Latin has been given the stigma of a dead language, often viewed as having about as many useful modern applications as Sumerian writing systems or Egyptian hieroglyphics. However, upon closer examination, this could not be further from the truth.
Given, you probably won’t hear it being spoken on the street or see graffiti being written with it, Latin still contributes a lot to our modern society. Aside from what is already common knowledge, such as its influence on many modern languages, as well as its continued use as a liturgical language, Latin still plays a major role in one of the most vital aspects of the modern world: life sciences and pharmacy, in particular.
Considering that the pharmaceutical industry had a global revenue of over $1 trillion in 2015 and is estimated to grow by another $400 billion in the next 5 years, it definitely qualifies as a massive global industry. And with the great number and variety of drugs produced for a seemingly endless number of physical ailments, the industry affects an overwhelming majority of the global population. Logically, it does not seem to make sense that a language – which has not been spoken for well over a millennium and has not been written for several hundred years – should be used for this purpose, especially when English has become the modern lingua franca, but there is actually a good reason for this.
It was at the time of the Renaissance, that the era of medical Latin began. The introduction of the printing press in 1440s came at a time when Greek was no longer widely understood and thus the first major medical works to appear in print, those of the Greek physicians and philosophers Celsus and Galen, were written into Latin. And during the subsequent centuries almost all important medical works were published in Latin.
As the Age of Enlightenment took hold and the late 18th century witnessed Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, medicine had finally become technical and modern. Though scientific advancement was rapid, the possibility of any progress being derailed was always present due to the lack of an effective way to communicate across languages. For example, if a German researcher could not understand previous studies in French and Spanish, it would likely significantly delay any work until the data could be translated. Instead of inefficiently having to manually translate every piece of data into multiple languages, the logical solution was to embrace the common written language that had been abandoned only a couple hundred years earlier, which also happened to be the primary language of virtually all earlier scientific research – even the scientific names for the individual species of all plants and animals.
In the following century, national languages started gaining ground at the expense of Latin. The 1812 edition of Robert Hooper’s The Physician’s Vade-Mecum: Containing the Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Prognosis, and Treatment of Diseases was among the first to provide patients with understanding what physicians actually prescribe them. As the work contained translations of Latin prescriptions, and an alphabetical list of all medicines in use, with their names in both Latin and English.
In medical practice, Latin has been best preserved in anatomical studies (it was only in the 1998 when the international standard on human anatomic terminology was replaced by Terminologia Anatomica where the primary Latin terms are associated with their English equivalents), in the diagnoses of case histories and medical reports and in the so called “doctor’s Latin” or hospital slang.
And while aside from the actual directions for the patient, European prescriptions are still written in abbreviations based on Latin, medical English, medical French and medical German are gradually replacing Latin as a vehicle for international communication in the field of life sciences.
And to answer the actual needs of the pharma industry, international translation company EVS Translation, working successfully alongside global pharmaceutical companies for 25 years, provides one-source globalisation and translation management solutions into more than 50 languages.
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