Translating Medical Terminology

When it comes to translating medical texts, language professionals are confronted with multiple challenges. The emergence of new diseases, therapies, and drugs means that translating for this industry requires ongoing specialization. But perhaps the biggest challenge is medical terminology itself. The medical field is loaded with technical terms and for this reason, medical translation demands specialists who are knowledgeable in medicine and healthcare in two or more languages.

This past March, Dr. Fernando Navarro, a medical doctor, and a well-recognized medical linguist and translator, held a workshop focusing on the translation of medical terminology. The seminar took place in the Argentinian city of Rosario and was co-organized by Instituto San Bartolomé and Ocean Translations.

Over the next few paragraphs, we will take a look at some of the topics discussed in detail in the workshop, as well as other basic principles for translating medical terminology accurately.

Who is Your Target Audience?

When translating medical terms, it is critical for translators to know who the target audience is meaning who will be reading these medical texts. A document intended to be distributed among the medical community has to be translated differently than one for a broader and more heterogeneous audience. Doctors’ use of medical terminology could keep the patient in the dark and potentially leave the person poorly informed.

For this reason, it is very common to find different ways for referring to diseases, medical conditions and results: for example, a term might have a technical name meant for addressing physicians and a more colloquial name when addressing common people. Let’s see a few examples:

1- A negative lab result in layman’s terms means that the tests were normal.

2- No LVH in layman’s terms means that the muscle of the left ventricle of the heart isn’t abnormally thick or enlarged.

3- A thrombus in layman’s terms is a blood clot in some part of your body (ex. pulmonary thrombus).

4- A polyp in layman’s terms is a clump of cells or abnormal growth of tissue.

Polysemy and False Friends

Some languages have words that share identical or similar morphology but convey completely different meanings this is called polysemy. It is hard enough having to navigate a single language, but when translating from one language into another, it becomes even more challenging. In this regard, translators face another challenge, which is when words in two languages look or sound similar but carry a different meaning. This is what we know as false friends.

In the medical field, false friends pose a huge threat because they can lead to misunderstandings and in some extreme cases, to dreadful consequences in medical treatment.

Here are some frequently seen cases:

1- Severo One of the most common mistakes is translating severe in English as severo instead of grave. Severo in Spanish means strict rather than serious as the English adjective severe.

2- Tableta Tableta is often used instead of comprimido when translating the English term tablet (as in compressed tablet).

3- Evidencia  — In English evidence means proof or finding. However, in Spanish it is sometimes translated as evidencia when it should be rather prueba, hallazago or indicio.


It’s very common in the medical field to name a disease, a syndrome, a device or a technique after the person who had a major impact on it, be it in its development, discovery or creation. This is what is referred to as an Eponym and generally, it is translated without difficulty.  

Known Eponyms are Parkinson’s (syndrome, disease), Alzheimer’s (disease, dementia, baskets, sclerosis, etc.), Papanicolaou (smear, test), Asperger’s syndrome, Huntington’s disease, Luer lock, Allis clamp, Smith’s fracture, Palmaz stent, etc.

Staying up-to-date

According to reports by the World Health Organization, every year hundreds of new terms are coined in the medical community. This poses an important challenge to language professionals; both translators and interpreters need to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the medical field. A great way to do so is to subscribe to medical journals, keep medical dictionaries at hand and check medical terminology databases regularly or resort to specialists when in doubt.

Relying on Experts

Translating medical terminology is a complex task yet not an impossible one. It demands experience, technical knowledge, and the right technology to guarantee consistency and accuracy. Storing and maintaining a medical term base can be time-consuming; this is why hospitals, HMOs, medical associations and organizations and companies in the medical or pharmaceutical industry choose to partner with language service providers. When choosing your partner, make sure it has a proven record on medical localization. For any questions on the topics mentioned here please contact us at

Learn more about Ocean’s medical translation services here.

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