A funny but extremely common mistranslation: Lapp lactase deficiency

What is the Lapp lactase deficiency?

The Lapp lactase deficiency is a rare hereditary condition… but not rare at all in the pharmaceutical industry! You will see why. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose molecules into smaller sugar molecules (glucose + galactose), which we are able to further process. Lactase deficiency results in improper digestion of lactose or “lactose intolerance”.

What does Lapp mean?

Lapp is the name of the inhabitants of Lapland, an area in the North of Sweden, Finland and Norway. Lapp is a derogatory term for the Samis, which total around 100.000 people. Well… incidentally, a form of lactose intolerance has developed among the Lapps due to insufficient genetic distance or, in other words, a too high degree of “consanguinity”.

Then why is Lapp lactase deficiency so common in the pharmaceutical industry?

On the package leaflet of virtually every drug product containing lactose, the following warning can be read: “Patients with rare hereditary problems of galactose intolerance, the Lapp lactase deficiency, or glucose-galactose malabsorption should not take this medicine.”

Everything was fine… until this standard statement was translated into other languages! In turn, in many languages, its mistranslation also became a standard sentence that pharmaceutical companies just copy and paste onto their package leaflets without questioning it anymore… Well, here at ARGOS TSP, we like questioning things, so let’s do so!

How is “Lapp lactase deficiency” being translated into other languages?

Spanish: Los pacientes con intolerancia hereditaria a la galactosa, insuficiencia de lactasa de Lapp o malabsorción de glucosa-galactosa no deben tomar este medicamento.
French: L’utilisation de ce médicament est déconseillée chez les patients présentant une intolérance au galactose, un déficit en lactase de Lapp [or sometimes, “déficit en Lapp lactase”]ou un syndrome de malabsorption du glucose ou du galactose (maladies héréditaires rares).
Italian: I pazienti con rari problemi ereditari di intolleranza al galattosio, carenza di Lapp lattasio malassorbimento di glucosio-galattosio non devono assumere questo medicinale.
Portuguese: Doentes com doenças hereditárias raras de intolerância à galactose, deficiência de lactase de Lapp ou malabsorção de glucose-galactose não devem tomar este medicamento.

Why can all these translations be considered inaccurate? 

As happens so often in English, “Lapp lactase deficiency” could mean many things… unless you know what Lapp means. In plain words, this expression means: “lactase deficiency typically observed among Lapp people”. Yes, English can be a very concise language and English speakers can be shortcutters and acronymaniacs sometimes… but it just takes a minute to look it up in the dictionary and find out that the Lapps are actually the people of Lapland.

In Spanish, French and Portuguese, the translation sounds like the lactase deficiency was discovered by Mr. and Mrs. Lapp in their lab. Or maybe it was discovered at the Lapp University in Lapland… Why not? The Italian Lapp lattasi and the German Lapp-Lactase are just weird concepts, as if the chemical compound called “lactase” was imported from Lapland. Well, “Lapp lactase” doesn’t exist by itself as a chemical concept.   

Then how do we believe should it be translated?

It should be translated by whatever expression that makes it clear that the disease is typically observed among Lapp people! For instance:

Spanish: insuficiencia de lactasa de los lapones, insuficiencia de lactasa propia de los lapones
French: déficit en lactase propre des lapons, déficit en lactase propre des populations lapones
Italian: carenza di lattasi propria dei lapponi, carenza di lattasi propria della popolazione lappone
Portuguese: deficiência de lactase dos lapões, deficiência de lactase própria dos lapões

A very simple way to avoid further mistranslations…

… Would be for pharmaceutical companies to just take out the word Lapp in “Lapp lactase deficiency”. If the drug product contains lactose, it can affect negatively any lactase deficient person and it doesn’t really matter that their deficiency is typically observed among Lapp people!

The moral of this story is…

Until internet opened new horizons, what was written in books, in the law or in publications by recognised institutions was often considered spotless. It was a common belief that there couldn’t be any typos or mistakes because… “It must have been carefully proofread by knowledgeable people”. What shows this article is that there is no harm in questioning well-established standards!