Medical Translation Looking to the Past to Solve Today’s Problems

How Translating Old Texts Benefits the Modern Medical Industry

Medical Translation Looking to the Past to Solve Today’s ProblemsMedieval medicine has a bad reputation in most circles (leeches, anyone?). But perhaps it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere believe the medical translation of medieval, or even older texts (written in Latin,  Middle English, ancient Chinese and other languages) might hold to key to how we should deal with some of the medical ailments of modern times. And this is a field of inquiry pharmaceutical translation services — and professionals interested in the translation of healthcare concepts from the past (to benefit the future) — ought to pay some attention to.

Digging into Medieval Medicine

Erin Connelly, the CLIR-Mellon Fellow for Data Curation in Medieval Studies at University of Pennsylvania, writing in The Conversation (also reprinted in Scientific American), explains how medieval medical knowledge, brought to light through rigorous medical translation, can help find new antibiotics and other medicines that can be used in the modern world.

Connelly and her fellow researchers have been looking for alternative routes to finding “recipes” for new antibiotics (typically a slow and arduous process) to help save lives. And here is where the medical translation of texts from the past, perhaps dismissed because of when they were written, can be mined for valuable medical knowledge that might be relevant today.

By looking to the past, for example at Bald’s Leechbook (from the 10th century), and figuring out the details of specific recipes contained within, like “Bald’s eyesalve,” the collaborative team has possibly found a recipe that can kill the bacterium causing Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and dangerous Staph infections. Connelly is clearly excited about the potential of how the translation of healthcare knowhow from centuries — or even millennia past — can benefit the 21st century.

Ancient Medical Knowledge Put to the Test

Another example of this is the translation of the Latin manuscript Lilium Medicinae into a Middle English version called the Lylye of Medicynes, with well over 300 medical recipes inside. While many of the recipes might not cure or lessen the symptoms of modern ailments, some actually might.

By acting as a professional translation service of a sort, and comparing the translated text (Middle English) of Lylye of Medicynes with various versions of the original Latin text, and then updating the lexicon and grammar into modern English, Connelly has created a valuable and detailed medical translation resource for the medical world to consult when searching for ways to combat brutal infections.

Leeches for bloodletting, and maggots used to clean wounds and block infections, were once a big deal during the Middle Ages. And now they both seem to be making a comeback. Studies show how maggots do an excellent job of clearing away dead tissue from surgical incisions (doing a better job than most doctors, in fact), and how certain secretions from maggots (yes, we know this isn’t appealing) accelerate the human body’s healing process. Leeches, that old medieval standby, are being used in modern times as blood thinners, and to aid in the healing of skin grafts.

It seems that while anyone working for pharmaceutical translation services will undoubtedly spend much of their time working on modern medical innovations and medical technologies, it’s also important for researches and others involved with medical translation to dig into resources from the past as well. Who knows what valuable medical information might be found there?


Medical TranslationRead our whitepaper 5 Case Studies in Medical Translations, a 10 minute read that will help you understand some of the challenges involved! You can also register to attend the 15 minute free healthcare Translation webinar.

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