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!

Where to go when lost for words?

Everyone involved in translation knows that terminology plays a key role in the profession: it seems fairly obvious really – finding the right word for the right situation is at the very heart of the translation process – but just how important is terminology mining?

Although figures can vary depending upon where you look – according to Arntz & Picht (1989), searching for terminology can take up to 75% of a translator’s time while Montalt & Gonzalez Davis (2007) go for around 50% – the generally accepted idea that over half of the translator’s time is spent digging for terms indicates that it is an area of huge importance, and one that merits an investment of time and effort to get right.

Coupled with the fact that conceptual and terminological accuracy is one of the key elements in many areas of professional translation (e.g. medical or legal translation) since the very value of the text often lies in its factual content, I thought it would be worthwhile dedicating this post to sharing a few pointers from my personal experience that will hopefully be of use to new and established translators alike.

While I am least partly bound by my language pairs (French & Italian to English) and my specialist areas, many of the points are of a more general nature and can be applied to the wider context.

Although translators usually specialize in a narrow field, it is rightly said that a key skill is to be an expert in finding the information you lack quickly. In a world of tight deadlines and information overload, finding the right information in the most timely manner has to be among the translator’s ultimate aims.

While both monolingual and bilingual print dictionaries and specialised glossaries remain a valuable tool for the working translator as they offer accurate results (my big French dictionary is never far from reach when it comes to quickly checking a general term), the constant improvement of online dictionaries and glossaries and the many benefits that they offer, such as portability, regular updates for terms in ever-changing disciplines (print versions can be out of date by the time they make it to market), or comprehensive searching in seconds, make then a valuable working tool.

Problems remain in finding online content that is reliable and, ultimately, it remains important that online resources are approached with a certain level of caution and results must often be critically examined by cross-referencing multiple sources and making use of native-speaker contacts.

That said, the links below (click on the sub-headings) are all resources that I have used extensively in my work with great success and each entry also includes notes on language pairs available and any other important information.


Starting with possibly the most obvious, and most frequently used resource beyond Google, WordReference simply has to be mentioned. This online multilingual dictionary has improved no-end in recent years and, while the quality still varies greatly between language pairs (French is excellent with multiple entries for most terms and a deep forum, while Italian is still only adequate), it can be counted on as a reliable source to be used for non-specialist terminology if your language pair is included. Terminology

Here is another resource that will be extremely familiar to most translators as the ProZ community represents an integral part of the modern profession. The terminology section is actively updated by the community and has millions of terms in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and other languages from medical, legal and other specialist areas. Another terminology forum similar to this exists at and, although I have not used it myself, I know that many translators use it and regard it very highly.


Working between English, Spanish, German, French and Portuguese (at the time of writing – others are expected to follow), Linguee provides a dictionary and also searches 100 million bilingual texts from translated sites and other reliable documents to give results along with their context, making it a very powerful tool if your language pair is catered for.

Le grand dictionnaire terminologique (GDT)

In my experience, the GDT quite simply provides one of the best resources for specialised terminology available online. Terms can be filtered by domain, language (of which there are 9 available, including Latin…) among other parameters.

IATE – The EU’s multilingual term base

Due to the multilingual nature of the EU, where every document must be produced in all 23 official languages, and thanks to the organisation’s ever-increasing online presence, the IATE term base is quite staggering. Made up of over 8 million terms – many of which are of a specialist nature – and updated on a daily basis, any translator working with an official EU language should have this page bookmarked!

Euro Term Bank (ETB)

While the ETB’s 2.6 million terms seems meagre in comparison to the entry above, the availability of 33 languages and an undeniably user-friendly layout compared to many of these resources make it an attractive alternative worth considering.

There are many, many more excellent online glossaries and dictionaries out there (the UN’s UNTERM is just one extremely reliable resource that I have not included) so please don’t hesitate to send me recommendations. Hopefully, however, the links and the pointers given above will all be of use. Ciao!