Finding Equivalents for U.S. Healthcare Terms: Googling it and Beyond

equivalent terms

Connecting Cultures would like to thank Natalya Mytareva, M.A, CoreCHITM, for contributing this article in which she generously highlights the topic of her upcoming presentation for the 9th Annual TAHIT Educational Symposium!

Terminology is one of the areas where the professions of the interpreter and translator intersect and one of the topics which ignites passions across languages and specialties. Nothing is quicker to spur a spirited discussion in our circles than an innocuous question, "How do you translate "registered nurse," or "elective surgery," or "football-shaped eyeball" into your language?" Yet I feel that interpreters sometimes lack the skills necessary to find and discern correct terminological equivalents compared to our sister profession of translators. Hence, the idea to offer a presentation about nonstandardized U.S. healthcare terminology and to encourage interpreters and translators to share glossaries.

Discussions of terminology get interesting only when there are no standard or standardized equivalents recorded in authoritative dictionaries. And U.S. healthcare terminology is particularly exciting both because the U.S. healthcare system is intrinsically different from any other, and because medicine is known for its constant innovations resulting in emergence of new concepts and words.

At the core of the interpreting (and translation) process is the ability to grasp the equivalency of meaning, the gut feeling an interpreter possesses which tells them that this Russian expression is an accurate translation of the corresponding English one. And for this, it's important to be able to analyze components of a word's meaning, both denotative and connotative. For example, what makes a "gown" different from a "dress"? What is the most important component of meaning in the word "gown" in the healthcare context? Or how are the expressions "to have the gall to do something" and "to have the guts to do something" different? Which components of meaning may be ignored in a specific context and which must be preserved at all costs?

The next important factor for standardization of terminological equivalents within a certain linguistic community is availability of reference materials in that language. Interpreters of languages with a documented medical tradition and established online presence are the lucky ones. For them, mastery of finding equivalents almost equals having good skills of online search and parallel text matching, i.e. working with the healthcare corpora. However, interpreters of languages of limited diffusion (LLD) are at a significant disadvantage here. They cannot just "google it." They really need to become masters of semantic analysis and of community research.

Interpreters of LLD, first, need to deconstruct the meaning of a U.S. term or expression into its components, then decide which components must be preserved as dictated by the context, the speaker's intent and register. At the meaning transfer ("encoding") stage, they need to decide if a word picture is an appropriate method of interpreting or a more economical one exists. And finally, they need to "field test" the created equivalent in their community. During this field testing, it's important to consult with native speakers of different genders, age groups and educational levels in order to identify not only the best equivalent but also acceptable variants and possible synonyms.

Naturally, if we go through all the trouble of finding or creating an equivalent, it would be wasteful not to share it with your colleagues. Sharing is critical for standardizing terminology within specific languages and for continuous developing of our collective professional knowledge. Sharing is possible in several ways: improving online translation tools such as Google Translate, discussion on listservs or social media, contributing to free glossaries (e.g. see CCHI's mini-glossaries for healthcare interpreters at And again such sharing is extremely important for LLD interpreters who need to establish online presence for their communities and preserve their languages for future generations.

Natalya Mytareva, M.A., CoreCHI™, is Managing Director at Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), with the previous experience of 13 years as director of interpreting and translation services at International Institute of Akron, a refugee resettlement agency in Ohio. She is a Russian interpreter, translator and educator. 

Will you be attending the 9th Annual TAHIT Educational Symposium September 25 & 26, 2015 in Galveston, Texas? Be sure to attend Natalya's presentation Interpreting non-standardized U.S. healthcare terms & CCHI's Mini-glossaries project on September 26, 2015 at 8:30 AM. Let's continue the conversation!