Issues in translating medical eponyms across English and Italian

Translating medical eponyms: a focus on English and Italian

Kienbock disease, loop of Henle, sphincter of Oddi, Volkmann’s canal, Punrkinje fibers. Far from being a play on words or a set of insane medical anagrams, these word combinations are a fascinating feature typical of medical texts known as eponyms. You’ll find that eponyms are named entities historically deriving from a proper noun, more often than not coinciding with the scientific discovery of a specific clinical sign, medical condition, device or procedure. If you’re familiar with medical texts you will know that eponyms are used to celebrate the substantial contribution given by such discoverers, which while honourable in itself, may at times prove a complicated business in translation.

For the time being, let’s concentrate on translating English and Italian scientific texts. Eponyms are broadly used to define:
• anatomical parts of the body such as ‘tube di Falloppio’ (‘Fallopian tubes’) and ‘tromba di Eustachio’ (‘Eustachian tube’ also known as ‘auditory tube’)
• medical disorders such as ‘linfoma di Hodgkin’ (‘Hodgkin’s lymphoma’)
• syndromes such as ‘sindrome di Down’ (‘Down’s syndrome’)
• medical techniques such as ‘manovra di Heimlich’ (‘Heimlich’s manoeuvre’)
• anatomical discoveries such as ‘poligono di Willis’ (‘loop/circle of Willis’).

At times, you might come across double-barrelled names such as ‘reazione di Jarisch-Herxheimer’ (‘Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction’) when a discovery is produced in a joint effort by two or more scientists. Regrettably, not all inventors have been given their due eponymic credit; besides, you should know that there have been plenty of eponyms wrongly preserved as valid over the years simply due to a mistake in their initial formulation.

Whereas Italian appears to follow a straightforward eponymic line by using the preposition ‘di’ to indicate possession or reference, English eponyms will confuse you especially if fluctuating between possessive and non-possessive forms. For instance, ‘Sindrome di Asperger’ is known as ‘Asperger Syndrome’ in English but also as ‘Asperger disorder’ or even by the name of ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ which employs the saxon genitive. Occasionally you may encounter possession relayed via the ‘of’ preposition as in the ‘Crypts of Lieberkün’, converted to ‘Cripte di Lieberkün’ in Italian. Which is the most accurate rendering? Should one select any given option based on the highest number of Google hits? Although for the sake of simplicity the non-possessive form should be used on a universal scale, I still find myself somewhat bemused by such a range of available variations. Every so often you may observe that eponyms appear in a different form, where possession is not immediately obvious, as in the case of ‘E coli’ referring to a common type of bacteria generating a variety of infections and translated into Italian as ‘Escherichia Coli’. This eponym derives from the German discoverer of this organism, Theodor Escherisch. In other instances, acronyms may be more apt as in the case of ‘malattia di von Willebrand’ (‘von Willebrand’s disease’), which you may find is usually shortened to VWD in English.

Eponyms are also misleading in translation, as they are not necessarily eponymic in another language. A suitable example is given by ‘Broadbent apoplexy’ which is disconcertingly transposed to ‘inondazione ventricolare’ in Italian. Ambiguity is just round the corner when faced by eponyms such as ‘Malattia di Paget del capezzolo’ (‘Paget’s disease of the breast’) which for some reason is entirely unrelated to ‘Malattia ossea di Paget’ (‘Paget’s disease of bone’). And then of course we have the truly baffling cases. For some reason ‘Grave’s disease’ presents an array of solutions in Italian, ranging from the double-barrelled eponyms ‘Malattia di Basedow-Graves’, ‘Morbo di Basedow-Graves’ and ‘Malattia di Flaiani-Basedow’ to a different eponym altogether ‘Malattia di Parry’ and to the non-eponymic rendering ‘gozzo tossico diffuso’. And one of my favourites, ‘Sindrome di Bloch-Sulzberger’ also known by its Latinate ‘Incontinentia pigmenti’ is endowed with an extraordinary assortment of English and Latin denominations: ‘Bloch-Siemens syndrome’, ‘Bloch-Sulzberger disease’, ‘Bloch-Sulzberger syndrome’, ‘melanoblastosis cutis’ and last but not least ‘naevus pigmentosus systematicus’. Most of the eponyms above and many more may be viewed in this enlightening article .

Another problematic aspect is the uncertain duration and validity of eponyms. A number of these may become obsolete in time such as ‘segno/polso di Corrigan’ (‘Corrigan’s pulse’) in that replaced by other more advanced scientific alternatives. I have also discovered that eponyms are the topic of much debate, in that a number of purists would gladly do without them in favour of a more descriptive, impersonal nomenclature. Apparently a number of eponyms also derives from nazi scientists involved in the horrors of concentration camps whose scientific discoveries are connected to atrocious experiments, which is why there have been and still are several attempts to eliminate and replace any eponyms viewed as insulting for humanity. Feel free to consult a number of blog posts offering further info on the topic such as: , and a truly eye-opening article available at

Lastly, eponyms are problematic in translation due the often inadequate transfer of specific meaning and content, but it is worth becoming acquainted with such terms and their historical background due to their worldwide dissemination. After all, over 7000 eponyms are currently employed in the field of medicine, as indicated in three extremely comprehensive glossaries available online: , and . Besides, eponyms do succeed in bringing a hint of humanity to the world of science!

Copyright shared by and the author, 1999-2006. All rights reserved. -
Translating medical eponyms
Author: Valerie Scaletta
Italian to English translator
Platinum since Sep 14, 2011 
By Valerie Scaletta
Published on 09/21/2015
Sign in to your account...

Your current localization setting


Select a language

All of
  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search