Medical translation and cultural values

Published on 16/04/2020

Is medical language as innocent as we think? A priori, we might think that medical translation is pure science, logical, objective and irrefutable. However, we, as a translation agency, know that translation is never an exact science and that the preconceived idea that medical translation is simply a list of official translations or databases provided by medical institutions, is far from reality.

Thinking about this idea and documenting it, I discover that some of the medical terminology and phraseology is linked to cultural and social values. This means that specialist medical translators, when translating, have to take into account that these cultural traits can change from one language to another.

Once again, we note that, when choosing a medical translator, it is not enough for them to have a simple linguistic command, but it is also necessary to have a series of translation skills, including intercultural competence.

1. The use of metaphor

The use of metaphor

Although there are many ways to demonstrate that medical translation also has a certain cultural component, we will focus on the use of metaphor. As José Antonio Díaz Rojo (2005), researcher at the CSIC, points out, the metaphor is one of the literary figures that best reflects culture, since the association between two elements is not accidental, but the result of values that are characteristic of culture. Moreover, we should not forget that, at its deepest level, the metaphor is nothing more than an anomalous comparison between two elements, so it is, to a certain extent, subjective. This is in contrast to the alleged objectivity of the medical field. 

We will now illustrate this reflection with a series of examples that we will surely hear in the media or use regularly without realizing it. Based on the classification proposed by Salager-Meyer (1990), we will focus on the war, economic and material metaphors.

2. War metaphors

War metaphors

Firstly, we refer to the metaphors of war, which are probably the most widespread. In our Western culture, we associate diseases with enemies to fight. Therefore, we fight a virus, we fight a disease or we are victims of cancer , we take antidepressants (against depression), we have allergic reactions, we have heart attacks or we are presented with an innovative invasive technique

As well as being the most widespread, the war metaphor in medical language is perhaps the most controversial. Many are the authors who venture to criticize it since, in certain cases such as cancer treatment, it can have negative effects on patients. Elena Semino, professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, assures, supported by the thesis of the writer and philosopher Susan Sontag, that the association of the disease with an enemy can "make those who do not manage to defeat itfeel guilty, responsible or demoralized". 

Controversy aside, what we know for sure is that this phenomenon is repeated in many languages of Western culture. For example, in English we find heart attack, to battle a virus or give up the fight (normally used in reference to cancer) and in French, réaction cutanée, technique invasive, intervention chirurgicale or strátegie thérapeutique.

3. Economic metaphors

Economic metaphors

On the other hand, we come across the economic metaphors in medical language, a fact that we find curious to say the least since, at first sight, they are two areas that have littleto do with each other. To identify them, it is enough to delve into the habitual use of the tongue and thus realize that we have all gone to donate blood at some time, and we know that it is stored in a blood bank. We all know how to administer certain medications or have seen news of people who have regained consciousness. Also, in these times of Real food, we will have surely heard the importance of balancing energy consumption and energy expenditure, the benefits of foods rich in fibre or poor in saturated fat

In this case, although in English there are more medical metaphors used in the economic field such as economic depression, we also find some examples such as blood donation or blood banks that lead us to think that the use of economic terms in medical language is a recurrent phenomenon in Western culture. As in Spanish, in French we find more variety, such as riche en calcium, dépense énergétique or administrer des doses.

4. Material metaphors

Material metaphors


Finally, and leaving aside other types of natural metaphors such as plant metaphors(transplants, brain stem) or geographical metaphors(cervical region), we find it particularly interesting to investigate the material metaphors. As we analyze the terms used anatomically, we find a variety of examples that allude to architecture, from the auricular pavilion or the nasal septum to the spine, the intestinal wall or the aortic arch. Mechanics is also very much present when we conceive of the heart as an engine that pumps blood or when we refer to genetic engineering

Once again, this pattern is repeated in the two Western languages we have mentioned. In English, we extract very illustrative examples such as walls of the lymph vesseks or spinal column, as well as in French: vertebral colon, genetics, mechanical ventilation. The comparison between body-machine and pattern that we observe in different languages of Western culture, may be due to the process of industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century.

5. Approaching the target audience

Approaching the target audience

After studying these examples, we return to our initial question: Is medical language as innocent as we think? In short, it's not. Many are the theories that try to explain the pretension or the origin of the use of such metaphors. Thus, some authors claim that the choice of medical terms is very sensitive, since it can hide not only cultural traits but also ideological positions, taking as an example the terminology related to abortion. Despite having to be aware of the ideological burden of the terms we use, I think it is necessary to remember the complexity and speciality of the field of medicine. The explanation of why such metaphors are used may simply be due to the desire to bring medicine closer to the non-specialist public in an illustrative way. The debate between the supporters and opponents of this practice in medical language is dense, but one thing is clear: medical language has a subtle, but important cultural component. Keeping this in mind when translating is essential to convey the meaning of the sentence or term.

6. Bibliography

Aida Kemelmajer by Carlucci (2010). A late review of Susan Sontag's book 'Disease and its Metaphors'. Four-monthly publication of the Master's Degree in Bioethics and Law. Journal of Bioethics and Law. Number 18.- January 2010 pag. 47. Source: http://www.ub.edu/fildt/revista/pdf/RByD18_Biblio.pdf

José Antonio Díaz Rojo. Medical terminology, culture and ideology. Philology Quaderns. You're studying linguistics. Vol. X (2005) 31-51. Institute of History of Science and Documentation (UV-CSIC).

ABC newspaper (2010). The negative impact of war metaphors on cancer. ABC Disease, Madrid. Updated on 23.02.2019. Source: https://www.abc.es/salud/enfermedades/abci-negativo-impacto-metaforas-be...

Valentina Marta Rodriguez. Spanish-French study of biomedical metaphorisation in clinical practice guidelines in the field of rare diseases Journal of Medicine, Language and Translation, Vol.17, No. 44, 2016, pp. 144-149. University of Vigo Source from: https://www.tremedica.org/wp-content/uploads/n44_tribuna-VMartaRodriguez...

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Zoe Lorente's picture
Zoe Lorente

Licenciada en traducción a falta de Trabajo Fin de Carrera. Gestora de Proyectos y traductora del francés y alemán al español en prácticas universitarias de septiembre 2019 a junio 2020.

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