Life sciences: Localization into Russian and Ukrainian

One would be hard pressed to think of a more ancient branch of knowledge than medicine. Over the centuries, mankind has accumulated a wealth of experience in terms of fighting disease, often through trial and error. Knowledge has been passed on from teacher to student in a learning process spanning many generations.

Recently, of course, digital technologies have found their way into medical diagnosis and surgery, while applied methods have been developed for each branch of medical science. Let us try to assess the situation using the Russian Federation by way of example. From a historical standpoint, it happened that the dawn of the computer age coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was during this period that the world’s leading producers of medical equipment began to turn their attention to new and emerging markets. For the Western European and American companies that constituted the world’s biggest producers, a new horizon had opened up behind the Iron Curtain. Yet to conquer the market in such vast territories, localization was required.


Unique concerns

For some years now, we have seen a consistent rise in the number of orders for medical equipment in the former USSR. The first organizations to create a market for them in Russia were the private clinics that began to spring up in the 1990s. Order volumes gradually increased as these private medical institutions proliferated, for consumers had to be provided not only with the equipment itself, but also with instructions on how to use it, written in the end user’s native language. With apparatus and accessories being supplied in a single package containing localized technical documents, the time taken to bring a product into service in the medical sector could be dramatically cut, with deadlines sped up and savings in staff training. As a consequence of this, requirements to localize technical documentation were enshrined in law throughout the entire territory of the former USSR. In doing this, the legislature was not only taking steps to ensure that foreign producers’ products were safe for consumption throughout the whole nation, but also that the national language was given strong support, as foreign producers were obliged to invest in it.

Regarding the current situation in the Russian market, a key signal was given just recently: the government of the Russian Federation declared that it intends to modernize the state’s medical institutions as one of its top-priority national projects and has set aside significant funding for this program in the national budget.

It is therefore safe to say that interest in the Russian market will continue to grow as this program is introduced since the state is the biggest customer in Russia. There are a number of state-owned medical facilities in Russia, and nearly all of them require immediate renovation, for which leading manufacturers of medical equipment will be invited for bidding. Producers are already readying themselves to play a role in the modernization process, creating affiliated companies in Russia and setting these branches the task of promoting their products in the Russian market.

Medical translation is a very broad concept. It covers a diverse range of different fields, such as pharmaceuticals, clinical trials and medical equipment. As far as direct localization of medical equipment is concerned, this too has its own particular set of rules.

One feature of localizing medical equipment is the fact that all the localized products are subject to thorough external checks by specialists in the relevant branch of medicine. This compulsory procedure is aimed at removing serious errors that could literally be a matter of life or death, since in this sector human health and human lives are at stake. As a rule, the checks are carried out by local specialists from production companies; in some cases, independent medical experts, who put their own personal signature to their observations, are brought in.

Every customer and producer of medical instruments, without exception, operates according to this principle. But individual clients, taking into account the specifics of the product being produced, develop their own user guides, and these instructions become obligatory when localizing the relevant documentation.

For example, the company Covidien, which produces a whole range of surgical instruments, introduced as one of its localization principles a ban on replacing nouns referring to these instruments with any personal or relative pronouns whatsoever. This ban was in all likelihood introduced not only for obvious marketing purposes (maximizing the number of mentions of the product), but also for a more subtle underlying reason: when special instruments have similar names, using a relative pronoun could cause end users to misunderstand instructions, and this could in turn lead to tragic mistakes by doctors and harm patients’ health, as a result of which production companies would be laying themselves open to serious lawsuits. So by insisting on the rather unusual, monotonous style of its technical documents, the company is in effect killing three birds with one stone: advertising its product, making its instructions clear to the user and taking a preventative legal measure.

There are some situations when a translator or editor is required, in addition to knowing a foreign language, to have some kind of medical education. As a rule, this requirement crops up first and foremost when localizing surgical equipment. In such cases the client, prior to making an order, asks to see the translators’ and editors’ resumes, and subjects them to close scrutiny before selecting the most appropriate candidates. A glossary is then ordered, if not already provided, and as this is being compiled the correct terminology for the forthcoming project is established. By way of example, we can look at the products made by a company such as Technolas Perfect Vision. There is no way that a translator or editor can localize a user manual on laser eye surgery equipment without knowing the layout of the eye, what its various component parts are called and what characteristics the various parts of the eye have.

Occasionally, a single translation and the subsequent checks on it are insufficient to localize the interface on medical equipment, and the producer decides to put the product through on-site verification. A client sends in a request for a translator to make a business trip out to a particular country; the deadlines and other details are agreed upon, all the necessary paperwork is arranged, and the translator sets off to the destination in question. This sort of business trip can be fairly lengthy, regardless of the nature and complexity of the equipment being tested, and can last anywhere from several days to several weeks.

For example, the company Philips decided to localize its diagnosis equipment software and then carry out on-site verification. Roughly one month was set aside to undertake direct localization of the software and for the client to check the localized version, and then roughly one more month to install the equipment, agree on the deadline and prepare all the necessary paperwork for the trip. Once this was done, the translator set off for a one-week business trip to the site in the Middle East where the apparatus was to be installed. There are sometimes cases when the producer’s local branches order additional services — for example, printing marketing leaflets for people taking part in international events, such as conferences, summits or officially stamped translations of certificates for various types of medical equipment.


Ukrainian medical localization

Finally, one other specific type of request is worth mentioning: cases where the client requires someone who is not only an expert in the language and the subject matter, but also resides in a particular country and is familiar with the way things work in that country (Israel, for example).

In the field of Ukrainian localization, certain specific problems subsist due to the evolution of the Ukrainian language’s status over the history. When the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the official usage of Ukrainian was persistently discouraged and feared by the authorities for its possible “nationalistic” implications. In line with the Russification policy applied throughout the USSR, the medical education institutions in Ukraine were Russified almost entirely, with the exception of the few situated in the western part of the Ukraine. The portion of research and scholarly publications in Ukrainian was strictly limited. Accordingly, the clinical and pharmaceutical documentation was held mostly in Russian. However, this did not mean the entire extinction of Ukrainian in medicine. The professors and medical specialists in the west of the Republic (as in the cities of Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk) continued their work in Ukrainian and maintained a high-scale terminological culture. As soon as Ukraine regained independence in 1991, the All-Ukrainian Association of Doctors took steps for the de-Russification of the field by publishing two Russian-Ukrainian medical dictionaries, one of them with the nomenclature in Latin. As the Constitution of Ukraine was accepted in 1996, proclaiming Ukrainian the only state language in the country, further steps in this direction were taken. Currently, Ukrainian is the language of all medical educational institutions; it is mandatory to present dissertations and clinical and pharmaceutical documentation in Ukrainian.

Since Russian and Ukrainian belong to the same subgroup of East Slavic languages, the Russian influence often results in using incorrect terminology loaned from Russian and may lead to the use of morphological forms unnatural for Ukrainian. Examples of such cases are вдох instead of вдих, моча instead of сеча and внутрівенний instead of внутрішньовенний. Also, the proximity of the languages occasions the usage of incorrect genitive case endings for second-declension masculine nouns (мозка instead of мозку, кашля instead of кашлю, імунітета instead of імунітету).

The long course of historical Russification could not but impair the readiness to undertake the scope of terminological and dictionary work, which is requisite nowadays for properly acquiring the intense technology growth. Until recently, no extensive English-Ukrainian medical dictionaries were available, and thus the translation process stumbled over the necessity of resorting to the mediating English-Russian dictionaries. The increasing range of imported medications and medical equipment resulted in the flow of localized documentation of varying quality to the market. A considerable extent of terminology in actual use is far from perfect, and sometimes the glossaries issued by client companies propagate such still further. The most serious drawbacks are the tendency to barbarization (such as simplistic transliteration of the English term in preference over an available native term) and the treatment of synonyms. Ideally, each concept in a terminological system should have a single corresponding term, as this is the only way of preventing misreading and confusion. Therefore, synonymy is an unwelcome phenomenon in medical terminology, as is polysemy. To eradicate these, a consistent use of the sources of uniform codified terminology is essential. In particular, the 2010 edition of a New English-Ukrainian Medical Dictionary (for 75,000,000 entries) should be employed for the purpose.

Medical texts involve the extensive use of terms and professional jargon. There is a need not only to understand a word’s meaning, but also to have an idea of the forms in which it is used, both grammatically and stylistically. A crucial feature of localizing medical equipment in any language is thorough external check by specialists in the relevant branch of medicine.

Though we are not likely to see translation companies and translators getting medical doctorates any time soon, more and more higher education institutions in the Russian Federation are offering students the chance to become medical translators, which is opening up exciting new possibilities for the workforce.