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Friday, Oct. 27, 2000


Translation insights from biomedical research


Recently, a long translation I was working on about the pharmaceutical industry provided me with hints about a possible approach toward understanding the human translation process better.

Basically, as I read through and translated the Japanese text about some of the cutting-edge research now being conducted in the search to discover new drugs, I sensed a door of understanding being opened, even if only slightly, that let me peek inside.

What was it I saw? Well, and I don't know how to word it any other way, I saw biomedical researchers, men and women, working at the atomic level to pinpoint the molecules involved in specific disease processes. This "molecular" approach is evidently not new to researchers. Although I don't know how long the search has continued to develop new drugs by studying the actions and interactions of molecules, it's probably been at least 20 years. From what I've read, it seems that current research has refined the original molecular approach.

Anyway, try to picture these men and women working in research laboratories, much as you and I work in our offices and at home. But instead of writing, translating, editing or checking, they are trying to determine at atomic resolutions the three-dimensional structure of target molecules involved in a disease process. Although it's not the main reason for adopting that approach, no animals are needed for experiments at that level.

The researchers are interested in mechanisms, and they experiment with enzymes and cellular receptors as they look for chemicals capable of modifying the activity of molecules. The chemicals are tested in animals, as all drugs are in order to verify their safety and therapeutic efficacy prior to human testing, only after chemists enhance their potency and specificity.

There's a drug, for instance, that lowers cholesterol in cells by inhibiting the activity of an enzyme required for synthesizing cholesterol. That drop in the cholesterol level inside a cell causes the cell to take up cholesterol from the blood, thereby lowering the blood cholesterol level. The design of such "indirect gene therapy" requires intimate knowledge of the normal regulatory pathways of human cells.

We already know about genetic engineering, called "recombinant DNA technology." In this technology, scientists transfer genes from one organism to alter another organism's characteristics in some beneficial (to humans) way. Applications include, for example, the creation of transgenic farm animals and crop plants. The transgenic animals may produce milk with therapeutic proteins in it; the crop plants may be made disease- or pest-resistant.

Human beings, like animals and crop plants, also have versions of genes that render them disease-susceptible. But because they are human, experiments cannot be carried out Frankenstein-fashion, and progress is much slower. The aim nonetheless is to modify the environments affecting people with such genes, removing the external factors and thus preventing the disease.

But, scientists agree, this approach requires a high-resolution map of the human genome, i.e., all the human genes in a single set of chromosomes, in order to identify molecules involved in disease processes.

So while researchers today are mainly seeking to discover drugs or to synthesize chemicals that will eventually allow the curing rather than merely the treatment of chronic diseases, they are touching on the most basic building blocks of the human body, of human life. Very tricky.

But just as technology originally developed for, say, space exploration, eventually trickled down to positively affect our daily lives in ways not originally intended, so also do the results of current biomedical research contain the potential for application in other areas, including the study of translation.

"Receptors," such as those in the experiments mentioned above, are cells specialized to detect a particular stimulus and then to initiate the transmission of impulses via the sensory nerves. The eyes and ears, for example, contain specific receptors that respond to external stimuli. For a translator, the eyes "see" Chinese characters in a Japanese-language manuscript; for an interpreter, the ears "hear" Japanese words spoken by a medical doctor.

A neurotransmitter, on the other hand, is a chemical that mediates the transmission of an impulse from the receptor of one nerve cell (neuron) to another. As soon as scientists start talking about receptors, therefore, or the transmission of impulses inside the body, they move into the area of human communication. How the body transmits to the brain information it receives from the external environment, and how the brain then processes that information, are key issues in the study of translation.

That understanding won't come immediately, but I'm sure it's worth the effort.

T.I. Elliott is a freelance translator. He has been writing this column in the Japan Times about translation and language subjects since September 1991. His e-mail address is tellio@mozcom.com

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