Pippa Sandford’s SAM presentation: Cross cultural differences and pitfalls in medical translation

I mentioned in my last post on the Séminaire d’Anglais Médical (a medical translation event held by the SFT in Lyon) that I hoped to write a short post on Pippa Sandford’s presentation, as I found it really useful and I thought other medical translators would too. So… here it is!

Pippa was a full-time medical translator for thirty years, working from French and Italian to English. She attended several of the legendary CMETI courses (Course in Medical English for Translators and Interpreters) run by Karin Band during the 1990s. These courses emphasised the importance of subject knowledge as the basis for good medical translation, combined with excellent research skills, of course; that approach kept Pippa fully employed at reasonable rates until health problems prompted her retirement at the end of 2015.

As the title of the presentation suggests, Pippa’s talk at SAM drew our attention to the differences in medical practice between France and the UK and the way language is used. She focused on issues such as dealing with eponyms, new terminology, false friends and fickle friends. I have also been told that she had previously presented the same talk as an ECPD webinar, which can be found here.

Keeping abreast of new developments in the field in order to learn about any new terms that come into existence was one of the things Pippa spoke about. One example of a new term she gave us within the context of the new EU Clinical Trials Regulation was a ‘temporary halt’: defined as the suspension of a clinical trial triggered by the sponsor, whereas a suspension is initiated by a Member State. Emma Goldsmith has written a very useful post on new terms and terminology changes that will come in with the new legislation:


Pippa also spoke about being aware of the units of measurement used for particular medical concepts in the languages you are translating, as they are not always the same. For example, in the UK, prothrombin time (temps de prothrombine or temps de Quick) is usually reported in seconds, whereas in France it may be reported in seconds or as a percentage of a control (taux de prothrombine).

Regarding names of medical conditions and diseases, Pippa mentioned how they may be known by the eponym in one language, but not in another, for example: ‘Abrami’s disease’ (EN) which would be known as ‘anémie hémolytique acquise’ in French. She also gave us an example of how, sometimes, the names are similar in both languages but not the same: ‘Colles’ fracture’ (EN) and ‘fracture de Pouteau-colles’ (FR).

False friends to look out for:

French English Not:
anthrax a carbuncle anthrax, a life-threatening disease caused by Bacillus anthracis (which is charbon or fièvre charbonneuse)
intoxiqué poisoned drunk (which is ivre)
agonie at point of death agony (which is angoisse or supplice)
angine sore throat angina, a severe, constricting pain in the chest (which is angine de poitrine or angor)
expertise expert report expertise, i.e. skill and knowledge (which is compétence)

Pippa’s talk ended with a quote from Karin Band, a highly-esteemed and very experienced medical translator (and a huge contributor to the ITI’s MedNet Group) who used to help run the SAM conference: ‘medical translation is knowledge-driven and research-based’.


A few websites Pippa recommends:


A dictionary of medical eponyms


Not specifically for medical translation, but very useful for any translator working in FR>EN/EN>FR. Follow on twitter (@anglais) for useful tips on translating tricky FR/EN terms.


bite-sized medical education videos