Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999




Translation Journal
Medical Translations

Handling Greek and Latin Terms in Spanish Medical Translation

by Verónica Albin

Peter Ustinov once said that Russia is like a screwed-up pill where the bitter part is on the outside and the sugar coating is in the middle. The same holds true for medical translation; once you get over the bitter coating, you start to enjoy it.
Since Greek is the language of choice for pathology, we expect to find this language in disease nomenclature.
Perhaps one of the most difficult hurdles to conquer is the handling of Greek and Latin terms, for it is here that translators new to the specialty often make assumptions which prove disastrous. In this article I will first explain the specific medical use for each of these two languages, and will then red-flag a few key areas in this minefield horribilis.
   Although there are plenty of exceptions, Latin roots usually refer to a specific part of our anatomy and Greek ones indicate that the part of the body is being studied or that there is something wrong with it. Thus, the anatomical term for the gut is intestinum (Latin), and the study of the intestines is enterology (Greek).
   Let’s look at the Latin root for breast mamm/o and its Greek counterpart mast/o. Generally speaking, the Latin root mamm/o will be found in terms which describe either the anatomy (e.g. mammary gland) or a procedure done to a presumably healthy organ (e.g. mammogram), and the Greek root mast/o will be found whenever pathology or malignancy is encountered (e.g. mastectomy).
   The vowel after the forward slash of the root is known as the combining vowel. This vowel is kept between two roots. Because of this, the study of the stomach gastr/o and intestines enter/o is spelled gastroenterology, not gastrenterology.
   The root, or chain of roots, is always followed by a suffix. Suffixes give us very useful information. For example, the suffix -itis means there is inflammation; -malacia means softening; and -gram or -graphy indicate that a recording, image or tracing was obtained. The combining vowel of a root is dropped when the suffix begins with a vowel, but kept when it begins with a consonant. Thus, a tumor (-oma) whose structure is primarily of muscular (my/o) origin would be a myoma, not a myooma.
   Finally, this chain is sometimes preceded by a prefix. Prefixes tell us, among other things, where something is located (peri-, supra-); when something happens (pre-, post-) or if something is excessive or deficient (hyper-, hypo-). Unlike in English, Spanish prefixes are attached to the word they modify. Thus, pre-eclampsia and post-op in Spanish would be preeclampsia and postoperatorio (or posquirúrgico). The only exception is the Spanish prefix ex, which is separated from the term it modifies (e.g. ex esposa). In addition, prefixes attached to a Latin term should be Latin, and Greek ones should be Greek. For example, the anatomical term “tibia” should be preceded by the Latin prefix semi- (semitibial) and not by the Greek one hemi-.
   Given that Latin is the language of choice for anatomical nomenclature, one could incorrectly assume that any anatomical Latin term found on an English document would remain unchanged in translation. Two good examples of terms that change drastically are the Latin medulla oblongata and fibula which break all the rules and switch to Greek in Spanish: bulbo raquídeo and peroné. In other cases, a perfectly good Latin term used in English, such as patella, changes to a different Latin-derived term in Spanish rótula. Therefore, to avoid making mistakes, my advice is not to translate ex capite (from the top of your head), but to look up every Latin anatomical term before translating it.
   In passing, let me mention that when working from Spanish into English, many classical terms need to be simplified and written in plain English. For example, the Spanish nefropatía, derived from the Greek root for kidney (nefr/o) and the suffix for disease (-patía) could easily be rendered into English as nephropathy, but no physician in this country ever uses such a term. Physicians simply say “kidney disease.” In this same group we have, among others, cefalea or cefalgia/headache; pirosis/heartburn; and cardiopatías/heart disease.
   Since Greek is the language of choice for pathology, we expect to find this language in disease nomenclature. Interestingly, the Greek name of a disease-causing organism or of a disease itself can be followed by either a Greek or a Latin modifier. Two good examples are Helicobacter pylori (or in its short form, H. pylori) and polycythemia vera.
   With this we open yet another can of worms. First, there is the issue of italics for foreign terms. By convention, microorganisms are italicized, while illnesses are not. In addition, the first term of an organism’s name is always capped, whereas the modifier is written in lowercase. Thus, we would write either Chlamydia pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus, or C. pneumoniae and S. aureus.
   Next, we have to decide whether or not to translate these names. Some of the very common organisms, and therefore well-known to the general public, such as the above-mentioned Staphylococcus aureus, do have a Spanish version: estafilococo dorado. The less common ones do not. Therefore, my advice is not to take anything for granted, look up organisms in the standard sources such as Merck and Salvat, and when in Rome, do as the Romans. However, if one is working on a document which includes common and less common organisms, translating some and not others not only looks absolutely awful, but also reading becomes more difficult. If this is the case, I’d recommend leaving all of them in their original form.
   If this weren’t confusing enough, there is yet another thing to worry about: changes in spelling. Unlike microorganisms, illnesses, such as polycythemia vera and myasthenia gravis, are left in their classical form but are written with Spanish spelling, i.e. policitemia vera, miastenia gravis. When using Spanish spelling, substitute “i” for “y” (poly/poli), “y” for “i” (iatrogenic/yatrogénico), “t” for “th,” “f” for “ph,” and so forth.
   Mea culpa if these tips for translating better than the hoi polloi taste a little bitter, but remember that dulce quod utile: what is useful is sweet.