Getting to the Heart of Medical Texts

After all the fun of Fawlty Towers last time out, I thought I would tackle a topic that is more concretely tied to the profession this time around and give an insight into some of the issues I’ve found in my work as a medical translator.

There are many key characteristics of medical texts that make them challenging and rewarding to work with and I want to highlight some of the most commonly encountered issues before suggest potential methods of addressing them.

Where to start?

Medical Translation by Montalt & Gonzalez Davis sets out the basic requirements of a medical translation as follows: coherent with source text, coherent internally, truthful or accurate, readable, clear, grammatically and syntactically correct and adequate – stylistically and rhetorically in keeping with the communicative situation and context.

While this only serves to further complicate an already daunting task as many of the points listed apply to translation in general rather than medical translation specifically, the points can be easily broken down so that areas of focus can be prioritised. In original articles, for example, the decisive point to address is ‘accuracy[,] so that the experiments can be repeated and that the argumentation can be followed in detail’.

In aid of this maxim of accuracy, editing the source text in both terms of content and style is regarded as standard: enhancing the author’s ideas and predicting his intended meaning if it is unclear are both considered common practice while the prevailing attitude among medical translation specialists is that ‘ideally a translation should read like an original text, that is, the readers should not be aware that they are reading a translation’ (Montalt & Gonzalez Davis again) and, although this may go against the thought’s of many scholars in translation studies, it is an inescapable requirement of the field and one which entails a thorough understanding of how medical texts function and what to look for when translating.

There is some help at hand

Fortunately, there do exist certain features of medical texts which require little time to become familiar with; among the most notable of these for example is the highly standardised structure of the texts. As Henry Fischbach describes: ‘[m]edical translation is the most universal and oldest field of scientific translation because of the homogeneous ubiquity of the human body and the venerable history of medicine’ and this summary alludes to several key features of medical writing as well as the major advantage of the translator in their work with medical texts: that is, the universal nature of the material which suggests that ready equivalents will be available in other languages. (While this is definitely true of physical attributes and many procedures, treatments etc. you will often find that many new terms, techniques or other discoveries will NOT have an equivalent in all languages – but it’s a start!)

Furthermore, given that ‘the value of the text often lies in its factual content’ (Montalt & Gonzalez Davis 2007:155), elements of meaning are explicit, and rhetorical devices – allusions or other persuasive techniques, for example, which are frequently found in texts of other genres – are rarely used.


Yet still standing in the way of us achieving the desired end product is the not-insignificant issue of terminology – with terminological issues among the most commonly found and most pressing issues in medical translation .

Looking a bit more closely, some clear features can be distinguished. As Fischbach suggests in the citation above, medical terminology is steeped in a long, historical tradition, with a mostly Greco-Latin parentage that is common between languages such as English and French. This terminology also hints at the high register that is maintained throughout most medical writing (although products such as leaflets and information sheets are specifically designed to have a low register and be accessible to a wider audience).

Meanwhile, beyond archaic-rooted or arcane terminology which can be challenging enough to hunt down, the presence of terms which adopt a specific meaning unique to the context of medical writing present an additional challenge for the translator. Further still, the presence of acronyms is extremely regular (such as the fairly common LCR, TDM and ETF in French) and this requires the translator to enquire into the existence of recognised equivalents in the target language.

One example demonstrating the difficulty of accurately addressing terminological issues is the translation of the French term ‘fenêtre thérapeutique’. Upon initial enquiry the term ‘therapeutic window’ seems an obvious, literal equivalent but is actually incorrect (an example of a false friend), referring to a wholly different phenomenon in English medical terminology. Meanwhile the Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique’s suggested translation of ‘drug holiday’ (itself a seemingly curious translation) is actually a correct rendering of the term, albeit one that consultation of parallel texts shows is generally indicative of a lower register in English, more akin to medical fact sheets than journal articles. Fortunately, there exist several accepted synonyms for the phrase in English and ‘structured treatment interruption’ would be chosen as the most fitting in the translation of a medical journal article.

Finally regarding terminology – and with thanks to this excellent termcoord article for the example – eponyms can present a major problem. 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” and ‘choosing between an eponym and another term would depend on which is more common in the target culture.’

In aid of this difficult task, I would recommend the use of ongoing online searching throughout the translation process to quickly and efficiently isolate terms and phrases in both the source and target languages – have a read of my post on the best places to hunt down terms online if you’re stuck!

Poorly written texts

However, even when these considerable problems are all dealt with, one undesirable feature that is common to many medical texts (and indeed technical texts in general) is the prevalence of many typographical, stylistic, grammatical and formatting errors which serve to extend the translator’s role to that of proof-reader and editor. These errors are indicative of the lack of linguistic competence of many medical writers, for whom it is not at all a prerequisite as technical authors in any language are ‘often chosen for what they know, not how well they write, and many write very badly’ (Wright 1993).

Examples of formatting and stylistic errors can include the incorrectly placed spaces, the unnecessary usage of capitals as well as the inconsistent or unnecessary usage of full stops and commas and – last but not least – between using numerals or their full, written versions.

In addition to these examples the numerous instances of typographical and grammatical errors even include simple misspellings and, while a few such mistakes could perhaps be forgiven, their frequency and severity demonstrate that errors go beyond a few careless slips on the part of the author and all of this ultimately adds weight to the importance of the translator’s extended role as editor and proof-reader in their work, highlighting the tremendous importance of a comprehensive understanding of technical writing norms in both the source and target cultures.

Overall, beyond all linguistic issues, one key to producing a high quality translation lies in accurately and thoroughly identifying the requirements of the target audience in terms of stylistic conventions, register and terminological concerns: a clear idea of the expected end product will in turn aid the translation process, guiding certain decisions while allowing the translator to reflect upon the required approach with greater perspective. Hope that helps!


8 responses to “Getting to the Heart of Medical Texts”

  1. At first, thanks again for another great article!
    Secondly… I have no experience with medical translation, but I notice curious thing (when I was watching House). English speakers use abbreviations to shorten terms. For instance “blood pressure” is usually referred to as BP. Whereas in Russian composed terms are shortened by using only one, more general part or the word combination. In Russian it is normally a noun (unlike English where both are nouns). Say in Russian short for артериальное давление will be давление and it’s up to context to specify which pressure it is. (I’m only talking about everyday speech). No one would use АД to abbreviate the term (again, in speech. In reference books probably they do.)

    1. Thanks a lot for your kind words and your comment Olga 🙂
      That’s really interesting, is it the same for other acronyms in Russian or just certain abbreviations? For example, would an MRI be referred to just as ‘imaging’ or similar? I suppose in English, if someone referred to BP as pressure in the right context you could understand what they mean but BP is far more efficient. You’ve really started me thinking now 🙂

  2. The Montalt and Gonzalez Davis book sounds interesting. Any idea where it can be bought, preferably in Brazil?

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your comment. It’s definitely worth trying to get hold of a copy, it’s one of the only books available on the subject. You can certainly buy it on the St. Jerome Publishing website although I also found this link which has free worldwide shipping:
      Hope that helps 🙂

  3. […] the topic for today’s post is something that I touched upon in my recent guide to translating medical texts, I feel that it is something so engrained in the translation act that it is worth a more detailed […]

  4. […] of the major aims of this method was to develop my knowledge of medical translation when I first started exploring it as a specialism. In this particular case, I constructed an […]

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