Friday Five – Medical Spanish terms you’d never guess

I’ve been interviewing for a medical interpreter position at a hospital, and so far so good. Vamos a ver. I got some good medical interpreting experience under my belt a few years back when I worked at a clinic for refugees and immigrants, but I was worried that I might be a little rusty. Not to fear–reviewing medical terms this past week was a huge confidence boost for my Spanish as it was very difficult for me to find words I didn’t know/couldn’t translate. Of course, you never know the full extent of what you don’t know, but I’ve nonetheless been giving my Spanish little high fives all week. It’s pretty astounding to think of the sheer amount of words I picked up passively just living in Colombia. I wasn’t even that social! I was a word hound, though, no doubt about it, and that’s why my vocabulary is so broad. I guess I’ll aim for more depth over breadth in this next stretch of the fluency race.

One factor that really helps with medical terminology in Spanish is that there is such an incredible number of cognates. You should never simply guess, of course, but if you were pinned against a wall and absolutely forced to give your best stab at the translation for “cardiomyopathy,” might you venture cardiomiopatía? See what I mean? What about “hemorrhoids”? Hemorroides? Very nice. All right, “pyloric stenosis.” Estenosis pilórica? OK, hold it right there, you little whippersnapper. This is my blog, and I don’t appreciate your cutesy antics cutting into my face time.

There are, sin exagerar, zillions of perfect cognates, but there’s also a fair amount that don’t sound or look anything like their English counterpart. I knew most of them, but there were a few from left field that I never would have come up with even if I’d stood there guessing for a year. And had a patient said any of these words to me, I would have stood there helpless, not understanding ni jota, ni forro, ni papa, (and with a tip of the hat to yesterday’s theme) ni mu. And then they would have been up a creek as well. Would you have a clue?

1.  Know how to say jaundice? Neither did I. It’s ictericia

2. What about ENT? Otorrinolaringólogo. Also shortened to otorrino, gracias a Dios.

3. Could you explain a spleen in Spanish? It’s el bazo. 

4. What exactly is la boca del estómago? Our stomachs have mouths? Not quite. Colloquially, that would be the pit of the stomach; in medical contexts, more like the top of your stomach where it connects to the esophagus.

5. Colloquial options for heartburn (acidez)? Agriera, agruras, and vinagrera.

How’d you do? Have you ever done any interpreting? Have you had any lucky guesses on words you weren’t sure about? How about horrible flops? Hopefully it wasn’t a life or death situation!

_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with these words? Had you heard them before? How have you heard them used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? 


16 responses to “Friday Five – Medical Spanish terms you’d never guess

  1. How about “constipacio’n/constipation”? :D Ain’t that a really cute pair of medical false congates?

    I had classes in interpreting so I obviously had some practice there, but it doesn’t exactly count, does it? In one of my past jobs there was this company whose software and hardware we were supossed to fix. Their boss was Dutch and he insisted that technical check-ups be made only by a person with some skills in English. At one point the guy who had routinely done the check-ups suffered grave injuries and could no longer work for us. That was when I, very close to computer-illiterate, found myself accompanying one of our service staff during the check-ups. This of course involved having to interpret lots of conversations, and it wasn’t always pleasant… The funny, and kinda ironic thing was that the company that we visited was working in the field of… translation and interpreting :D


    • Good one. Right, it should be estreñimiento. But… constipación is used for constipation in some places thanks to the influence of English, I assume.

      Nice story. You’re computer illiterate? I wouldn’t have guessed!


  2. I guess my computer-related knowledge keeps improving all the time, but I still wish I felt more comfortable around computers.


  3. I’m currently involved in a program to provide training in medical interpreting. I’m interested in your experience. Is the test solely on terminology?


    • It’s not. I’ve only had a phone interview so far, and of course I hope that they will request an in person interview. According to a friend who used to work for the hospital, she had to submit to a ten minute interpreting test on the phone. Of course, certifications, conferences, workshops, and experience are also important. We’ll see what happens.

      Are you an interpreter? French-English? Ah, now I understand what you meant by “professional interrupter.” :)

      It’s a field that really fascinates me and that I would like to enter. I’m only in the beginning steps, though, of gathering information on how one prepares for a long-term interpreting career. I would love to hear more about your background and experience.


  4. En Argentina es muchísimo más común “constipación”. “Estreñimiento” no se usa para nada. Creo que en los demás países “estreñimiento” es más usado.



    • Gracias! Sí, me parece que estreñimiento se dice cada vez menos. Entonces, ustedes no hablan de tener la nariz constipada?


      • ¿Cuando estás refriado, por ejemplo?
        No, la única forma que conocía (y que se usa acá) es “tener la nariz tapada” (muy informal).

        Si vas al doctor podés aspirar a un vocabulario más neutral y decirle “estoy muy congestionado”. También “tengo la nariz congestionada” :)


        • Gracias. Sí, conocía lo de tapada y congestionada. También en ciertas partes se dice tupida. Suena horrible! Para mí, tupido es como cejas tupidas, no una nariz. Pero bueno, entiendo la idea.

          Catarro o resfrío? En Colombia, ninguna de las dos. Dicen que tienen GRIPA para todo!


          • Acá se dice “gripe” cuando es algo más grave que un simple resfrío. “Catarro” se usa cuando tenés tos. “Resfrío” cuando estás “refriado”, valga la redundancia :)


  5. Francisco, his brother and I have several good laughs as I’ve tried to pronounce “otorrinolaringólogo.” I’ve actually become quite good at it ; )


  6. Good to know that if I ever end up gravely ill and stuck in a Spanish-speaking hospital, I can count on those cognates. As long as it’s not jaundice…


  7. Hmmm, well, learning Spanish has helped me with the high-scoring scrabble words in English. For example, I don’t think I knew the term Orthorrhinolaryngologist in English until I learned it in Spanish and now it just makes sense Ortho–Rhino–Laryn(x)…Medical, Legal, etc. Knowing Spanish just helps get the big Latin and Greek words.


    • Really? What Scrabble words have you been able to form? I’m a huge Scrabble lover! Have you ever played in Spanish? I did once, and it was a hoot. Very tricky, but also fun because you could build off verbs more easily. One sequence of plays I remember was BLOG – BLOGUEA – BLOGUEARÁ. Pretty nifty :)


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