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.
- I wanted to buy a refill for my Albuterol inhaler.
- 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?
- Even if a dictionaries do have a technical term (like antihistamine) there are often multiple results. Which term do I use?
- 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?
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:
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:
- Go to www.google.com
- Click on “Advanced Search“
- 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.
- Now, on the first line in the topmost search box type your term (in this case “Albuterol”).
- 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:
(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.
- 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.
- 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
- Go to regular Google (instead of the one that only returns Chinese pages).
- Do a search for your new hanzi (in this case 沙丁胺醇)
- Look for any English at all and click on the page that has it.
- Run that new page through the translator and see if it checks out.
(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?