Medical Translations: Drugs and Medications

For translations in the medical field, including for medications, it is especially important to avoid all errors in comprehension, change or suppression of information, since in this case, as opposed to other cases where the consequences are “merely” monetary, here the correct or incorrect translation of a particular word or even getting a dosage wrong can be a question of life and death.

This type of text requires translators who are highly specialized in the field in question and who are also specially “picky” in matters of the correct translation of words.

Even though the translation of medical texts presents numerous complications, I would like to focus today on one aspect that appears consistently in a majority of the documents: drugs and medications. It is very important to clarify that “drugs” and “medications” are not synonyms. A medication is a substance that has a pharmacological effect, meaning that it is chemically active with an effect on the organism. Drugs, in the pharmaceutical setting, is the commercial representation of a medication, meaning that a drug is not just the active ingredient but also the final substance that is marketed to consumers, which includes excipients, the presentation of the product (powder, tablets, et al.), etc.

As this is all true, one of the difficulties that arise in handwritten medical texts in English is that they can use three manners to refer to drugs or medications, depending on the author:

  • Use of the INN (International Non-proprietary Names), as recommended by the WHO.
  • Use of commercial brands.
  • Common names with no international validity.

Of the cases listed above, the first is the least complicated for the translator, since the equivalent in Spanish or other languages can be quickly and easily accessed. For the second case, there is a decision to be made about whether to maintain the commercial brand name (which is normally easily identified, since it appears in capital letters and joined by the sign for registered (“®”) or unregistered (“™”) trademark symbol) or to use the equivalent trademark for the destination country or even to replace it with the INN of the active ingredient.

The real problem arises in the third option, since the names used locally are different than those used internationally and even if the translator should translate using the INN, it is more complicated to find the correct term in the areas where he or she normally works. For example, in the United States, acetaminophen is used to refer to what is known internationally as paracetamol.

The examples above are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the possible complications that can arise when working on or reviewing a medical translation. For this reason (and many more), it is essential to rely on certified translators at every step of the process. Professional services are available for use and they can assure everyone involved in the process that the document has the correct professional rigor and clarity, thus ensuring that there will not be any problem that can have any effect at the material or personal levels.

For more information, see our Medical Translation page.

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