasingly important, since knowledge in a broad spectrum of fields in science and technology has also increased dramatically. As a result, communication between specialists and non-professionals, also known as laypeople, has become more and more difficult because numerous new terms have been created and defined as new phenomena and products have been discovered, invented and named. Translation of specialized texts is only possible if a translator is knowledgeable about the terminology in a special field and is aware of some background information about the subject. This goal can most often be attained through considerable preparatory work. Though the spheres that are of the greatest interest at this time are technical, juridical, economic translation and medical translation, the institutions of higher education do not provide students of translation studies with adequate knowledge on these particular spheres due to the lack of the courses, teaching medical or juridical translation, in the curriculum. Thus the necessity of implementing the course of medical translation for the students of translation studies is obvious, as performing a good translation of medical texts requires not only sufficient command of the source language and the target language, but also knowledge and comprehension of associated difficulties and peculiarities.

Medicine is the scientific field, which differs from others because of its accelerating scientific and technological development. Every year the number of new terms appearing in medical vocabulary is increasing. They occur in clinical practice, in diacrisis as well as in pharmaceutics. Whichever illness is being discussed in a text – allergy or ischaemic stroke, the treatment and preventive measures may be described in it using descriptions of new medical equipment, innovative procedures and remedies, that have never been reported about before. It requires constant and speed update of knowledge in the field of medical terminology.

As a rule, the people who resort to translation service in the sphere of healthcare are manufacturers and suppliers of medical equipment, pharmacologic companies and chemist’s chains, medical institutions and resorts, medical centers and educational institutions. Due to globalization and development of medical business in the international arena doctors and scientists of different countries carry out more cooperative clinical trials and this is impossible without professional translators. They have to work with description of new drugs, technical and methodological medical record materials, dissertations and scientific reports in various spheres of contemporary medicine, including odontology, cardiology and virus infections. Translators who specialize in this field have to know all the designations used in practice and remember that in different languages the same things may have different abbreviations and symbols. One of the peculiarities of medical texts lies in the fact that international generally accepted terms are very common. Medical terminology is generally based on the Latin language and every term has its own well-defined counterpart in Russian. It leads us to the assumption that linguistic “inventions” which are welcomed in polite literature is absolutely irrelevant and can be considered as professional impropriety. Clinical trials material and pharmaceutical preparations description involve own specific terminology and require elaborate and clean translation. It follows that a good translator of medical texts must possess scientific thinking apart from outstanding command of both languages: the source language and the target language. The translator is also required to comprehend different aspects of medicine: both fundamental and practical ones, to be aware of the situation in contemporary medicine, foresee the ways of development of medical science and be ready to enlarge and update his knowledge continuously. Apparently, the perfect medical translator would be made of a person who has a degree in medicine or pharmacy and has a rich experience of practical work in corresponding field. Insufficient qualifications in such cases may cause the distortion of experiments results and scientific facts and errors in diagnosis and treatment. Medical translation has always been and will remain one of the most difficult directions as while working with the documents of the theme the translator assumes the responsibility, because people’s health depends on his knowledge authenticity and equivalence of his translation. The article will describe the current situation of medical translation literature. Then it will define and justify the major peculiarities that differ medical texts from other types of texts evoking difficulties in translation. Those language difficulties will be classified and the solutions to them will be found. This could be useful basement for designing a course of medical translation for students of translation studies.

As it has been already mentioned above, the importance of medical translation cannot be underestimated, as it deals with living beings’ health. The text can either help to cure a person or even kill him instead, depending on the quality of the translation. It goes without saying that this significance has been admitted by many authors and there is a huge amount of literature including guidelines for medical translators. The information given in such sources is yet very general and lacks some specifications as regards translation from the English language into the Russian language or touches only the surface of the issue without going in depth, therefore only partially meets the demand of our society. Nevertheless, it is important to observe the bibliography, from which we derived our information. As clearly stands out from considering the literature, there has been an increase in medical translation writings in the last several years. Therefore, it is this trend that this article goes along with.

As has been mentioned earlier, there are some books that deal with medical translation and they will be discussed further. The most specific book on medical translation is “Medical Translation Step by Step”, written by Vincent Montalt Ressurreccio and Maria Davies Gonzalez (6), which is a relatively new book covering many aspects of medical translation; its publishing date was in 2007. It is also the first book that provides a lot of guidelines in terms of medical translation.

Furthermore, it has to be noted that there are far more books on specialized translation in general than on any specific specialized field. There are several books which briefly cover the field of medical translation but the most space is reserved for juridical translations or special texts in general. Kim Grego's book named “Specialized Translation” (4, p. 104) is one of those books that deals with specialized texts and mentions medical translation in a nutshell.

One person has been left behind of our brief description of bibliography in the field of medical translation until now. He goes by the name of Henry Fischbach (3, p. 2), cofounder, charter member, and honorary member of the American Translators Association and the last surviving signatory of its Articles of Incorporation, who passed away on September 25, 2008 and who was ambiguous the most influential person when it comes to medical translation. His name has been most renowned not just as a writer and member of the American Translators Association, but as an editor of medical translation texts as well. This is one of the only medical translators who wrote about medical translation. In a number of his articles he focused on the sources behind the problems that surface in the medical translation process.

Another essential book, yet mostly practical that covers the issue of medical translation is T.P. Chshedrina, S.A. Agafonova and V.A. Bessonova’s handbook “Medical Texts: Reading, Translation, Annotation and Discussion”, published in 2010. The main advantage of the book is that it is written in Russian and considers English medical texts from the point of view of Russian native speaker. It is aimed at forming skills of reading, translation into the Russian language and annotation of authentic English popular scientific texts derived from British and American periodical press and includes some grammar tasks to them (7, p. 10). Although it was designed as part of instructional complex of materials of English for Specific Purposes for medical students, it possesses loads of useful information to refer.

In studying translation, medical language is automatically assumed to be categorized as technical languageIt was not until we were introduced to Jody Byrne that we became aware of Jody Byrne’s classification (2, p. 25) that distinguishes between scientific and technical language and according to his definitions of the two, medical language is to be primarily categorized under scientific language since the primary purpose of medical texts is to explain, discuss, justify and convert. Reading more in depth about medical language and technical language, we became more convinced that medical language is more scientific than technical. According to Byrne, there are only two arguments that speak in favor of medical language referring to technical language. The first is that it is not necessary to be an expert on the subject an individual is working with. It is remarkable that the second peculiarity of technical language that was emphasized by Byrne implies that technical translation is translation that deals with text on subjects based on applied knowledge from the natural sciences.

If medical language is technical language medical writing should, according to Byrne, have a different style, the language should be less formal, simple and concise, and medical texts should not discuss theory and explain the background of medical findings which is of the main interest here. Medical texts should simply inform you of the result and how to use it in practice. If the skopos of medical texts simply was to help someone to do something, medical language would be categorized under technical language. However, as medical texts often discuss and explain the subject in question, medical language fits more into the category of scientific language than technical language. It can be argued that when you go to the pharmacy and buy medicine, the language in the patient information leaflets is technical language because the language is simple and concise and instructs you how to take the medicine. But in this case, the overall rhetorical purpose of the writer, the genre and the social function of the text is different than in medical articles.

That brings us to a different consideration of medical language. It is then characterized by a cognitive type of information, where linguistic means are held in strict conventional frames. In terms of lexical resource, the main feature of scientific language is utmost intensity in the use of specialized terminology, relevant to this particular field. Most wellknown linguistic means providing objectivity of expressing cognitive information are lexical abbreviations or acronyms (general and terminological), passive voice, impersonal sentence and indefinite-personal sentence and impersonal semantics of a subject. Such peculiarities must be paid much attention and taken into consideration throughout the translation, as it must be off the mark to translate English phrase into Russian using loan translation. That is because there are some stylistic grammatical constructions strange when utilized in the Russian language. For example, personal forms of verbs predominate in English texts, whilst it is more natural for Russian texts to have impersonal or indefinite-personal sentences. Sometimes English narrative texts use future tense to express regular action, but such sentences must be translated according to the context not in the future, but in the present tense. Another difference is that English scientific language is full of passive voice, while in the Russian language, passive voice is used far less frequently. Thus, we are to fell back upon replacement of passive constructions with other means which are more common in Russian.

Working with medical texts translators encounters a set of problems which are not only the extent of medical terminology as such. It is needless to comment that high intensity of narrowly-specialized vocabulary in the texts of this type is obvious. However, there are other at least as specific peculiarities which are manifested to the full extent during interlingual correlation. It should be noted that over the last two decades authors have studied the problems of translation of medical texts in such linguistic pairs, where there is the English language as one of the elements, more thoroughly.

In many cases medical terms originate from Greek and Latin, a fact which reflects the history of medicine. Physicians in Ancient Greece or Rome communicated with their community in their native language. Medieval physicians used Latin as a means of international communication, and Latin remained the language of. (5, p. 87) Later on there were attempts to simplify texts, but Latin remained the standard of the professional elite. Considering the fact that not all prospective translators have learned Greek and Latin, steps to familiarize the student with these terms are helpful. To improve comprehension, it would be useful to first subdivide all words into prefix and suffix in order to better comprehend the medical process described. Repeated exercises will make this a routine procedure for non-experts. Additionally, parallel texts, documentation from the client, and the use of new documentary resources now available, are essential to acquire and increase specialist vocabularies.

Medical texts are also known for numerous acronyms. To understand it properly, we will address to Oxford dictionary that gives the following definition: “acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word” (8). These difficulties should, if possible, be dealt with by the authors themselves. Otherwise, the clients should be consulted and their attention drawn to this potential pitfall, especially if the text contains author-specific neologisms.

If the author has written his article according to the IMRAD system (Introduction, Materials or Methods, Results, and Discussion), it is in most cases easier to understand the contents. Translation students need to learn that sometimes paraphrases are necessary to render in the target language what the source language meant to express. In these cases the rephrase must make reference to the acronym used in the original text. Alternatively, it may be explained with the help of footnotes that this is a new coinage. In such cases interdisciplinary work has shown to be most helpful.

Moving on to another problem, it is of great interest to consider what eponyms are. The 8th edition of Mosby's Medical Dictionary (1) gives the following explanation: “eponym is a name for a disease, organ, procedure, or body function that is derived from the name of a person, usually a physician or scientist who was the first to identify the condition or devised the object bearing the name”. Examples include fallopian tubeParkinson's disease, and Billing's method. The scientific and medical communities regard it as bad form to attempt to eponymise oneself. At a time when medicine lacked tools to investigate underlying causes of many syndromes, the eponym was a convenient way to label a disease. Because proper names usually need no translation, one is at first not aware of the difficulties. However, a syndrome, for example, may have been discovered simultaneously in various countries by different people and may therefore be named after the person who discovered it in different locations. It is essential that this fact is pointed out to students so that they can document the different eponyms in use. There are still hot debates on whether eponyms must be maintained or omitted and replaced by more common and scientifically accurate names. The advocated of both opinions give rather reasonable arguments in support of their statements. Thus, fans of keeping eponyms as they are without changes point out that eponyms are as a rule shorter and therefore more memorable than the medical name, the latter requiring abbreviation to its acronym. Apart from that, sometimes the medical name proves to be not fully correct or the syndrome might have more than one cause, still it remains useful to consider it as a whole. And the last but not the least reason, why eponyms still exist is that they help to continue remembering and respecting a person who could otherwise be forgotten. However, eponyms may and do erase a lot of confusion, as we always need to consider the historical background and the culture of the target language. It may lack of the eponyms as such or have a different name, we would strongly recommend preferring descriptive translation, especially in the field where eponyms are more common. Instead of using eponyms, we should refer to the history of medicine, give a valid estimate of scientific discoveries and be done with “individual contribution”.

As we may conclude, the given article gives a brief history of medical translation as part of the translation of specialized texts, considers books and scientific papers connected with this field of studies, which may be utilized while preparing the students of translation studies for that particular type of informative translation, and also covers the most common problems occurring during the process, which are as follows: translation of a specific terminology, translation of acronyms and translation of eponyms. Moreover, the article provides practical solutions to these problems. All these must be taken into account when developing a course of medical translation.



  1. Anderson L. E. (1987) Mosby's Medical Dictionary. // Mosby, Incorporated
  2. Byrne, Jody (2006). Technical Translation, Usability Strategies for Translating Technical Documentation. // The Netherlands: Springer.
  3. Fischbach, H (1962). Problems of Medical Translation. // The Language Service.
  4. Grego, K (2010). Specialized translation: Theoretical issues, operational perspectives // Polimetrica, International Scientific Publisher
  5. Herget K.Alegre T (2009). Translation of Medical Terms// Translation Journal. –Vol. 13, No 3.
  6. Montalt R, Vicent and Gonzalez D, M (2007). Medical Translation Step by Step. // Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing
  7. Щедрина Т.П., Агафонова С.А., Бессонова В.А. (2010). Тексты по медицине. Чтение, перевод, реферирование и обсуждение // Высшая школа
Year: 2014
City: Almaty
Category: Philology