At some time in our lives, we’ve all had difficulty pronouncing words on labels or in package leaflets. For this reason, the immediate response to this article’s title would be “yes, it is”. However, a language professional experienced in the medical field has words like acetylsalicylic acid in his/her vocabulary.

Did you know that, in Portuguese, “X-ray” and “X ray” mean different things? An “X-ray” is the photograph created from an X ray exam. In other words, the “X-ray” is the result and the “X ray” is the electromagnetic radiation, or “Roentgen ray”. These details are a constant concern in the world of translation.

Translating a package leaflet of a medication, for example, is extremely complex. The smallest mistake can cause a patient to take a wrong dose (posology) or be unaware of an adverse reaction to the medication. The sector requires a high degree of linguistic precision.

Imagine if you had to translate dimethylamidophenyldimethylpyrazolone into Portuguese? Learn about some of the challenges faced by translators who work in this field.

Acronyms and abbreviations

Medical language has a wide variety of acronyms and abbreviations, which makes the translation process even more complex. The order of words can vary from one language to another, or a word can be an acronym in one language and not in another. Consider the following examples:

English Portuguese
CT (Computed Tomography) TAC (Tomografia Axial Computorizada)
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) DPOC (Doença Pulmonar Obstrutiva Crónica)
AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) SIDA (Síndrome da Imunodeficiência Adquirida)
ABG (arterial blood gas) Gasometria arterial

Suffixes and prefixes

Differences in suffixes and prefixes between different languages can result in differences in the semantic distribution of words. In translation, “new” suffixes or prefixes may appear, or existing ones may disappear, making the process even more complex.

For instance:

  • In Portuguese, the prefix -hepato is used to designate something having to do with the liver, such as insuficiência hepática (which, literally translated, would be “insufficiency of the liver”). In English, only the word “liver” is used in lieu of a prefix, resulting in “liver failure”;
  • In English, the suffix “-ache” is used to designate some sort of pain, i.e. the Portuguese expression dor de cabeça (literally “pain of head”) would be translated as “headache” in English; among others.

Nouns versus adjectives

The noun and the adjective for the same concept are, sometimes, somewhat dissimilar – such as the case of “fire” and “fiery”. This is a challenge which the translator must bear in mind when translating a more technical document. Only experience will bring the necessary degree of precision. Consider the following examples:

Noun Adjective
Olho (eye) Nervo ótico (optic nerve)
Ouvido (ear) Canal auditivo (auditory canal)
Boca (mouth) Cavidade oral (oral cavity)

Polysemy and synonyms

Every translator’s dream would be for all technical terms to be unambiguous, i.e. for one concept to have just one designation, and for that designation to apply only to that concept. However, this is not the case. The Portuguese word infundíbulo has four meanings: 1. A funnel-shaped structure; 2. Renal pelvic wall; 3. Cavity of Eustachian tube; and 4. Scala vestibule of the cochlear duct. In English, the word “infundibulum” has the same meetings, plus one more: respiratory bronchiole. These details are more commonly found in the research phase where, as a rule, more technical language is used.


Eponyms make up a large part of medical terminology. They include anatomical names, names of illnesses, symptoms, signs, procedures and names of medical devices. Eponyms are often derived from the names of investigators, patients or even fictitious characters or geographic locations. The correspondence of these terms does not always result in eponyms, which is important to bear in mind when translating this type of document, since literal translations can be misleading. The opposite also occurs, where a term is an eponym in Portuguese, but not in English. For example, Adam’s apple results in the Portuguese eponym maçã de Adão, while the Portuguese Terapia de Vojta (“Vojta method”) is not an eponym in English, corresponding to reflex locomotion.

Medical terms for non-specialists

Have you ever read the results of a medical exam and understood absolutely nothing about what it said? Medical language for “non-physicians” constitutes a large part of the industry’s communication. Often times, medical documents are written in a language which is overly complex and largely inaccessible to the common reader. A translator should always adapt the language to the document’s target audience. This means making decisions such as using the word “itching” instead of “pruritus”, “bruise” instead of “haematoma”, etc.

Constant innovation

One of the great challenges involves new terms which appear in association with medical innovations. Some articles discuss innovations in medicine which still have no terms in Portuguese. Or if they do, they cannot be found on the Internet. In such cases, the translator will commonly use an approximate Portuguese form, if a similar term already exists, or keep the term in English.

When no Portuguese term exists for an English term, this can also be solved by using a more descriptive expression in Portuguese, while always indicating the English term for further clarification.

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