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23 February 2011
Using Maltese words for medical and other scientific terms

As the medical world continues to redefine certain words, it is becoming ever more difficult to find a correct word in Maltese for certain technical ones in English. There is currently substantial debate going on whether technical terms should be kept in the original English or should be translated into the Maltese vernacular. Howevers some medical terms are extremely hard to find alternatives for in Maltese. Let’s start with a few examples:

Test-kit ; There is  really no word in maltese for the term test-kit. A loose translation  would be ‘Kit ghat-testijiet’ . Ideally this term should remain in English.

Rectum;  Again, no word  exists for this organ in Maltese although there are some words which can make up such as ‘it-tarf tal-musrana’. In  this case the English word can  also be desirable here.

Carbohydrates; There is debate whether this word should be left in English or translated literally to ‘karbo-idrati’ which is derived from the italian language, as is often done with many terms. Although this is technically correct, the English term sounds far much better.

There are other words such as ‘musrana il-kbira’ which is a proper translation for colon .  Still several other words of a much more technical nature struggle to provide a Maltese alternative.

Using maltese words instead of the english might make it easier for the ordinary patient to understand while medical matters are being explained to him or her besides making a better sounding  conversation  while medical professionals are talking about medical subjects in maltese on television .  The National Council for the Maltese Language issued a document for discussion in 2008 where the subject of translation from English to Maltese was given a pretty detailed run through with a large number of academics and authors voicing their views. However notwitstanding the many opinions brought forward there are still no clear guidelines how this problem should be tackled.

The document also included an exhaustive list of words extracted from a Maltese newspaper over some months which were the literal translations of English words. Several were pretty obvious phonetic translations which sound quite cheap and shabby – ‘konkrit’ and ‘kompjuterizzat’ come to mind immediately.

A translation source who works for the EU explained that so far they have only tackled chemical substances but there is a general tendency to use Italian as a base in this field (French is also very helpful). Other sources admitted that it is not all easy finding the correct term in maltese.

 More often than not, translators directly translate terms  into the local written alphabet  thus eliminating their  need to find a term in our language since the foreign term becomes understood by everyone and is assimilated in everyday life.

 A typical case in point is the word amphetamine which when translated into Maltese is written ‘amfetamini’. Obviously there is no such word in Maltese with that description so the meaning has to be taken directly from the English word.

With an army of maltese  translators in Brussels and Luxembourg translating huge volumes of technical terms into Maltese, the problem has undoubtedly only grown greater. It is obvious that Maltese is an entirely unique language and it should be treated as such. All translation projects with Maltese as a target language should be carried out by native speakers.  However proper guidelines for medical words should be introduced without delay as even professional article writers have no guidance when faced with a myriad of technical terms to use and write about. Of late , many drug companies have been translating the package inserts of medicines into maltese language which is a good step but  highlights the problem of lack of guidlines in translating scientific jargon into maltese.


Dr Etienne Grech is a Family Doctor


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