Understanding etymology to improve medical translation

For the vast majority of professionals somehow related to the business of language or, I would rather say, the pleasure of studying languages, it is not new that the language of sciences is characterized by the use of Greek and Latin roots. But familiarity with those “mother” tongues is not as frequent as it should be among modern translators. The close link between science and these languages has a long history. The first scientific writings originated in Greece, and the terminological corpus used therein was inherited by the Romans, whose lexicon retained many Greek roots.

For many years in Europe, Latin was the vernacular of the Church, as well as the language in which virtually all documents were written, since most people who were not illiterate could read and write only in Latin. Romance languages derived from Latin (or neo-Latin) conjugate borrowings from different origins.

For medical translators who are native speakers of Spanish, French, Italian and other Romance languages, this may be a great advantage, provided they are able to easily recognize the meaning of terms in their original language. In Spanish medical jargon, terms rooted in classical languages are more frequent and are more widely understood than terms in English among the general public. This is why on many occasions the English < Spanish translator will find it more appropriate to use such equivalents, even in text not intended for the scientific community or health care professionals. Think, for example, of lung used as an adjective instead of pulmonary (in Spanish: pulmonar).

Medicine as a field of specialization

Every human discipline or activity uses and applies a particular vocabulary called a terminological corpus. Specialized groups create, by means of their research and works, a series of words related to the materials, instruments and procedures they implement or execute. Whether you are already a medical translator or intend to be one, you soon realize that medicine has a vast lexicon of its own. The human body, its functioning, 
the pathological processes that affect it, the useful approaches for mitigating pain or healing, diagnostic and treatment methods, among others, give rise to a great many specific terms. Although they are later poured into the popular jargon, these actually compose the technical language of this discipline and its branches. Thus, decoding medical terminology by identifying the root, suffixes or prefixes that make up each word can aid in understanding all the information embedded in the term.

As discussed previously, the translator will find that the Latin or Greek root, prefix or suffix is used and understood in Romance languages by a large group of people, while in English these may be limited to users of the language with a higher level of education. In other words,  English texts written for the general public will tend to avoid the use of Greek or Latin terms, while Spanish texts, for example, may accommodate them much more comfortably.

While one of the core tasks of every translator is retaining new words and their meanings, when initiating in a new field it is hard to recall a cluster of unknown terms and concepts if you do not understand them — the best capturing occurs via comprehension.

Understanding the meanings of common word roots is like dissecting lab animals and may open up a whole new perspective. However, close attention and ongoing research should be paramount. Root words can have more than one meaning or various shades of meaning; prefixes and suffixes may differ in the sense they convey information depending on their origin; and words that look similar may derive from different roots.

As a quick starting point, Table 1 defines and illustrates some of the most common Greek (G) and Latin (L) roots present in medical-related popular English. In medicine, you will encounter roots (Table 2), prefixes (Table 3) and suffixes (Table 4) in almost every line you read. In some cases, there may be two primary roots for one concept; for example, nephros comes from Greek (kidneys: in Spanish nefro) and ren from Latin; both roots can be used to describe a kidney condition, such as in renal failure (kidney failure, which in Spanish is frequently translated as insuficiencia renal) and diabetic nephropathy (diabetic kidney disease, which in Spanish is commonly translated as nefropatía diabética). It is also possible that a single prefix has a different meaning depending on its Greek or Latin origin, as in brachi (in Greek, short; in Latin, arm).

Plural formation of medical terms derived from Latin and Greek is another relevant aspect to be taken into account by the translator since the rule differs based on the origin of the term. There are certain illustrative terms frequently used in the field of cardiology. For the heart chambers, to name some of the basics, identifying the correct plural formation rule is key for an accurate rendering: atrium derives from Latin; therefore the plural form is atria. Such chambers are divided by a septum or septa in the plural (although the plural form septums is also used by medical doctors nowadays), which should be translated in Spanish as tabique to be precise with the most commonly used terminology, avoiding the Latinism septum and contrary to what we have stated as a pseudo-general rule at the beginning of this article; and when in English the adjective septal is used, the prepositional phrase del tabique is recommended in Spanish. Of course, medical specialization goes far beyond word formation, and learning about the jargon used takes much more reading and searching than translating itself. For instance, the English name of two main veins in the cardiovascular system requires linguistic attention: venae cavae is the plural form of vena cava. However, in Spanish, these veins are mostly referred to in the singular form, opposing them by their position in the human body: vena cava superior and vena cava inferior. Coming back to plural formation, there are several terms that frequently give rise to confusion or misunderstanding due to inaccuracies in terms of number (Table 5).

The love affair between Romance languages and medical science has also spread to the field of abbreviations. Knowing those derived from Latin or Greek will help you a lot, considering these are much more frequently used in English than in Spanish, contrary to what we have mentioned in relation to certain terminology (Table 6).

As we have seen in the summarized lists of examples cited in this article, the linguist’s appetite for knowledge should go far from the source and target language, and etymology is one of the first disciplines to explore along with that object of the translation assignment. Counting on the appropriate bibliography on the subject matter, enough linguistic resources to help comprehension, and the sense of responsibility one may have for this job, any translator can become a terminologist. The knowledge gained from that study should assist him or her in dodging potential misunderstandings of the source text.