Biotechnology and Translation

By Karl Kaussen

If you are a translator of medical and pharmaceutical texts, or even if you have never translated a medical text before, it’s never too late to learn about the remarkable new developments in biotechnology and how they might affect your life and occupation. This article introduces some of the concepts and special terminology commonly used in the field.

Recent spectacular discoveries in biotechnology have placed the field at the center of pharmaceutical research, and the structural and functional analysis of the human genome promises to trigger new advances in the fight against disease and illness. This new technology is one of the most important fields of innovation in the 21st century, and its growth potential is enormous. With companies worldwide scrambling to get a slice of the pie, it’s probable that there will be much work for language specialists who can translate not only research papers and reports but also study protocols, informed consent forms, patents, and legal documents in connection with new drugs and medical procedures.

Political biology

Biotechnology is a cross-sectional field, in which not only biologists, chemists, and engineers are involved, but also lawyers, business managers, and financial experts. Translators who want to offer their services to any of these professionals need to familiarize themselves with the jargon of the specific groups of specialists. They will need to be able to facilitate communication between these experts in different languages, and they must also be able to translate their respective voices into a quotidian register that lay people who are not experts in those fields can understand.

This is especially true as the political landscape in biotechnology is changing as well, with the topic of stem cells in the national dialogue as never before. Despite what seems to many to be a too-slow pace by the federal government, the State of California is forging ahead with ambitious research plans, based on voters’ approval in 2004 of a bond proposal that paves the way for a $3 billion, 10-year project to study embryonic stem cells under the auspices of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. (Note: funding for the program is currently being held up pending the resolution of two lawsuits.)

Scientists believe that understanding how these cells develop will allow medical researchers to one day correct the “errors” that cause serious medical conditions such as cancer and birth defects. Additionally, stem cells can be used to make cells and tissues for medical therapies to treat diseases such as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burn, and many others, because the cells can morph into virtually any type of tissue or cell.

Biotech 101

Biotechnology is based on the increasing knowledge of mechanisms that keep organisms alive and facilitate procreation. At the center of it all is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a long, double-helix molecule that carries genetic information. The genetic prerequisites of an organism (genotype) determine its physical characteristics (phenotype).

A human being’s genetic blueprint—its genome—consists of multiple DNA strands with an overall length of approximately 1.6 m but which are only about 2 millionths of a meter thick. Every single cell in our body contains this blueprint in the form of 46 parts of a defined length, known as chromosomes. Human chromosomes consist of approximately 3 billion building blocks that are also called bases. There are four types of bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). The sequence in which these are arranged in the DNA strand determines the biochemistry of the cells and the physiology of the organisms.

Although DNA is an efficient source of information, it is relatively inactive. Most activities within a cell involve proteins—large molecules that evolve through the sequencing of many small building blocks, the amino acids. Biochemists express the relationship between DNA and proteins as follows: DNA turns into ribonucleic acid (RNA) and finally into protein. RNA is similar to DNA in its structure except that RNA contains the base uracil (U) instead of thymine, and it usually occurs as a single strand, whereas DNA always occurs as a double helix.

Translating the code

The decoding of the DNA codes for the development of protein begins in the cell nucleus with a process called transcription. In this process, an RNA copy is created from a section of DNA (gene) that contains the blueprint for the desired protein. As soon as a certain amount of the copy, or messenger RNA (mRNA), has been produced, the “protein manufacturing plants” or ribosomes, convert it into proteins. This process is called, appropriately enough for us, translation. The ribosome always reads a sequence of three bases of the mRNA, called a codon, at once. The codon determines which respective amino acid is going to be added to the growing protein chain. Certain codons define the beginning or the end of the protein. A single mRNS strand is read sequentially off several ribosomes so that a single gene turns into many protein molecules.

The decoding of the DNA codes for the development of protein begins in the cell nucleus with a process called transcription. In this process, an RNA copy is created from a section of DNA (gene) that contains the blueprint for the desired protein. As soon as a certain amount of the copy, or messenger RNA (mRNA), has been produced, the “protein manufacturing plants” or ribosomes, convert it into proteins. This process is called, appropriately enough for us, translation. The ribosome always reads a sequence of three bases of the mRNA, called a codon, at once. The codon determines which respective amino acid is going to be added to the growing protein chain. Certain codons define the beginning or the end of the protein. A single mRNS strand is read sequentially off several ribosomes so that a single gene turns into many protein molecules.

Humans have long been able to use living organisms in breweries, bakeries, and dairies, and microbes that are used today in the development of antibiotics resulted from the mutation of those earlier organisms. Biotechnology creates so much excitement today because scientists are now able to influence basic biological processes and cause organisms to produce certain proteins in larger quantities or change their form with the help of recombinant techniques. By inserting DNA fragments into unrelated organisms, scientists can cross the boundaries between different species. Thus, human genes that have been transferred into yeasts and bacteria are used in making valuable new medicines.

The development of new drugs is a lengthy and involved process, and it will probably be some time before we can enjoy the full benefits of new discoveries in biotechnology. But in the meantime, the increased activity and ongoing research in the field of biotechnology will result in the publication of study reports and research papers in many languages, and language specialists—in virtually every possible combination—will be needed to translate them.

crash course

Commonly used biotechnology concepts and terminology

Antisense molecule A molecule that binds specifically to the DNA or RNA strand that contains the genetic information (sense DNA/RNA). This bond inhibits the translation. Antisense molecules are usually chemically related to the DNA or RNA.

Downstream processing Techniques such as centrifugation, filtration, and chromatography that are used to purify products of an enzyme conversion of a microbiological development process.

DNA bases or base pairs The DNA bases consist of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. There are four different DNA bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The sequence in which they are arranged contains the genetic information. One base or one base pair represents one bit in computer language. The two terms are used synonymously.

Enzyme A protein that facilitates or speeds up a biochemical reaction.

Genexpression The conversion of genetic information into the respective proteins with the help of the cellular mechanisms.

Genetherapy A process in which RNA and DNA are used to heal illnesses.

HUGO The Human Genome Organization, an international organization that runs the Human Genome Project.

Immobilization A process in which biomolecules, enzymes, organisms or cells are anchored on surfaces or enclosed in a matrix. This protects sensitive biomaterial and at the same time makes recovery possible.

Monoclonal antibodies Antibodies are part of the body’s immune response, and bind to substances—called antigens—that are alien to the body. In a natural immune reaction the contact with a single antigen causes a mixture of antibodies.

Open Reading Frame (ORF) A part of the DNA that could possibly be considered a gene, but whose capacity to code a protein is undetermined.

PCR The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) facilitates the duplication of minute traces of DNA and thus creates volumes of DNA that can be analytically determined. PCR is often used in criminal investigations in obtaining genetic fingerprints.

Plasmid Small, ring-shaped bacterium chromosome that contains specific characteristics such as antibiotics resistance that can be transferred from one organism to another.

Somatotropine Human growth hormone that is produced with gene technology and is used in children afflicted with dwarfism.

TPA Tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) is a protein that dissolves blood clots and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Transposon A small section of DNA that moves from one chromosome to another or from one place to another on the same chromosome. Genes on a transposon are also called jumping genes. An antibiotic’s resistance to bacteria is often located on such transposons.


A Multilingual Glossary of Biotechnological Terms; H.G.W. Leuenberger, B. Nagel and H. Kölbl, VCH Weinheim, Weinheim (D), 1995, ISBN 3-906390-13-6

Biotechnology from A to Z; W. Bains, Oxford University Press, Oxford (GB), 1993, ISBN 0-19-963334-7

Biotechnology Glossary GB, D, F, I, NL, DK, E, P, GR; EC Commission Translation Services, Elsevier Science Publishers Ltd., London (GB), 1990, ISBN 1-85166-569-2

Genetics for Beginners; S. Jones and B. van Loon, Icon Books, Cambridge (GB), 1993, ISBN 1-874166-12-9

Glossary of Biotechnology Terms; M. Fleschar and K. Nill, Technomic Publishing Corporation Inc., Lancaster Pennsylvania (USA), 1993, ISBN 0-87762-991-9

Monique Rivas: Shedding Light on Translation

By Michael Schubert

Monique Rivas is the CEO of NCTA corporate member LUZ, Inc., a global translation services company with headquarters in San Francisco and a production facility in Buenos Aires. Along with partner Sanford Wright, Monique co-founded the company in 1994, when both individuals saw an opportunity to fill a need that was not being met by the marketplace: namely, providing comprehensive translation support for large-scale projects in the life science industries. “Luz” means “light” in Spanish, and it symbolizes the founders’ desire to create a transparent approach to translation service offerings.

Did you grow up bilingually?
Monique Rivas: I am a third-generation Mexican-American and grew up speaking both Spanish and English. But a foreign language can get quite diluted by the time it makes its way down to the third generation, so I did see a need for advanced language studies. I earned a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College (in Los Angeles, near Pasadena) with a minor in Spanish.

Describe LUZ: type of business, areas of specialization, number of employees …
LUZ translates into about 35 languages—about 80 to 90 percent of our business is from English—with an exclusive focus on life science industries, specifically medical devices, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals. Since most of our clients are affected by the European Union’s regulations, we have seen increased activity in Eastern and Central European languages. These clients must have their materials translated into the new EU languages; this is no longer a voluntary marketing decision but a necessity for compliance with the In-Vitro Diagnostic Directive and Medical Device Directive. Our market is a highly regulated industry.

To handle this, we have 25 full-time employees and work with 1,500 to 2,000 freelance translators, depending on the workload. Our focus of large-scale medical devices can generate quite a bit of volume. Our San Francisco office handles sales, while the Buenos Aires office focuses on production—translation and desktop publishing.

Is there an advantage to being located in the Bay Area?
Yes! Sanford and I considered the Bay Area to be the ideal place for our business, both because of the biotech centers here and for the proximity to leading universities. We do much of our recruiting at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, and the University of California, San Francisco.

Will the new stem cell research center to open in San Francisco be a boon to your business?
That is still to be determined. Research and development industries have less of a need for translations; most of our business is generated from the tried-and-true industries. The stem cell research center could be helpful as a resource or recruiting center, however.

Has it been your experience that most of your clients understand the importance of quality translation and budget accordingly, or do you have to engage in a lot of client education?
Since we provide services to highly regulated industries, our clients inherently buy quality at two levels: the translation work product and, equally important, consistency of internal production/QA.

Which industry-specific software do you use in-house?
For translation memory, we use TRADOS and SDLX. For Web globalization, we use Idiom’s WorldServer. We have also developed an internal translation management system called Aurora, as well as a suite of TM automation tools.

How has the Internet changed the translation business?
The Internet has changed the business in two ways: Linguists have become more technologically savvy, and the Internet has allowed pharmaceutical companies to expand their business, which in turn has expanded ours.

How do you see your business in five years?
We want to be the industry-recognized number-one provider of life science translations and the best place to work in the industry. Every quarter we measure how much closer we are to that goal.

Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication

by Claudia V. Angelelli

Review by Miriam Hebé López-Argüello

Interested in exploring the role of the interpreter in a medical setting, researcher Claudia Angelelli conducted an ethnographic research study in a bilingual Northern California hospital between 1999-2001, shadowing and working with a team of medical interpreters. Her research was recently published in her new book Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication, Cambridge University Press.

Bringing together theories of sociology, social psychology, and linguistic anthropology, the author joins other researchers in challenging the established notion that the interpreter should be invisible, and in asserting that such invisibility, as portrayed in the literature at large and prescribed by professional associations, is a myth. (The citations provided in the referenced fields are particularly extensive, and a great help for researchers).

The concept of visibility that Ms. Angelelli proposes as an alternative to the current model considers interpreters as “ … powerful parties who are capable of altering the outcome of the interaction, for example, by channeling opportunities or facilitating access to information. They are visible co-participants who possess agency.”

To arrive at her conclusions, Ms. Angelelli analyzed typical scenarios of cross-cultural communication mediated by an interpreter. Although the cases she cites offer a good starting point to describe the visible role of the interpreter, she does not address any truly complex scenarios where such visibility might be questionable on ethical grounds (i.e., dilemmas posed by taboos, cultural idiosyncrasies, or other peculiarities within a context exacerbated by extreme pressure). As a medical interpreter myself, I am interested in the question of where one draws this linea question to which Ms. Angelelli offers no insights.

Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication makes a valuable contribution to the task of defining the appropriate role for a medical interpreter, a task that behooves all professional interpreters, professional associations, medical institutions, and the government to undertake. In Ms. Angelelli’s own words: “Addressing the visibility of the interpreter is an ideological imperative for the field. Breaking through the ideology of invisibility becomes a political imperative for all.”