From Hippocrates to Hypoglycemia: Demystifying Medical Terminology – Part I
Medical translation is perhaps one of those areas where the stakes are the highest if the translator makes a mistake. Considering the specialized knowledge and jargon often required, the prospect of working with these types of texts can seem daunting to those of us with little experience in the medical field. Nevertheless, medical lexis sometimes appears in texts generally unrelated to medicine, so a basic knowledge of such a universal subject can always come in handy. Furthermore, not every medical text need inspire awe in translators. Nor should we forget that, unfortunately, there will always be a need for medical terminology. So, let’s take a look at the possibilities.
First, “medical texts” include a wide range of registers, target readers, and levels of knowledge that may make some of them more accessible to the budding medical translator. They range from in-depth research on new vaccines to leaflets giving public health information. While many doctors and researchers have an excellent grasp of the English language for their specific peer-to-peer communications, they may need to change register to explain concepts to children or the elderly, for example. Or perhaps a pharmaceutical company needs to advertise its new product in another country, taking care to avoid making false claims, touching a cultural nerve, or simply being misunderstood. In some poorer countries with high illiteracy rates, clients may even need to be advised not to translate their material, but instead convey the message using images. Even here, great care is needed. For example, there was the famous case of a powdered milk producer whose logo was a smiling baby. Accustomed to seeing a picture of the product enclosed, the horrified locals believed the company’s trucks to be loaded with babies. In other words, good communication with the client and awareness of the target audience is extremely important.
We should not be put off by medical jargon. Spending 15 minutes with Wikipedia can provide a general overview of any given subject. I do need to stress, however, that Wikipedia is not entirely reliable as a reference. It is merely a starting point to more serious research. The citations that are often provided at the end of each Wiki article will often lead you to more solid resources. You would also do well to search the glossaries to be found on such sites as the National Institutes of Health. (See the list of links on page XX.)
Etymology: Latin and Greek Roots
You should be aware that in English-speaking countries the vocabulary can undergo more changes when shifting register than in countries whose language has Latin roots. This is because, quite simply, a large part of medical terminology is indeed Latin-based. Hippocrates’ native tongue is also still used today in this lexis. Fortunately, this does not mean that you have to learn to write Latin and Greek when dealing with medical language, but a little knowledge of these ancient roots can go a long way. Many translators know the meaning of lumbalgia (more generally known as lumbago) and tendinitis (a.k.a. tendonitis). They presumably also know that lumbar refers to the lower back and -itis usually means an inflammation. So what, then, does the algia in lumbalgia mean? Not surprisingly, pain (from Greek). Many of you are probably well aware of how Latin and Greek roots can be used to make sense of medical terms. Take the prefix athr(o) (of the joints, from Greek), for example, which gives us the word “arthritis” (inflammation of the joints). So, what do you think athralgia means? You guessed it—it is what the layperson refers to as painful joints.
Take a look at the examples of Latin and Greek roots listed below and the concepts to which they refer.
- aden (Gr.): gland
- angio (Gr.): (blood) vessel
- brachi(o) (L.): of the arms
- brachy (Gr.): short
- cardiac/cardial (Gr. & L.): of the heart
- centesis (Gr. & L.): puncturing
- cephaly (Gr. & L.): head
- cyte (from cito, Gr.): cell
- dactyl (Gr. & L.): pertaining to fingers/toes (digits)
- dermato (Gr.): of the skin
- ectomy (Gr.): surgical removal
- erythro (Gr.): red
- gastro/gastric (Gr.): of the stomach
- hemo (Gr.): of the blood
- hepatic (Gr.): liver
- hyper (Gr.): high (too much)
- hypo (Gr.): low (too little)
- -itis: inflammation (strictly speaking, -itus refers to allergies)
- leuko/leuco (Gr.): white (pale)
- myo (Gr.): muscle
- nephro (Gr.): of the kidney
- ology: all-encompassing (to refer to the entire specialization)
- oma: tumor
- oss-, ost-, oste-, osteo: of bones
- -osis (Gr.): condition, disease, or increase
- (o)stomy (Gr.): surgical opening (like a buttonhole) stoma (Gr.): of the mouth (in medicine, this usually refers to an opening from within the body to the outside, occurring naturally or surgically; a figurative “little mouth”)
- (o)tomy (Gr.): surgical incision (in general)
- pathy (Gr.): disease or disorder
- penia (Gr.): lowering, deficiency
- plasty (Gr.): involving plastic surgery
- rhino (Gr.): of the nose
- (r)rhage / (r)ragia (Gr.): abnormally large flow
- rrhea (Gr.): discharge, flow
- syn (Gr.): together
- trachea: windpipe (from larynx to bronchi)
Note that in some cases I mention in parentheses that the root is both Greek and Latin. In fact, most of the vocabulary mentioned here was originally Greek. “New” Latin largely absorbed this lexis and adapted it, particularly during the era when cultivated Romans and learned Greeks were very much bilingual. “Old” Latin vocabulary was used mainly for business, administrative, and legal purposes, whereas the immigrant Greek eggheads used their native tongue for philosophical and scientific pursuits, and from there this vocabulary passed to “New” Latin. Much of this Greek and, later, Latin knowledge was translated into Arabic with the rise of the Moors in medieval times, who in turn added their new scientific findings to the literature. These writings were then translated back to Latin from Arabic by Christian monks, which contributed significantly to the widespread use of Latin in science. Ironically, the West learned of the works of Hippocrates and Galen of Pergamon (a prominent Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher) through translations from Arabic. Medical and scientific knowledge was later finally translated into the vernacular. Fortunately for most English-speaking translators, however, English is now the modern-day Latin in terms of cross-cultural medical and scientific language.
Practice Quiz A: Now, using Latin and Greek roots provided above, have a go at deducing the following medical concepts (answers provided at the end of this article):
Practice Quiz B: Now try “inventing” the more formal medical version of the following, using the Latin and Greek roots provided earlier. Do not worry if you do not get it exactly right. The idea is to see if you are on the right track and have an idea of what expression to expect or look out for.
White blood cell deficiency/low count
High (blood) sugar
Disease of veins or arteries
Incision into windpipe
Of the heart muscle
Short fingers or toes
A tumor of glandular origin
Removal of a gland
Puncturing the chest to remove fluid
Stay tuned for Part II next week for more tips, the answers to the quizzes and a plethora of useful links for medical translators!
This article was originally published in The ATA Chronicle (May 2012), the monthly magazine of the American Translators Association (www.atanet.org).
Gary Smith translates from Spanish->English and Catalan->English. A British native, he has lived in Spain for 20 years. He also spent a year in France, where he translated documents at a research center. He is from a scientific and technical background, though today he also works with mercantile and labour law, and has experience with environmental texts, economics and the food industry. He is vice-president of the Valencia Region Association of Translators and Interpreters (Xarxativ), and a member of the Spanish Association of Translators, Copyeditors, and Interpreters (ASETRAD), Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET), and the American Translators’ Association (ATA). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.