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Off the Grid: The Notion of Power In Medical Language

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jan 2, 2013 12:00:00 AM

For humanity, the field of medicine and its continued achievements—in research as well as in the resulting products—may very well be the most powerful of our feats. After all, our health and the ability to prevent and overcome even the deadliest diseases are the basis for human evolvement in every area of life.

Marketers not only draw from but also expand on this concept of power, often tying it visually to energy or electricity in ads or commercials. Sunrays, frequently emanating from a body or body part, lightning, but also more industrial associations, like the Advil drill catching on fire, are expressions of this imagery. The force of nature is an easily understood metaphor for awe-inspiring effects, readily available for advertisers striving to show how effective a product is, and scenes of majestic landscapes, bursting volcanoes and vast skies with fleeting clouds don’t need much explanation.

But once we start talking language, these images and metaphors begin to unfold their very own force of nature, which can be likened to that of a Pandora’s box. As long as we are painting in broader brushstrokes, and stay within general analogies, we may remain in safe territory. As soon as we turn to the words themselves and gain meaning and associations out of sheer linguistic matter, things change (literally) and questions arise. Can the power to cure be associated with the power that runs through the grids of our city and fires up our laptops in other languages just as simply and elegantly as in English?

Of course not

Power, puissance or pouvoir, poder, potere all have the same etymology, going back to the Latin *potere, from L. potis “powerful”, and in a variety of contexts, they do indeed mean the same thing, for instance if we were talking about political authority. As a matter of fact, we could even use each of them to translate “the power to cure”, but that’s as far as we will get. Neither French, nor Spanish, nor Italian (and these are languages that derive the noun “power” from the same source as the English) commonly refers to electricity as power the way English-speakers do. If you added the adjective (puissance électrique), maybe. Now if we look at non-Romance languages, our chances for this double-entendre to work get even slimmer. In German, we’d equally end up in politics (“Macht”) or (somewhat closer) with physical or natural strength (“Kraft”). In Chinese, the character for electricity (dien) is different from the character for force, strength, vigor, power (li). Again, the sign for electricity can be combined with the latter to designate “electric power” (dien li).

Offering solutions

The use of word plays, metaphors, and imagery should never be discouraged in any language. If we are writing with an international audience in mind, however, it’s important to be open to the possibility that the original might metamorphasize into a slightly different image and/or that some components could get lost in translation. Translators specializing in marketing and advertising materials will always do their best to make up for a potential “loss” by thinking up other ways to convey an image, but they can’t stray too far. In some situations, it might be better to forego some of the playfulness for the sake of clarity. If the text is tied to an actual picture, there will be less flexibility for the translator than when (re)-creating a tagline, for instance. Different options with back translations and explanations can always be presented to help make the best choice for the respective target market(s).

In the end, power comes in many disguises, and each language brings its own color scheme to it. As long as the emperor is not left without clothes, he should most certainly stay healthy and powerful. His linguistic advisers will see to it.

Nanette Gobel, MA

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