Semantics is a key branch of linguistics, which refers to the meaning and representation of language. As language develops, the meanings of words can change. Even a subtle shift in the perception of a word can cause issues with its translation.

As language specialists, Albion Languages is committed to best practices in translation and localisation, with our specialists in every sector considering how terminology is perceived and keeping up to date with the guidelines.

In this blog, we consider the importance of semantics and terminology, focusing on the medical sector and how a commonly used word has evolved to become imprecise and loaded.

Terminology in pharmaceuticals

In June 2022, the European Medical Agency (EMA), which responsible for the evaluation and supervision of medicines in Europe, published updated guidelines relating to ‘stylistic decisions’. One such decision is that the term ‘drug’ should no longer be used, due to the ‘risk of misinterpretation and mistranslation.’ In a nutshell, the word ‘drug’ is loaded with negative connotations relating to narcotics and illicit use and should not be included on labelling and packaging for medicines in Europe. The concern is that the term’s “reputation” may be reducing patient compliance.

How localisation plays a part

Such guidelines are naturally welcome, and the importance of considered labelling in the health industry is indisputable. Localisation, or adapting a translation to a specific region, is just one aspect of translation. Another part of the challenge is to consider the perception of terminology, which can be demanding as it can easily differ between localities. While the provision of sensitive translation is paramount, so is preserving the integrity of the message.

Why is terminology so challenging?

The etymology of a word has limited bearing on its eventual evolution. As regards the word ‘drug’, it originally referred only to substances used in the composition or preparation of medicines, originating from the old French term drogue,⁠ an ambiguous term for supply, stock and provision. However, by the late 19th century, ’drugs’ also described narcotics and opiates, perhaps muddying the waters two centuries before labelling guidelines could catch up. This natural evolution of language leads to ambiguity, which is far from welcome in pharmaceutical labelling, where the perception of medicines is crucial for ensuring compliance.

Industry language

Most industries have their own language. Medical terminology needs to be familiar across the board, with some of it also needing to be understood by laypeople, i.e. the general public. This means translating text so that it is not only standardised but also localised, understood by the public and professionals alike, while still utilising key language within specific criteria.

The negative impact of incorrect terminology

As discussed, localisation is a real cornerstone of effective translation. Studying target cultures to understand how terminology is perceived is the only way to ensure that you truly account for differences. Terminology is crucial across all markets, with the goal being coherence and clear communication. Terminology differs from country to country, locality to locality, sector to sector. Ensuring the usage of neutral but accurate terms is an area that needs particular focus. In any sector, incorrect or mismanaged terminology can result in negative outcomes, such as increased workload, delays, frustration, job loss and loss of trade. The implications for the medical sector are even more profound – in some cases, it can be a matter of life and death.

To discuss how Albion Languages experts can support you with your medical translations, get in touch.