Terminology Issues Unique to Medical Translation

March 15, 2017 11:30 am

A translator who embarks on the seemingly steep path of medical translation has two main obstacles: medical knowledge, and medical terminology. This post is about the latter. Medical terminology presents problems which are different from other specialised domains. This post presents the most obvious problems in determining the right medical terminology. It is not an extensive list; nevertheless, it should present a clear case for the difficulties translators encounter in translating medical texts. Though written mostly from the point-of-view of French to English translation, it can also apply to medical translation of all language pairs. Lastly, these issues can also apply to the practice of medical lexicography.

Terminology Issues Unique to Medical Translation

One of the first criteria that a medical translator has to determine is their target audience. The target audience will determine whether the text is translated into layperson terms or medical terms (or both). For example, “Varicelle” (FR) would not be automatically translated into “Varicella” (EN), which is the medical term for “Chickenpox”, if the text is intended for a layperson (e.g. a patient).

Medical Translation

Eponyms present a big problem in medical translation because often they are synonyms for another term. For example, according to Dermatology Therapy : A-Z Essentials, “Infantile Scurvy” has the following synonyms: “Barlow’s disease”; “Möller-Barlow disease”; “Barlow’s syndrome”; “Cheadle-Möller-Barlow syndrome”; “Moeller’s disease”; “vitamin C deficiency syndrome”. Choosing between an eponym and another term would depend on which is more common in the target culture.

Often, a translator who lacks experience in translating medical texts would automatically translate a drug name into the target culture equivalent. This, however, would not be functional. Texts often refer to drug names as they are known in the source language, which is likely to be the brand name. When coming across a brand name like “Ventoline”(FR), it would help the end receiver (specialist or not) to not only have the English trade name “Ventolin”, but also its International Nonproprietary Name “Salbutamol”. An International Nonproperty Name (INN) is a unique name designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to a particular pharmaceutical substance. There are several good reasons for using an INN. Your target text may be read by native English speakers from different countries. Do you use the British Approved Name (BAN) or the United States Adopted Name (USAN)? Another reason is that one drug can be produced by several companies and so including a generic name would make it easier to decipher the chemical function of the drug.

medical terminology

Another criterion to determine from the outset is whether to translate into British or American English (or rather, whether to adopt British or American medical terms). This may be a minor point, and most doctors would still understand, but not knowing the difference will mean a compromise on term consistency when you start mixing up your “hematomas” (US) with “haematomas” (UK). Sometimes, the spelling may be the same but the meaning is different. “Surgery” is a place where you get cut open in the US, but also a doctor’s office or their opening hours in the UK.

Lastly, you may think that metaphors or euphemisms are only related to literary translation but they are also very relevant to medical translation. Doctors sometimes use euphemisms for unpleasant topics, such as “to expire” for “to die”, or “critically ill” for someone who is dying and with no hope of recovery. How can these be translated into different languages? Related to this are metaphors which are culture-bound (e.g. “Spanish Flu”, “German Measles”).

There are many other terminology-related problems in medical translation, such as hospital jargons (e.g. “inpatient/ outpatient”), and the fact that practitioners themselves do not agree on the terms. To solve these problems, adequate background knowledge and/or research skills are needed, and reliable websites and medical journals should be consulted. Nevertheless, being aware of these problems will go a long way in determining the right medical terminology. Any type of translation has their own difficulties; despite the obstacles, medical translation can be hugely rewarding.

For more information related to this topic we invite you to consult the book of Montalt, V., & Gonzalez Davis, M. (2006), Medical Translation Step by Step: Learning by Drafting (Translation Practices Explained), St Jerome Publishing and the presentation of Rodolfo Maslias – Head of the Terminology Coordination Unit, regarding the Coining of Medical Terminology at Tremedica, in Vigo – Spain, on 2014.


Written by: Jiayi HUANG, former trainee at TermCoord and MSc student at Imperial College London studying Scientific, Medical, and Technical Translation with Translation Technology as well as Freelance translator.

Post edited by: Katerina Palamioti, Translator, Social Media and Content Manager, Communication Trainee and Foodie at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg.

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