in Translation

Medical and medicine translation is crucial for market access and global innvoation in pharmaceutical and R&D innovation. Across Europe and North America, there are millions who swear by acupuncture, massage, and herbal therapies – all traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) techniques. Although there are many schools in the West that aim to train qualified practitioners, few of them require knowledge of the Chinese language, leading to a somewhat incomplete understanding and appreciation of these time-honored Chinese healing arts. This week in Simply CSOFT, we’ll explore why this is a problem and what can be done about it.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Translation Troubles

When it comes to TCM, one of the most important things to remember is the astonishing age of the art; many of the included disciplines have roots in tomes several thousand years old. But the books that form the basis of TCM are wholly unlike medical textbooks in the West. They are largely text-based works that blend philosophy, religion, and culture. Sadly, only a very small portion of these texts have been translated into English.  But as the popularity of TCM in the West grows, so does the need for excellent translation.

But it isn’t quite that simple. Medical translation is always an intellectually challenging endeavor but there are multiple layers of additional complexity when it comes to TCM-specific translation. Aside from the cultural nuances that all great translators must take into account, there is period-specific language in Chinese medical texts that would only be understood by a true scholar. On top of that, these texts are strewn with obscure technical terms only familiar to the crème de la crème of Chinese medical practitioners. That means translators who have scholarly backgrounds in both Chinese language and TCM are necessary for truly accurate translations.

In the West, modern Chinese medicine and its traditional predecessors are increasingly being turned to for fresh perspectives and new ideas. But if the interpretations being used there are incomplete or inaccurate, much will be lost in translation. Fortunately, somebody is working on a solution.

In a paper published in this month’s online issue of the Journal of Integrative Medicine, researchers from UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine make the case for recruiting high-quality LSPs for high-quality translations. The article, titled “Considerations in the Translation of Chinese Medicine,” also serves as a guide for would-be translators. For example, they note that some translations should be geared to the scientific community while others should have a more spiritual timbre. What would be translated as “wildfire eye” in one paper would be more appropriately referred to as “acute conjunctivitis” in another.

The importance of such medical translations is more than academic. Every year, more and more patients in the West turn to TCM.  In order for their medical providers to give them the best care and for the patients to understand the care they are receiving, exceptional translations of traditional Chinese medical texts are just what the doctor ordered.


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