“ON/OFF period” in the context of Parkinson’s disease: translating medical terms for a questionnaire intended for patients.

I would like to discuss the problem of translating medical terms for questionnaires intended for patients. I will use the Russian translation of the term “ON/OFF” in the context of Parkinson’s disease as an example. As is the case with many other countries where medical research was done in relative isolation from the international medical community during the Soviet era, in Russia many terms have not been standardized yet. So, one difficulty that Russian translators face is choosing which term is “the most standard.” Another problem is ensuring that our chosen translations are easily understood by patients. (Of course, the same difficulties may arise even in countries that have always been integrated into the international medical community).

Here is the problem:

1. Some medical texts keep the original English phrase ON/OFF; the obvious disadvantage is that patients won’t understand it.

2. ON/OFF is sometimes translated as “период включения/выключения,” which can be back-translated (somewhat awkwardly) as “period of the switch being on/off.” I think the Russian translation of this commonly used term misses the point. Clearly, the primary meaning of the English term is “period when the patient is ON medication/OFF medication.” However, because the effect of medication is such that the patient becomes active and agile during the ON period and passive and immobile during the OFF period, the term acquires a second meaning in English, as if it were a pun. This double meaning is lost in the Russian translation. (I saw the same translation used in another language, French: allumé).

3. It also possible to use a descriptive construction: “период, когда лекарство действует/не действует,” which can be back-translated as “period when the medication has an effect/does not have an effect.” I like this translation because it is foolproof: the meaning is correct, and it is easy for patients to understand.

Which is the best solution? How would you translate this term into your language? How do we decide?


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