Friday, April 27, 2012

Thoughts on Pharmaceutical Translation

By Karen Tkaczyk
Every so often you read an article and wish you’d written something like it. This happened to me recently, with the piece called “Big Pharma Cannot Afford to be Lost in Translation” by Portuguese translator and consultant Cristina Falcão. It can be found here, on the PharmaIQ website  . If you translate for the pharmaceutical industry you will find other insightful articles and useful resources there, including others by Cristina.
I contacted Cristina to ask her if she minded me reporting on her article to the ATA Science and Technology Division’s blog and adding a few thoughts of my own. She didn’t mind, so here we are.
The target audience for Cristina’s article is pharmaceutical companies, not translators and interpreters, but I feel that in order to do a good job as we work for those industries we also need to keep in mind the principles she raises.
Cristina starts with the commonly stated concept that we must understand to do a decent job, let alone an excellent one. But she stated it in a way that caught my attention, quoting the late Henry Fischbach, co-founder, charter member, and honorary member of the American Translators Association. I couldn’t find a better quote if I tried for hours, so I’ll restate it.
“The hallmark of a good scientific translator is intellectual honesty and a sixth sense to realize that something is amiss.”
We cannot translate effectively if we do not understand properly. Personally, I love the quote because it sets me straight. When that sixth sense kicks in, and I realize that something is amiss with a text, paragraph, or term in spite of my best efforts, I know I need to ask a colleague for help. Sometimes it is not that something is wrong but that I need confirmation from an expert in the field that they really would say it that way. When used wisely, LinkedIn ( is a good resource for making contacts like that, if you do not have them. Sometimes I am that other colleague to whom technical translators come for help, when they are translating chemistry and know their instincts are not as well-honed as mine. At times early in my career I truly did need help because I had taken on a text that was outside my areas of expertise, and it ended up being more than I could handle in the allotted time. Nowadays, I have a great, mutually beneficial working relationship with a biologist-turned-translator who can provide a quick confirmation and the reassurance I need before delivering a text.
Cristina then refers to several articles of European Union Directive 2001/83/3 and gives insights on each of them: costs, metric conversions, diacritical marks, patent effect, cross-cultural communication, and readability.
Her examples are powerful. The only area where I see things differently is metric units. Much of the English-speaking world widely uses metric units these days. Even in the US, where Imperial measurements are used for many general applications such as groceries and weather forecasts, I find they are rarely used in scientific and technological situations. I rarely see Imperial units in pharmaceutical documents with the exception of pressures, which are often expressed in pounds per square inch (psi). Regardless, we need to understand units of measure and how usage differs from region to region, and industry to industry, because we need to make the right choices as we harmonize our texts.
The Patent Effect is something well known to those of us who work in that area. Often terms appear to be unrelated, because in one language a terminological oddity is used, and in another an obvious name is used. To complicate matters, the internet is usually full of examples of fairly literal translation mingling among the correct terms. For terminology related to cosmetics, I have to research deeply, frequently due to the Patent Effect. An innovative French cosmetic company that files many patents in that field generally transliterates its own French neologisms when writing patent abstracts in English. This leads to some very odd and calque-like terms, some of which have good English equivalent terms; however, some of them are commonly used by English speaking cosmetic companies. It takes time and insight to sort out the subtleties in each case.
The pharmaceutical industry has a heavily ethical component. So do we translators, as we seek to produce a faithful translation to the best of our ability. I look forward to reading more insightful articles from Cristina and other pharmaceutical translators as I explore my area of expertise, and I hope referring to it here has been of use to readers.
Karen works from French and Spanish into English – both UK and US. She translates documents on chemistry and its industrial applications, including patents.

1 comment:

  1. The importance of a technical translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.
    Especially with medical translation, where peoples' health is at stake, you shouldn't be relying on something that could just leave you stranded at a critical moment.