The terminological and phraseological challenges of medical translation

During half a day, the Higher School of Translation and International Relations (ESTRI) tackled the issue of translating medical texts with the purpose of highlighting the results of latest studies performed in the field of medical translation.

Medical texts are historically characterised by scientific terminology which defines the biological and physiological universe according to very specific holistic criteria.

Paradoxically, this aspect which endeavours to structure medical discourse by providing coherent vocabulary free from polysemy and synonymy, makes it, terminologically speaking, even more challenging when it comes to translation. In addition, the semiotic perspective of medical texts seems to seek an arithmetic terminological coherence, the purpose of which is to convey scientific information in an objective manner, free of subjective statements.

Beneath this style of writing which avoids subjectivity at all cost, medical texts however convey concealed information which is not always solely scientific. The speeches of the 3 lecturers present on the 15th November 2013 were based on terminological and neological research and proved that the meaning of medical texts is not always literal. Indeed, they may contain other semantic and cultural presuppositions which go beyond the purely scientific content.

“The importance of unearthing the core of medical texts to meet the requirements of acceptance and plausibility”

Inspired by their research, the lecturers analysed, in particular, the terminological determination from two different perspectives: the first one analyses the features of a translation which has always been defined, throughout the centuries, by two discursive polysystems, whilst placing the challenge of medical translation in a historical context. This transfer raises two issues: 1) the closeness or similarity to the source document, and 2) the legitimacy of the target text with regards to the discursive challenges of the target language. The second perspective puts the challenge in the context of 16th century Italy and analyses neologisms in the Italian translations of two Galenic treaties: the “De tuenda sanitate1” (Dei mezzi che si tengono per conservarci la sanità), and “De propriorum animi cuiusque adfectuum dignotione et curatione2” (A che guisa si possano, e conoscere e curare le infermità dell’animo), published in Venice in 1549 by the polygraph Giovanni Tarcagnota. This work highlights the translator’s significant contribution to the creation of modern Italian medical language and more generally to the development of the Italian language.

Globalising medical language

From a historical point of view, specialised translators agree on the fact that the Greeks and the Romans were among the first to study medicine and develop an adapted terminology and phraseology for one of the most ancient subjects. More specifically, the Greek language first influenced medical language through Hippocrates, one of the subject’s fathers, and the role played by translators who introduced the Greek texts in Rome. Greek was actually the language in which medicine was taught up to the 3rd Century after Jesus Christ.

Arabic also influenced medical language with the establishment of the Bagdad and Damascus Schools between the 7th and 9th Centuries. Their works were translated into Latin in the 12th century and published throughout Europe. These translations established a true gateway between Europe and the East.

Synonymy is a true challenge for translators, since medical language is full of synonymous terms, yet two languages are not necessarily symmetrical. Eponymy is also a feature of medical language. Some words can have eponyms in two languages but sometimes only one language has an eponym. Eponyms can also differ according to the terms. For example, in the case of illnesses, English sometimes uses the name of an English-speaking scientist while the French language will use the name of a Francophone.

The Galenic trend of the Italian Cinquecento

In 16th century Italy, the followers of scholastic or humanist « Galenism », loyal supporters of the traditional doctrines of Hippocrates and Galen, embody the prevailing medical current.

Arab physicians, such as Rasis, Abul Kacem or Avicenna, lose their influence, whilst Celsus, Galen and Hipprocrates become the new gods of medicine. Even Vesalius, a renowned representative of the « re-emerging » current (who later questioned the axioms of ancient medicine) reviewed and drew up a critical, modernised edition of Galen’s anatomical texts in 1539. The very first vernacular translations of Galen’s works — often from the Latin versions of the same period — date back to the 1530s-1550s. They constitute an excellent testimony of the renewal of Galenic studies between the end of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century. Indeed, the first printed edition of a Latin translation of Galen’s anatomic work was published in 1490. The original Greek text was published in 1525, whilst the publication of Vesalius’ “De humani corporis fabrica3” dates back to 1543.

Copyright iStockphoto/ J. Dharmasena

The importance of the author and the reader

Vernacular translations of medical texts must be considered throughout the Middle Ages, and during an important part of the Renaissance, as much more than simple vernacular versions of original works in Greek or Latin.

The terminological and phraseological challenges of medical texts encourage the specialised translator to focus his/her attention on the author of the text and its intended reader. This process is very important since the cultural context links the author of the medical text to his/her reader. It enables to discern the implicit meaning as well as the core of the medical text to translate in order to meet the two requirements stated above: acceptance and plausibility.

Copyright : ESTRI

Ali Mostfa

Director of University Partnerships, School of Translation and International Relations.

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