Med Humanities doi:10.1136/medhum-2012-010307
  • Original article

Lost in translation. Homer in English; the patient's story in medicine

  1. Alan Bleakley2
  1. 1Cornwall Health Campus, Knowledge Spa, Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, Cornwall, UK
  2. 2Collaboration for the Advancement of Medical Education Research and Assessment (CAMERA), Plymouth University Peninsula School of Medicine, Plymouth, Devon, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Robert J Marshall, Cornwall Health Campus, Knowledge Spa, Royal Cornwall Hospital, Treliske, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3HD, UK; Robert.marshall{at}
  • Received 27 October 2012
  • Revised 16 January 2013
  • Accepted 28 January 2013
  • Published Online First 28 February 2013


In a series of previous articles, we have considered how we might reconceptualise central themes in medicine and medical education through ‘thinking with Homer’. This has involved using textual approaches, scenes and characters from the Iliad and Odyssey for rethinking what is a ‘communication skill’, and what do we mean by ‘empathy’ in medical practice; in what sense is medical practice formulaic, like a Homeric ‘song’; and what is lyrical about medical practice. Our approach is not to historicise medicine and medical education, but to use thinking with Homer as a medium and metaphor for questioning the habitual and the taken-for-granted in contemporary practice.

In this article, we tackle the complex theme of ‘translation’. We use the lens of translation studies to examine the process of turning the patient's story into medical language. We address the questions: what makes a ‘good’ translation? What are the consequences of mistranslation and poor translation? And, while things are inevitably lost in translation, does this matter?