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A Review of the 2016 Medical English Seminar - by Stephen Schwanbeck

“Is it really going to be worth it?” must be a question on the minds of most participants when deciding whether to attend a conference. All the more so if the conference lasts five days and entails travel across time zones.

I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of the participants of the 11th edition of the Medical English Seminar (SAM) would answer the aforementioned question with a definite “Yes.”

This was my third time at SAM, after attending as both a participant and co-organizer in 2012 and 2014. Full disclosure: I coordinated the SAM 2016 organizing committee. My apologies if I seem a little biased.

The SAM Medical English Seminar

For those of you who are unfamiliar with SAM, it is organized every two years by the Société francaise des traducteurs (SFT) at its traditional venue of the Médiathèque Paul Zech at the Faculté de Médecine in Lyon, France.

Why Lyon? Well, the city and medicine share a long history. Rabelais practiced medicine at Lyon’s historic Hôtel-Dieu and published several medical works, including his best-known work Gargantua and Pantagruel, while living in Lyon. French veterinary surgeon Claude Bourgelat, was born in Lyon and founded the first veterinary college here in 1761. The P4 Jean Mérieux laboratory in Lyon is the only civilian P4 laboratory in France. The world’s first hand transplant was carried out in Lyon, and many pharma and biotech companies are either based in Lyon or have operations in Lyon.

But, back to the seminar. SAM is the go-to event for professional French/English medical translators and interpreters of all levels, whether beginners or seasoned pros. For five days once every two years, attendees—or SAMistes, as they’re called by us organizers—participate in sessions presented by renowned medical and scientific specialists, test their translation skills against those of their peers during translation workshops, and network with colleagues from around the world.
With five full days of presentations, terminology sessions and group work, the seminar is rather intensive. But it’s not all work and no play, as you will soon see.

Expert Guest Speakers

This year’s edition took place from March 14 to 18, was attended by 49 participants, and featured presentations—called “medical modules”—by 10 guest speakers:

  • Dr. Bernard Croisile (Head of Neuropsychology, Hôpital Neurologique de Lyon): Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dr. Thomas Bachelot (Head of Oncology, Hematology and Genetics, Centre Léon Bérard): Hormone therapy
  • Ms. Sylvie Chabaud (Head of the Statistics Unit at Centre Léon Bérard): Statistical aspects of clinical trials
  • Ms. Pippa Sandford (Full-time freelance medical and pharmaceutical translator): Cross-cultural differences and pitfalls in medical translation
  • Dr. Pierre Meeus (Surgical Oncology – Gastrointestinal Cancer, Centre Léon Bérard): Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST)
  • Ms. Amy Whereat (CEO of Speak the Speech Consulting): Medical writing: Cosmetic Dermatology
  • Dr. Katarzyna Szymańska (CEO of Science to the Point): Medical Writing: Cancer
  • Pr. Bruno Lina (Head of the Virology Laboratory, Hospices Civils de Lyon): Genesis, Spread and Surveillance of Pandemic and Prepandemic Influenza Viruses
  • Dr. David Cox (Researcher at Inserm): Breast Cancer: Molecular Epidemiology
  • Mr. François Maniez (Director of the Centre de Recherche en Terminologie et Traduction): Uses of corpora and search engines in translation research.

Each presentation dealt with a specific aspect in the speaker’s field and was followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Four of the 10 presentations were given in English (Sandford, Whereat, Szymańska, Cox). More than one speaker was impressed by the quality and relevance of the questions asked.

With the exception of Pippa Sandford’s module, the presentations were the focus of terminology sessions prepared by Nathalie Renevier, SFT’s specialist in medical translation and terminology. During these sessions, Nathalie demonstrated her knowledge of the etymology and definitions of the various terms used in each module and pointed out terms to be avoided. Dr. Croisile stayed on after his presentation to co-moderate Nathalie’s terminology session, providing expert input in the process.

Getting Down to Work

On the afternoon of the first day of the seminar, the participants divided themselves into different groups to work on translating excerpts of medical texts dealing with cancer, premenstrual acne flares, Alzheimer’s disease, the digestive system, the H5N1 influenza virus, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
The registered SAMistes had received the excerpts beforehand and completed an online survey to indicate which texts they were most interested in.

On the following days, each group in turn presented its chosen translation before the rest of the audience during sessions facilitated by either a guest speaker, or Nathalie Renevier, or Marie-Pierre Gérard, a medical and pharmaceutical translator with over 13 years of experience.

During these sessions the translators were challenged in a constructive way by the facilitators to explain their style and terminology choices. A few groups got bogged down with details, but aren't we all looking for just that right, elusive word?

Networking and Socializing Opportunities

The participants at SAM 2016 had many opportunities to reconnect with colleagues or make new friends.

For the first time at SAM, a cocktail was organized the evening before the start of the seminar. More than 25 participants relaxed and chatted over drinks and hors d'oeuvres in a lounge on Lyon’s historic Presqu’ile. They also received a folder of materials that included a slick spiral-bound booklet containing important information about the seminar, a “facebook” of the participants with their contact details, and the texts to be worked on in groups.

The SAMistes also had the chance to network and talk with the guest speakers during the half-hour morning and afternoon coffee breaks. For lunch, many chose to enjoy the pleasant weather and eat al fresco at the picnic tables near the media center.

A welcome dinner is held during each edition of SAM. This year, it was held at Restaurant Vatel, a hospitality school famous for its excellent cuisine and not-yet-jaded serving staff. The food was indeed excellent and the service was first class. Unfortunately, we had to vacate the premises at 11:00 pm so that the students wouldn’t be sleepy during class the following day.

A highlight of the week was the nighttime tour of historic Vieux-Lyon, the largest Medieval and Renaissance district of the city. The guide—who was very entertaining and full of fascinating facts—took 30-odd visitors on a discovery of Vieux-Lyon’s history and its famous cobblestone streets, courtyards and traboules—passageways that allow you to enter on one street, cross through one or more buildings, and exit into a different street.

Lastly, the organizing committee provided, for the first time at SAM, a table on which participants could display examples of their translations as well their business cards.

Awareness Campaigns

The organizing committee took advantage of SAM 2016 to expand awareness on three very important issues: bone marrow donation, the Semaine du Cerveau, and the increasing prevalence of stroke. They distributed pamphlets and answered questions from the participants.

Translation Slam

The organizing committee wrapped up the last day of SAM 2016 with two translation slams—one from English into French and one from French into English with each consisting of a team of two “rival” translators. The slammers had prepared their translations beforehand and the SAMistes had received copies as well. The translations were projected side by side on a screen and the slammers commented on them as they appeared.

The choice of texts was a little unusual for a medical seminar. Instead of tackling “hard” medical science, they were satirical articles taken from The Onion (“Doctors Say Average Heart Attack Victim Doesn’t Clutch at Chest Nearly Dramatically Enough”) and the website Désinformations (“La téléphonie mobile, nouveau vecteur de la démocratisation du cancer”).

What at first might have seemed a gamble turned out to be a huge success, with both the audience and the translators chuckling with each new slide. Naturally, the two sets of translations were different, but that was the aim of the exercise—there’s never “one right answer.”

So, Was SAM 2016 Worth It?

My answer to this question is “Yes.” But remember: I helped to organize it. In any event, between the level of expertise of the speakers and the quality of the ancillary activities, the organizing committee set a high bar for future editions of SAM.

Stephen Schwanbeck,
SAM 2016 Coordinator

Co-members of the SAM 2016 Organizing Committee:
Audrey Bernard-Petitjean
Emmanuelle Darut
Catherine Fournier
Iris Heres
Évelyne Santana