Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lost in medical translation


Roman had pink eye last week and as he and I were sitting in his pediatrician's office waiting for her assessment, I was reminded of something I noticed when I first moved to Spain and started going to the doctor: here they use correct medical terminology for illnesses and ailments whereas in the U.S., we tend to use descriptive names or non-medical terms. To give you an example, Roman was diagnosed with 'conjuntivitis' by his Spanish doctor, which is the scientific term for pink eye.

Here are some more examples:

1. The disease we know as chicken pox in the U.S. is called varicella in Spanish which is indeed its   scientific name.
2. When your child has an ear infection, he actually has a condition called otitis media. In Spanish, we would just say he has otitis.
3.  If you live in the U.S., you've probably never heard the term 'pharyngitis' before but it just means sore throat. In Spanish, they say faringitis.
4.  When most people fall down and bruise their knee, they don't say they have a 'hematoma' which indeed they do. But this is what they would tell their Spanish doctor.
5.  We use the word 'myopic' all the time in English, normally in the non-literal way to describe someone who has no imagination. But perhaps most people prefer to use the term nearsighted instead of myopic. In Spanish, there is no other word for this condition. If you can't see what's right in front of you, you are miope.

I'm not sure why American doctors use this soft, non-scientific language. Perhaps they're trying to not scare or intimidate people by using these terms and that's why they opt for lay language. Although when you think about it, some of these descriptive terms sound much scarier than the actual thing. Imagine that you were hearing the word chicken pox for the first time. To me, the term conjures an image of a bird pecking me to death. I think I'd be much more afraid of that than of being told I had varicella which sounds like a kind of pasta.

I remember when we first moved here, after every doctor's visit, the Professor and I would whip out our phones and quickly Google Translate our condition to make sure it was what we thought it was and reassure ourselves it was nothing serious. Oh how much we've learned in the three years we've been here. Between learning correct medical terms and mastering the metric system, we could do very well in medical school right now.

Anyway, I just thought I'd share. If you like this post, you may like these other ones I've written about language and cultural differences:

Avoiding embarrassing (but funny!) mistakes in Spanish
and
'Go fry asparagus' and other weird things we say

1 comment:

  1. It's really hard to cope up with the people and the environment, when you migrate to another country. Their language is different. They have certain words which are totally new to you, specially when it comes to medical terms when you visit their hospitals. Well I hope that you're doing well there, and the adjustments are good. Take care!

    Fred Lauing @ Excel Translations

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