Séminaire d’Anglais Médical 2016: a review

By Claire Harmer

This March I attended my first Séminaire d’Anglais Médical (SAM) held in the beautiful city of Lyon. It was the 11th time the event had been held, which is organised by the Société Française des Traducteurs (SFT) every two years. The séminaire – which I’ll call a conference for the sake of convenience, but was more of a week-long workshop programme – is aimed at medical translators working from and into French. 49 people attended; the perfect size for a specialised conference: not so big that it was overwhelming but big enough to have lots of different people to talk to.

It took place in the Faculté de Médecine Lyon Est in a self-contained Médiathèque building and most of the sessions were held in a raked lecture theatre within the building. The university was in the 8th arrondissement, so not particularly central, but it was only 15-20 minutes away by tram/metro if you were staying in the centre. With fairly packed days at the conference I didn’t get to explore the city as much as I would have liked, but I’m hoping to go back for a trip later this year.

The days were well-structured, with half-hour coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon (which proved to be good networking opportunities), and a one and a half hour lunch break in the middle. At first I thought the lunch break was unnecessarily long but while I was there I realised you needed that time to disconnect and have a rest! Sitting and listening to lectures for five days straight made me realise that I am out of the habit of sitting and absorbing information for long periods of time like we did at university – so having those breaks was crucial! Even more so, considering that most of the workshops were given in French, so I had to concentrate even harder to absorb and process the information.

The programme was a mix of lectures, terminology sessions and travaux dirigés, all of which I’m going to give a bit more information on below – I hope this gives readers an insight in case anyone is interested in attending SAM 2018!


We were fortunate to have a wide variety of speakers present at the conference, from medical translators to doctors, medical researchers and founders of companies within the medical and pharmaceutical sectors.

Below are a few of the highlights from the conference:

  • Amy Whereat’s presentation on writing practices in the field of cosmetic dermatology
  • Dr David Cox’s presentation on the medical epidemiology of breast cancer
  • Sylvie Chabaud’s talk on the statistical aspects of a clinical trial
  • Dr Bernard Croisile’s presentation on Alzheimer’s disease.

Another firm favourite was Pippa Sandford’s presentation on cross-cultural differences and pitfalls in medical translation. I’m hoping to do a blog post on Pippa’s talk at some point soon, as I found it really useful and think other medical translators will too.

Terminology sessions

We had four terminology sessions where medical translator and terminologist Nathalie Renevier went over terms that had come up in the workshops. These were great for exploring tricky terms and their corresponding equivalents in the other language. It also meant we revisited topics spoken about earlier in the day or week, which served as a reminder of what we had learnt.

Travaux dirigés

The source texts for the travaux dirigés were sent out via email in advance for those who had time to read them and on Monday we were split up into groups of five to seven people, each of which was given one source text. We had two sessions on Monday where we had time to work on the text as a group and typed up our final translation to present to the rest of the attendees later in the week. The texts included a study on patients with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, a fact sheet on Alzheimer’s disease for the general public, an article on premenstrual flares in adult women, as well as texts on chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, H5N1 influenza virus and the digestive system.

When the final translations were presented, a supervisor who had done a presentation on the same or a similar topic during the week, gave suggestions and advice to the translation team where needed. To be honest, I think the travaux dirigés were the only part of the conference where I felt I missed out a little by being an English native speaker. Of the 49 attendees only seven were English native speakers, with almost all of the remaining attendees being French native speakers – only to be expected as the course was held in France! This meant that only one out of the seven translations presented was a FR>EN translation (which was presented by our group). It was still useful to see how the English texts had been rendered in French, but obviously I didn’t take as much away from them as I did the FR>EN translation.


To end the conference with a bit of fun, Stephen Schwanbeck organised a translation duel, which proved to be very entertaining! Two people volunteered to translate each text (one was FR>EN and the other was EN>FR) in advance and then each translator presented their version, moving in turn and presenting a couple of sentences at a time. The rest of the attendees joined in with suggestions on how to improve the translations, as well as highlighting what they liked about each of them.

Both pieces were satirical, so were quite a departure from the texts we had been working on during the week. They were full of cultural references, plays on words, and tricky phrasing. The English text for translation into French, entitled ‘Doctors say average heart attack victim doesn’t clutch at chest nearly dramatically enough’ can be found here. It’s well worth watching the video as well as reading the article! The French text for translation into English, ‘La téléphonie mobile, nouveau vecteur de la democratisation du cancer’, can be found here.

In addition to the 9am – 5pm programme, the organisers also arranged a pre-conference meet-up on the Sunday evening, a tour of Lyon on the Monday night and a three course meal at a lovely restaurant during the week, all of which were thoroughly enjoyed.

In conclusion, I learnt a great deal about a wide range of medical and pharmaceutical subjects at SAM, met lots of interesting people, learnt about others’ experiences of translating for the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, experiences of working with agencies and direct clients (a conversation that seemed to come up a lot!) and how to cope with various terminological issues that often come up in medical and pharmaceutical translation.

The conference was a huge success and I’ll definitely be going back in 2018, if not before, as I’d like to visit Lyon again! A huge thank you to all the organisers!


Lyon at night!


The FR>EN team presenting their translation


Speech, Interpreting and the Brain

by Sandra Young

On Friday and Saturday I attended the ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network’s most recent workshop on the neurological processes involved in speech. Over the two days we heard from four researchers, Professor Richard Wise, Dr Anne Symonds and Professor Paul Matthews from Imperial College London and Professor Sophie Scott from University College London.

Today I want to share with you some of what I learnt from these talks, as well as thinking about these processes in the context of simultaneous interpreting.

How did we evolve speech?

Before looking at anything else, it is helpful to understand why we are physically capable of speaking. If we hadn’t evolved in the way that we did, we wouldn’t have the physical components necessary to make speech happen. Richard Wise brought the example of the Turkana boy to our attention. The boy is from approximately 1.5 million years ago, but his skeleton was found nearly intact. Using clues from his skeleton experts decided that he couldn’t have been capable of speech.

The reason for this is that he doesn’t have an expanded thoracic canal (see the image below). We need this so that complex neural structures can flow down our vertebrae to allow for the fine control of our intercostal muscles, which run along our ribcage. This allows us to control airflow in such a way to permit speech. Otherwise we would only be able to say one…word…at…a…time.

thoracic spinal canal


Fine control of our intercostal muscles is central to our ability to speak. This would not be possible if we were not bipedal. Standing up straight released our intercostal muscles from the supporting functions required during four-legged movement, allowing them to develop this fine control. Without these two features, we would not have been able to free these muscles to use in speech, or develop the increased innervation which allows us to control the flow of air to be able to speak fluidly, slowly releasing the air from our lungs. Our intercostal muscles have the same level of fine motor control as our hands, so it’s some pretty impressive stuff.

Add to this the use of our larynx (voice box), vocal cords and the motor skills of the tongue, you have speech! An interesting article about the evolution of speech can be found here. Also check out these links if you are interested in seeing our larynx and tongue in action.


Speech perception, production and semantics

Now we have looked, albeit briefly, at how we evolved the power of speech, we can take a look at what happens in our brain when we are listening to and producing speech. Many discoveries regarding language localisation – sites in the brain directly related to speech perception and production, were made in the 1860s and 70s. It was during this period that the Wernicke-Broca pathway was discovered.

brocas etc

Wernicke’s area is a part of the brain directly related speech perception, whereas Broca’s area is related to speech production. This McGill page goes into more detail about these two areas and how they were discovered. Lichtheim later proposed the theory of a concept area, in which semantic analysis would take place, so damage to the “connections” between this and the Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas would lead to different types of aphasia.

From here we start to think about the laterality of language – which side of the brain is involved in which activity. It would appear that:

  • The left hemisphere is generally used for semantics – understanding what is being said
  • The right hemisphere is more involved in processing other information relating to that speech – pitch, mood, emotion, etc.

Therefore, if someone flattens their speech then it is the right brain that will usually react to this change. This laterality is not found in 100% of people, but around 90% of right-handed people, and around 70% of left-handed people.

atl hub


The semantics system is found in the anterior temporal lobe regions (highlighted in pink above), and is strongly left lateralised in general (nearly always has strong activation in the left, rather than the right, hemisphere). What I found particularly interesting about this is when you are listening to someone else, both the left (semantics) and right (other information) are activated, but when you speak these areas are depressed, or switched off. The implication of this is that you don’t need to process what you are saying – you have planned this before you say it. However, I believe that in the context of interpreting these activation sites may alter.

The Brain and Interpreting

Obviously I don’t have any of the answers, but the talks over the weekend really made me think about some of the issues and peculiarities of how brain activity might differ when performing simultaneous interpreting.

There are just a couple of things I would like to highlight.


I would be interested to see if left- and right-handedness affect brain activation during simultaneous interpreting, and also if this is linked to ear preference for headphone use.

Also, it would be interesting to look at the differences in brain activation during interpretation:

  1. when interpreting to the interpreter’s A language in comparison to the B language, to see if there are different activation levels for semantics, or in the motor areas of the brain, or
  2. the differences between monolingual brains and bilingual brains and those of professional interpreters.

Semantics system

Learning that the semantics system is usually suppressed when we speak was a fascinating discovery. When performing simultaneous interpreting then we are simultaneously listening and speaking. What’s more, we are listening to the original, producing the translation and monitoring our production of the translation.

Therefore it would seem that simultaneous interpreters’ brains may be able to cancel the suppression of parts of the brain, or perhaps even activate different parts of the brain during this task.

I found a study by Green et al, back in 1990, looking at the lateralisation differences between monolinguals, (matched) bilingual controls and professional interpreters. They gave the groups shadowing, paraphrasing (monolingual) and interpreting (bilingual and professional interpreters) tasks, using finger tapping as a measurement for interference (comparison with a baseline performing no verbal task).

If you want to read more about the study, please follow this link. Here were the general conclusions:

  • In monolinguals the LH interference was greatest.
  • Monolinguals were LH lateralised for paraphrasing, whereas both bilinguals and interpreters were bilateral for interpreting and LH for shadowing.
  • There was an absence of significant differences between bilinguals and professional interpreters. This means that the brain activity is associated specifically with the task of interpretation, not that the changes occur as a result of experience in the practice of interpretation.
  • Tapping disruption was also much greater in paraphrasing/interpreting than in shadowing as a result of higher levels of processing – phonemes vs semantic.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please comment below. Throughout the week I will try to find further studies to share to try to build a more complete picture about what is going on in our brains when we perform the task of interpreting.

On another note, Professor Sarah Scott said she would be fascinated to do a study on simultaneous interpreters, so if anyone is interested, maybe you could contribute to research in the field.





ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network workshop on Diabetes


By Sandra Young

This May I attended my second ITI Mednet workshop, this time on the subject of diabetes. For the morning sessions, the group had invited an expert in the field, Dr Shanti Vijaraghavan, a Consultant Physician specialising in this area. The first half of the day consisted of talks in which she outlined the management and complications of the disease, highlighting differences between type I and II diabetes.

The talks allowed me to consolidate my knowledge on the subject of diabetes and its complications, assimilate new terminology and discuss the appropriateness of certain terms. Here are some examples of what I took away with me:

Diabetes and its complications

  • Good blood glucose control is essential for a person with diabetes’ health and to minimise complications. However, a person living with diabetes will develop complications such as neuropathies and retinopathies after living with the disease for a number of years, despite good blood glucose control.
  • Hypoglycaemic awareness fades as a result of damage to the sympathetic nervous system, meaning that symptoms (the warning signs of hypoglycaemia) disappear with time.


  • Charcot joint – complete lack of sensation in the joint, which leads people to injure themselves without realising. This eventually results in a disfigured joint.
  • Claudication – pain caused by too little blood flow, usually brought on by exercise.
  • Hyperosmolar Hyperglycaemic State (HHS) – Incredibly high blood sugar which results in “sludgy” blood.
  • Secretagogue – a substance that stimulates secretion, also a term used for insulin-releasing pills.

Appropriateness of terms – what do the experts really say?

  • Brittle diabetes – to describe someone with a type of severe diabetes characterised by blood sugar levels that are difficult to control.
  • Fundus – the correct terminology for the “back of eye” exam.

A morning of absorbing information was perfectly paired with an afternoon of working in language pair groups on a diabetes-related text. In my opinion, this combination is central to the success of the Mednet workshops and constitutes a fertile ground for learning.

The text dealt with complications of diabetes and its association with oxidative stress. It was a very interesting text to work on in a group of translators with varying backgrounds and experience. Our group, the Spanish to English group, was made up of translators who were originally from scientific backgrounds, pure-linguist backgrounds, editing backgrounds and native Spanish translators.

The input from those with a scientific background was invaluable, as they could use their understanding of the subject to decipher the more ambiguous sentences. The text used acronyms and abbreviations in a haphazard and non-standard way, in most cases failing to give a definition in the first instance. An example of this was the use of English acronyms ROS and RNS for reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species, but then the Spanish acronym was used for nitrous oxide (ON).

There was also a spelling mistake in which “citoaldehídos” appeared instead of “cetoaldehídos”. With an understanding of the context it was clear that it referred to something relating to ketones, not cells, but to the untrained eye this could cause a great deal of confusion. This highlights the importance of having a good understanding of the subject you are translating.

As regards editing, I learned that journals do not like the use of bulleted lists as a general rule. There was a section at the beginning of the article which had a problematic list, which contained a number of pairs of opposing functions. I had considered making a bulleted list of these opposing pairs. However,  advice was that a good solution might be to keep the list in the main body of the text, but to separate the pairs by semi-colons.

Being fairly new to medical translation, the group translations at these workshops are particularly useful for me as I get the opportunity to discuss problematic issues of a text with more experienced medical translators, hear their perspectives on these issues and learn from this. The group session this time helped me not only to better understand the concepts within the text, but also to learn more about editing and terminology within medical translations, all of which I can apply to my future work.

I have listed some resources for medical translations that were recommended during the group session: