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Malgorzata Kasprowicz photoThis small compilation aims to help translators quickly find information on nomenclature and abbreviations from reliable sources in order to better adapt themselves to the market.


It is essential to thoroughly understand the subject before starting translation...
In nature, the specialization of a species is detrimental to its long-term adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Does translators’ survival follow the theory of natural selection? Specialization seems a must and clients require that translators strictly follow the jargon used by the professionals who will use the target documents. However, this does not mean that translators cannot adapt to the evolution of the field. Contrary to biological evolution, where both specialist and generalist species co-exist in a dynamic equilibrium to share niches, the struggle for life of translators is more efficient when they are specialized but have tools and information to adapt themselves to the large variety of needs of clients.

Nevertheless, this adaptation raises myriad questions for a translator: where do I find information quickly? Can I rely on the source? Shall I be able to explain my choices to the clients?

Furthermore, even for a professionally trained translator, if the time spent on foraging for nomenclature, abbreviation and jargon is wasted at the expense of time necessary for ensuring proper linguistic quality, then fluency and clarity of translation can be jeopardized.

Thankfully, there are many ways of supplementing our initial knowledge with minimal cost and energy in order to fulfill the requirements of the market.

The aim of this paper is to share some website addresses and references for medical translators. If there is a naivety in promoting open source and sharing hints, we wish to advocate the idea that it is necessary to share as many good standards as possible in order to foster good comprehension. We can take it as a duty and truly a literally academic endeavor or win-win game.

It is without a doubt easier to specialize when we have degrees in the sciences, medicine, pharmacy, engineering or aeronautics. Nevertheless, anybody can earn experience by following three simple rules: we understand our source texts, we use good terminology and we keep ourselves updated on grammar and style issues. These three rules will be our guide.

1. Thou shalt understand thy source text

It is essential to thoroughly understand the subject before starting translation. It means knowing “everything” on the subject. Nevertheless, finding a good starting point for reading is not an easy task. The most easily accessible sites such as Wikipedia can be useful for rapidly understanding the background of a subject, but they can be misleading if we rely solely on this type of source. The quality of expert review is not homogeneous and jewels stand side by side with poor-quality articles (reports).

There are other ways to find peer-reviewed information on health-related subjects.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) houses the site of “PubMed,” the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) National Institutes of Health database of all the scientific literature related to health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/

With more than 22 million citations from biomedical literature, it is considered the Holy Grail for getting up-to-date information. With the PubMed Central initiative, not only article summaries are freely available but also full-text pdf. At first glance, it may seem overwhelming; however, data mining in this place is made easy with user-friendly tools.

Other related sites of the NLM are also very valuable resources: “Genetic Home Reference” is a guide to understanding genetic conditions: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/ while “Medical Subject Headings” is a dictionary of medical terms: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/meshhome.html.

Translators working on medicine release documents and clinical trial reports should be aware of the differences between the European Union and US legislations, which still need to be resolved. The International Conference on Harmonisation (ICH) guides are useful: www.ich.org/products/guidelines.html. See also the sites for multidisciplinary guidelines—the ICH medical terminology (MedDRA), the Common Technical Document (CTD) and the development of Electronic Standards for the Transfer of Regulatory Information (ESTRI) among others.

The site of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on ICH is:

www.fda.gov/regulatoryinformation/guidances/ucm122049.htm; and the ICH Guidance Documents can be found here:


The guides on Good Clinical Practice in English, German, Spanish, French and other languages with their incorporated glossaries can be found at: http://ichgcp.net/download



Guidelines on good pharmacovigilance practices:

The European Medicines Agency’s site informs us on human and veterinary medicines:


2. Thou shalt use the proper terminology

For gene and protein names (always a source of confusion for all of us), we can find useful information at:


The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC) has assigned unique gene symbols and names at: http://www.genenames.org

and again the NCBI for chemical database PubChem:


The http://tinyurl.com/2wzxrrs link refers to the European Medicines Agency’s templates for product information for use by applicants and marketing-authorization holders for centralized procedures, mutual-recognition, decentralized and referral procedures in the official EU languages. Quality Review of Documents (QRD) conventions to be followed for the EMA-QRD templates can be found at the link:


Below, we present some sites not really specific to biomedical translations, but which may turn out useful as legal, environmental, and more general public safety issues are involved. There are two important reasons for using these sites:

Researchers, laboratory workers, medical and clinical staff are more and more subject to internal and external audits. Keeping abreast of regulations helps them fulfill successfully standardized requirements. Translators who follow these updates and understand these systems can become real specialists in these fields.

Multilingual sites offer true parallel corpora for the linguists. By definition, “a parallel corpus is a corpus that contains a collection of original texts in language L1 and their translations into a set of languages L2 ... Ln. In most cases, parallel corpora contain data from only two languages. Closely related to parallel corpora are "comparable corpora", which consist of texts from two or more languages which are similar in genre, topic, register, etc. without, however, having the same content.” Source:


Unidirectional (e.g., from French to English), bidirectional (e.g. from German to English and vice versa) or multidirectional parallel corpora are always much more efficient sources compared to dictionaries (see the legislation of the European Union from English into the official 23 languages of the EU and vice versa at the eur-lex site: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/en/index.htm). Two advantages of these resources are obvious; on the one hand the terms appear in different contexts while on the other hand, these parallel corpora can be easily found online with a click without wasting time searching through heavy dictionaries. Despite the fact that I have an entire collection of “those heavy books,” I work under the pressure of the demand of a high quality output in the least possible time (although we all know that lack of time plays against quality; however, that is an issue that deserves another article). As mentioned above, if translators can reach a site where they can find terms from reliable sources with a click, they can use the saved energy and time to polish the quality of their work.

The freely accessible eur-lex site (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/en/index.htm) containing the European Union law is available in the 23 official languages. This huge multilingual corpus is the source of many pertinent medical (e.g. bird flu), environmental, pharmaceutical terminology in the EU-27 languages with its Simple and Advanced Search interfaces.

The IATE (InterActive Terminology for Europe) database regroups all synonyms and variants used by the different institutions of the EU: http://iate.europa.eu/iatediff/SearchByQueryEdit.do.

The 229 Corpus-Based Monolingual Dictionaries: http://wortschatz.uni-leipzig.de hosted by the University of Leipzig offers "mega-meta-search": examples of sentences, frequency analysis, graphical word compilations for words of all languages which have corpora.

Another storm is brewing at the interface of environmental or medical science and legislation.

For decades, a huge number of chemicals has been manufactured and released on the market in Europe, sometimes in very high amounts, without sufficient information on the hazards that these compounds might cause to human health or to the environment. This realization led to the REACH initiative. REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances) is the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_intro.htm.

Under these upcoming laws, industrialists, manufacturers and importers are required to produce information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will facilitate their safe handling. The information has to be registered in a central database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the central point in the REACH system.

This agency hosts the databases necessary to operate the REACH, coordinates the evaluation of suspicious chemicals and is currently building a public database with chemical safety-related terms and information on alternative chemical names in mixtures. The agency also addresses the same safety issues for nanomaterials. The database includes CLP (CLP stands for Classification, Labeling and Packaging), Chemical Safety Reports (CSRs), Predictive Toxicology (QSARs), the Chemical Safety and the Exposure Assessment, as well as the IUCLID database and the REACH Guide:


The ECHA link on REACH in a multilingual version: http://echa.europa.eu/reach_en.asp
and the ECHA glossary in English on main terms can be found here:


The eur-lex link for parallel corpora of the REACH directive (EC 1907/2006) in EU-27 national languages (Celex number: 32006L0102) is: http://tinyurl.com/68thcnh

3. Thy mother tongue shall be the language of science

There is a universal style for writing science. It differs from the literary one, and we write in a universal scientific style whether we translate from English into another language or vice versa.

In the book some consider as the bible for technical translation methods: “Vinay, J.P. et Darbelnet, J., Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais. Méthode de traduction” (Paris, Didier, 1958), the authors state that in technical translation the target text has to be almost identical to the source, quite contrary to the French literary translation tendency at the beginning of the 20th century, which advised translators to read the book, then to close it and write a new one.

We can find our correct style somewhere between these two extremes. Nowadays, one of the basic requirements is consistency—that is, we have to use the same terms and verbs without synonyms in a consistent manner throughout the translation—even at the expense of literary style. We can nevertheless render our translations colorful and keep terminology consistent while being stylish using a few simple tricks. Here is a non-exhaustive list of hints, style guides and grammar links:

1. Use strong, active verbs—you can access a non-exhaustive list here: http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj/writingtips/preciseverbs.html

2. Unless an acronym is “fixed” and well-known (like AIDS, WHO) or a brand name, and unless space is drastically limited, you do not necessarily have to abbreviate all illnesses, pharmaceutical forms, names of health organizations, etc. Rules for translation of acronyms differ between languages, but remember in all cases that too many acronyms play against fluency and coherency.

3. You should not be afraid to use the Gerund in our translations: e.g. “The brain stem controls many of the body’s basic functions, including breathing, chewing, swallowing, and eye movements.” Just ensure that it is used in a consistent manner in the same sentence (source: http://www.iristrial.org/teleforms/documents/stroke.pdf)

4. Although polished, fluent and journalistic style requires employing the active voice more, in scientific translations we are often forced to use the passive voice. Simply bear in mind that the active and passive voices represent two different points of view when translated. Translators have to decide which grammatical subject is highlighted in the source text and translate accordingly. This is easy to follow in Latin and German-based languages. However, other languages like Hungarian use the active voice almost exclusively since the 19th century linguistic reform; nevertheless, the syntax of the language allows easy transposition of the passive voice of the source into an active one.

Other useful links:

1. You can polish your style by following the Clinical Chemistry series: http://www.aacc.org/publications/clin_chem/ccgsw/Pages/default.aspx#

2. How to Write, Publish, & Present in the Health Sciences: A Guide for Clinicians & Laboratory Researchers, by Thomas A. Lang (American College of Physicians, 2010). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scientific-Style-Format-Authors-Publishers/dp/0521471540/

3. Writing Guides and Style Manuals in the Biological and Health Sciences from the University of Minnesota: http://hsl.lib.umn.edu/biomed/help/stylemanuals

4. The AP Stylebook http://www.apstylebook.com/, the American Psychological Association: http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/

5. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

6. The Associated Press vs. Chicago Manual of Style: http://www.apvschicago.com/

7. The EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles to be Published in English by the European Association of Science Editors: http://www.ease.org.uk/publications

8. The MLA Style Manual by the Medical Library Association: http://www.mlanet.org/publications/style

9. The Guidance on Scientific Writing EQUATOR Network: http://www.equator-network.org/resource-centre/library-of-health-research-reporting/guidance-on-scientific-writing/

10. And the http://blog.amamanualofstyle.com/

11. The Grammar Girl’s free newsletter: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com

12. http://www.grammarbook.com

13. http://grammarist.com


This short article is not exhaustive and should not be taken as an exclusive list of available resources. We apologize for the omissions of authors of other valuable sites. We only hope that this may serve as a little step in a path that other translators might want to follow.

Published - March 2013

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