Saturday, June 1, 2013

Translating the names of chemical compounds and compound classes

Chemists are typically not trained as translators. The latter, on the other hand, often do not have a background in chemistry and materials science. The translation of chemical compound and class names can easily turn into a non-trivial task.

In some cases translation is a simple matter of dictionary knowledge and look-up. For example, the names of the so-called “standard amino acids, ” a set of  α-amino acids, display overall name consistency across languages (one-word names with the exceptions of aspartic acid and glutamic acid [1]): for a given molecular structure the linguistic root of an amino acid name is recognizable—language-specific names are just spelled differently based on language character. As “trivial names ” they have not been derived by employment of a nomenclature scheme.

Generally, for complex chemical structures and nanoscale architectures, it can be a challenge to correctly translate a chemical compound name or chemical class name, which commonly is constructed from prefixes, suffixes, locants and (sub)structure (functional group) names. Bernardo Herold emphasizes a basic two-step approach, to which one should adhere, when translating a chemical term from English into a target language (or vice versa) [2]:
  1. Establish the required rules of nomenclature in the target language.
  2. Translate a name based on the vocabulary and rules of the target language.
Language-specific spelling is the main reason why composed chemical names cannot always be translated successively name-part by name-part. In particular, the spelling of the names of certain chemical groups varies between languages, giving rise to different alphabetical ordering—for example, phenyl in English and German becomes phényle in French, fenyl in Dutch and fenil in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Herold demonstrates how the English-language name 3-methyl-5-phenylpyridine is correctly translated—according to IUPAC rules—into the Romanic-language name 3-fenil-5-metilpiridina [2].

In addition to language-adjusted nomenclature application, the understanding of the language-specific grammar is important. It determines features such as word order and word concatenation: potassium bromide in English is Kaliumbromid (one word) in German and  bromuro de potasio  (change of word order and insertion of preposition) in Spanish.  

Chemical nomenclature books are available in several languages [3].

Keywords: multilingual collaboration, linguistics, chemical terminology, IUPAC naming, disambiguation.

References and more to explore
[1] Latintos: Amino acids in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish [].
[2] Bernardo Herold: Why Translate Nomenclature? Chemistry International May-June 2013, 35 (3), pp. 12-15 [].
[3] International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry - Nomenclature Books:

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