Medical dictionary in six languages

Medical dictionary in six languages

Reproductive Pergamon Toxicology. Vol. 9, No. 6. DD. 589-590. 1995 Copyright 0 1995 Elskier Science Inc. Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 089...

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Toxicology. Vol. 9, No. 6. DD. 589-590. 1995 Copyright 0 1995 Elskier Science Inc. Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0890-6238/95 $9.50 + 40



Book Review

Medical Dictionary in Six Languages. B. Spilker. York, Raven Press; 1994. 687 pages, $99.

find the Italian term in the Italian subdictionary at the back, use the number to find the corresponding English term in the front, and look across to the German column in this front section. Although a little convoluted, the system seems to work. The Italian dictionary says that benda is term #590. In the English dictionary, #590 is bandage. Following the terms over to the fifth column, the German word is Binde. We have, thus, translated the Italian benda into the German Binde; the intermediary English word may or may not be important in the process, depending on the needs of the translator. There are problems, however, with this dictionary. The most immediately obvious is that the Japanese column and dictionary are in Japanese, with no phonetic equivalent. Those of us who do not read pictographs have no clue how to pronounce any of this material. Thus, the dictionary requires a certain minimum proficiency in the written language. This requirement is less obvious but equally true for the European languages. The major limitation in this regard is the lack of attention to noun gender, important in all four of these languages. If Doctor Spilker’s premise is that my knowledge of French does not extend to medical terms, why would he think I know the gender of these unfamiliar medical terms? For those who are not familiar with this problem, nouns are either masculine or feminine in the romance languages and can also be neutral in German, whereas nouns in English are almost all neutral. If I am asking a French woman about her abdominal pain, gender makes a difference: I must either say, “Your pain, how bad is he?” or “How bad is she?” It turns out that pain is feminine, and although French children know this fact by second nature. we Americans must simply memorize. There are a few general rules (nouns ending in age are always masculine) but not infrequently, the correct gender violates common sense, as with the French words for the female reproductive organs, uagin, utkrus, and ouaire (vagina, uterus, and ovary), which are all inexpliquably masculine. Doctor Spilker’s failure to include gender, then, leaves us wide open to making errors of a rather basic sort. There is also a lack of guidance on word choice when more than one translated term is given. Abortion, for example, is defined as avortement and as fausse couche, but these two terms are no more synonymous than abortion and miscarriage are in English. The distinction may be important, particularly when talking to nonprofessional people. In fact, although the stated audience of the book is professionals working in clinical trials, there is little attention given to the common use of words in the lay community. The French word for penis, for example, is


If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call a person who speaks only one language? American. So goes the old joke, but it is a curious fact of modern life that English has become the lingua franca of science. Most international meetings are conducted in English, many journals are in English, regardless where the journal is published, and it is not unusual for communications in non-English languages to have tables or at least abstracts in English. It used to be that students aspiring to go into medicine were advised to take Latin, but these days a good course in English is about all that is necessary. In spite of the ascendancy of this rather mixed tongue (most English words come from other languages), there are instances in which even American scientists and physicians must venture abroad linguistically. In particular, those of use who see patients or perform clinical research may be faced with having to communicate with people who simply do not understand English. One of my patients. for example, is a French woman. It so happens that she speaks English better than I do, but she knows that I like to practice my French and so she sends all her newly arrived friends to me, promising them that they need not fear getting a tonsillectomy instead of a pap smear due to a communication error. Of course, although my French is good enough to order a loaf of bread in the neighborhood boulangerie, my high school French teacher, Mrs. Teslja, never included “fallopian tube” or “purulent” or even “itch” on our vocabulary tests. Medical Dictionary in Six Languages is a response to the observation that people even reasonably proficient in languages may not do very well with medical terminology. The premise is that many medical terms are not found in standard dictionaries and that some technical phrases end up comical if an attempt is made to simply translate the individual words. Bert Spilker has compiled this dictionary to provide help in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, and, of course, English. In keeping with the Anglocentric nature of things, the dictionary is organized with a large first section in which English words or phrases are listed alphabetically with the corresponding translation in each of the five other languages following in five columns. For those who need to translate a non-English term into English or one of the other languages, there follow five subdictionaries in which the non-English term is followed by a number. The number refers to the consecutively numbered English terms in the first section. Thus, to translate from Italian to German, 589


Reproductive Toxicology

given as penis, which is not incorrect; however, sexe is a commonly used word for the male organ. Working from French to English, sexe is simply translated as sex. No translation is given for fibroid tumor, although leiomyoma is translated as l&omyome, begging the question of whether French patients understand this technical term any better than American patients. Aside from the limitations of the translations, there are two technical difficulties in the use of this book. The most evident is that it is printed entirely sideways. Instead of the cover opening right to left as in most books, it opens upwards, with the binding at the top. All material is printed parallel to the binding, giving a page that is wider than it is long. This printing method was evidently chosen to facilitate the listing of six language columns on the same page, but makes the book impossibly awkward. There seems no reason not to have printed the six columns across the two facing pages of the book, except perhaps that no one thought of it. The other problem is the system of alphabetization. It has been decided apparently that the first word of a multiple word term will serve as the sole alphabetizer.

Volume 9, Number 6, 1995

Heart valve comes before heartbeat, presumably because the “valve” in the first term does not count in alphabetizing “heart.” The reader, then, is required to know that heartbeat is being treated as a single word; I did not know this when I first looked for it and so searched in vain between heart attack and heart block. It is obviously much simpler to alphabetize words by the order in which the letters come, without regard to spaces. In spite of the limitations presented by the current version of this work, it fills an important need. For those clinicians and scientists with a working knowledge of these languages, the ability to locate technical terms will be of considerable help. Given that a perfectly serviceable paperback two-language dictionary only costs $5, however, we should expect Doctor Spilker to give us a little help with noun genders and word choice in his next $99 dictionary. ANTHONYR.



Toxicology Center Wushington DC