How to Find Chinese Medical Terms

This might not be important if you live outside of China, but for us foreigners in China, it’s often difficult to find technical medical terms or the name of a medicine we want to buy. However, I’ve recently had a little success in this area and thought I’d share the process I went through. Hopefully some of you know a better way and can save me all this trouble in the future.

The Task:

  • I wanted to buy a refill for my Albuterol inhaler.

The Trouble:

  1. Most dictionaries (including my favorite www.xuezhongwen.net) don’t have technical medical terms like “inhaler” or brand names like “Albuterol.” How do I find the Chinese translation?
  2. Even if a dictionaries do have a technical term (like antihistamine) there are often multiple results. Which term do I use?
  3. Even if I know exactly what the Chinese translation for my drug is, they might call it something different in this part of China. Or they might not understand my Chinese. How do I communicate what I need to the pharmacist?

The Solutions

Let’s take the problems one by one.

How do I find the Chinese translation for a medical term or drug?

The first thing to do is find the generic or technical name of the drug. For example I was looking for Albuterol, but is that a name brand or the actual name of the drug? With a little research online I was able to find out that Albuterol is the generic name and there are other brand names. I also found out the World Health Organization recommends calling the drug salbutamol sulfate.

Then I checked my favorite online and paper dictionaries. Of course, none of the names of the drug appeared in any of them.

So, I had to resort to what I call the “Google Method” to find the hanzi translations for the drug. Skip to the bottom of this post for a tutorial on how to use the Google Method.

How do I know which of the Chinese terms to use?

If you are able to find multiple terms for the same drug, just collect all of them. For example I found two equally believable translations for Albuterol:

  1. ā bù shū chún 阿布叔醇
  2. shā dīng àn chún 沙丁胺醇 <– seems to be better

The first seemed to be an attempt at transliterating the sound. The second looked like it might be a translation of the technical name of the drug, salbutamol sulfate. I just took both with me to the pharmacy. Which brings me to the last point.

How do I communicate what I need to the pharmacist?

Hands down, regardless of how good your Chinese is, the best way is just to take the hanzi characters in on a piece of paper and show them to the pharmacist. Technical and medical terms leave little room for error and the pharmacists will understand the hanzi much easier than a verbal rendition or explanation.

As it happened with me, the pharmacist took one look at my paper and said, “Nope, don’t have it.” I then pointed to the second translation (shā dīng àn chún 沙丁胺醇) and she said, “We have that.” It turned out to be Ventolin, one of the name brands for the inhaler with English on the box! I’m glad I brought hanzi translations with me.

Just a warning, if you are trying to find over-the-counter drugs in China, you’ll probably be able to get most things you want without a prescription. But if they look at your paper, you should be prepared to hear them say you need a

  • chǔfāng 处方 = prescription

In that case, you’ll have to get in to see a doctor.

Add it to the Dictionary

If you are successful in finding a medical term or drug name that wasn’t in any of the dictionaries, please, I implore you, make this world a better place and add it to the online dictionary. I’ve added a bunch of terms (including both of the terms I found for Albuterol). Until there’s a really comprehensive online source for English/Chinese medical terms, we’ve got to do it ourselves I think. There’s now even a way to create a user account so you can take credit for all the additions you’ve contributed. On behalf of all the afflicted foreigners in China, I thank you.

The Google Method for Finding Chinese Drug Names

It’s a little bit tricky and there’s some shooting in the dark, but it’s the best I’ve come up with. Here’s what you do:

  1. Go to www.google.com
  2. Click on “Advanced Search
  3. On the 5th line you’ll see “Language Return pages written in” and a little box that says “Any language.” Change that to be “Chinese (Simplified)”. I guess traditional characters would work too. I just always use the simplified ones.
  4. Now, on the first line in the topmost search box type your term (in this case “Albuterol”).
  5. Click “Search

Here’s where it gets tricky. What you’ve done is asked Google to show you any pages that are written mostly in Chinese characters that also contain the English word “Albuterol.” What you’re looking for is a page that has the hanzi characters for Albuterol and then the English definition right afterwards, which might look something like this:

沙丁胺醇(Albuterol)是一种非常有效的肾上腺素类β-激动剂

(this is on the 5th result page at the time of this writing)

If you don’t read hanzi characters, it will be difficult for you to tell the difference between bona fide medical information pages and spam and junk pages. So you might have to try these next steps several times.

  1. Grab that whole string of hanzi and dump it into a translator site that gives you the breakdown of each character, like the one here.
  2. If it feels right, copy the hanzi and pinyin to a text file or Word document for your reference later.

Ok, so how do you know if it “feels right?” Look at the translation of the hanzi above (click here to see it). See how it says:

“shā dīng àn chún 沙丁胺醇 (Albuterol) is one type kind of extremely effective adrenaline.”

That’s good because that is in fact what Albuterol is (you might have to do a little learning about the drugs you’re looking for).

Verify Your Results

  1. Go to regular Google (instead of the one that only returns Chinese pages).
  2. Do a search for your new hanzi (in this case 沙丁胺醇)
  3. Look for any English at all and click on the page that has it.
  4. Run that new page through the translator and see if it checks out.

How do you know if it “checks out?” Have a look at the 3rd link (at the time of this writing) on the search for 沙丁胺醇. It takes you to this page. Notice that the translation of that page reads:

(Title): shā dīng àn chún use drug names

Other names: shū chuǎn líng (relax asthma quick), chuǎn lè níng (asthma happy peaceful)

English names: Salbutamol Albuterol Ventolin

Brilliant! That’s what we want. Ideally you’ll be able to find some medical info site that gives you “Here’s the Chinese and here’s the English.” But you may have to hunt around a little before you find it.

Whew! That was a lot of work, if anyone knows a better way, I’d love to hear about it. But for now the “Google Method” is the best thing I’ve come up with. Can anyone suggest a better way?


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  1. 15 Responses to “How to Find Chinese Medical Terms”

  2. Joel CHINA said:

    Have you checked a local pharmacy? I forget what city you’re in – we’re in Tianjin (not necessarily the brightest star in the Chinese heaven) – but we have a pharmacy beside a local 菜市场 that has a big thick pharmaceutical English-Chinese dictionary for the public to use. English speakers can just look up what they want in English and the clerks can see the Chinese.

    I haven’t had to look up medical stuff yet, but I confess to doing what you described with google searches for all kinds of stuff (usually whenever something’s not on xuezhongwen.net)

    Comment date: Sep 3, 2007

  3. Ingo GERMANY said:

    Wow, even harder than food and non-metric mesaures ;)

    Comment date: Sep 3, 2007

  4. Jim Mahler CHINA said:

    A quicker method is to type the English term you want translated in the Google search box, then add a Chinese character you think will be in the translation (for example, in your case).

    Comment date: Sep 4, 2007

  5. Nicki CHINA said:

    Sometimes the better pharmacies will actually have an English/Chinese medicinal dictionary. You find the generic name of the drug (online usually), look it up in the dictionary, and show it to the pharmacist. (Who will likely say mei you, but then you can copy down the hanzi and try to track it down elsewhere.) This was a good solution for us when we lived in Sanya, which is not a terribly large city, so it might work for anyone who isn’t living in some tiny village.

    Comment date: Sep 4, 2007

  6. Nicki CHINA said:

    Or you might go to a large bookstore and see if they have a copy of a medical dictionary, look up the word, and put the dictionary back on the shelf.

    Comment date: Sep 4, 2007

  7. Albert CHINA said:

    I’ve actually been using http://dict.hjenglish.com/ for a while now and it seems to have a bunch of medical terms. Since there’s no pinyin, the Hover Hanzi Helper thing for Firefox comes in handy.

    Comment date: Oct 20, 2007

  8. Jessica CHINA said:

    I just found this site. It has a lot of medical terminology…not so many medications. But if you’re looking for help in describing your symptoms so that you won’t end up with an unnecessary IV or a bunch of irrelevant prescriptions…this may help.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/129738/Chinese-Medical-Translation-Guide

    Comment date: Dec 17, 2007

  9. Vincent CHINA said:

    Thanks for the info. I was actualy looking for an albuterol inhaler. Trying to find U.S medicine translated to chinese is very difficult. My wife is chinese and still can’t translate it because of no medical knowledge. Thank you for saving me a lot of time.

    Comment date: Sep 26, 2008

  10. Lisa CHINA said:

    Thank you thank you thank you! I spent all day outside yesterday at Chaoyang park and could barely sleep last night due to my asthma. Of course, my inhaler happened to run out in the middle of the night as well. I found this site at 4:30am in the morning and went straight to the pharmacy at 9am. They didn’t recognize the first hanzi, but recognized the second and in less than 5 minutes (and 38RMB later), I’m breathing easy again. I love the internet!

    Comment date: Sep 24, 2009

  11. Albert CHINA said:

    Lisa,

    I’m so glad this helped! I know that feeling so well and I’m delighted this old blog post was of assistance.

    Comment date: Sep 24, 2009

  12. azazel CHINA said:

    The fastest way is to just use Google Language Tools.

    Go to the main Google page. Click on ‘Language Tools’ on the right-hand side of the search box.
    In the ‘Translate text’ box, just enter the English generic drug name and select English>Chines (Simplified) in the dropdown lists below the text box. Results are fairly accurate first time around. If you want to verify the results, copy the Chinese translation and select ‘swap’ to convert it into English.

    Or, you can copy the Chinese chracters and then do a regular search in google. It’s pretty easy to idenitfy the online pharmacy websites (or you can click ‘translate this page’(or you can use Chinese Wikipedia.

    Comment date: Oct 23, 2009

  13. Joel II UNITED STATES said:

    I am not looking for a medication per se, but how to tell others in Mandarin what medical problems my parents have, i.e. Insulin Dependent Diabetes, as well as their allergies. I am hoping I have them correct through the use of this site. Am comfirming with my daughter who is fluent in Mandarin but might not know the medical terms.

    Comment date: Mar 22, 2010

  14. Kaish CHINA said:

    I have got better Medical Chinese Terms With Pinyin at Medical-Chinese.at.ua you can go this site there is serially written all the Medical Chinese Terms with Pinyin. Due to pinyin it is more easy to study the medical chinese terms.

    Comment date: May 23, 2010

  15. c ksim SINGAPORE said:

    This is a good site for translating English to Chinese medical terms. I find it very uesful

    http://www.drdict.com

    Comment date: Jul 20, 2011

  16. clement said:

    What about Wikipedia?

    Google search for “Albuterol wikipedia” -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salbutamol
    Click on 中文 -> http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%B2%99%E4%B8%81%E8%83%BA%E9%86%87
    Copy paste the title of the page: 沙丁胺醇

    For inhaler there’s no Chinese page, but the Japanese page gives 吸入器, and Chinese dictionaries list this word as inhaler.

    Comment date: Mar 10, 2013

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