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Technical Translator

At the end of November, 1967 I saw an ad, repeated for two consecutive days, that seemed suitable.

It had been placed by VISTER (VISmara TERapeutici), a pharmaceutical company in Casatenovo Brianza recently acquired by the US multi-national group Warner Lambert and therefore in need of translating and forwarding to the USA all its production and analytical procedures.

The Vismaras are a dynasty owning a well-known salumificio (factory of cured pig meats). One of the scions of the family signified that he had no intention of following the family tradition and work as a "pork butcher", but rather wanted to get a degree in Pharmaceutical Medicine. His father obliged his son's wish and, shortly after his graduation after WWII, cunningly created VISTER for him, just across the street from their salumificio and using as raw materials its discards (mostly the useless internal organs), respecting the popular Italian farmer's axiom: "Del maiale non si butta via niente !" (You don't throw anything away of a butchered pork) .

November 26th/27th, 1967:
the ad on Corriere della Sera

I answered the ad(s), was invited for 7 December to a successful interview and formally notified on 16 January, 1968 that I would be officially in their employ as of 1 February.

Casatenovo is 25 Km NNE of Milan, but I had been for 3 years already the proud owner of a FIAT 500 which made my commuting not as uncomfortable as previously to Castellanza - however, driving behind the occasional trailer truck full of smelly live pigs bound for the Vismara slaughterhouse was not a particularly pleasant experience on my way over in the mornings.

My FIAT 500 in February, 1967
after a traffic accident

I reported directly to John Porada, the local representative of the new US owners who was also responsible for preparing the plans for a new plant to be built at Latina near Rome. Incidentally, at VISTER I met again with a number of former school mates.

VISTER at Casatenovo - Colleagues and former school mates playing bowls at lunch break

However, the initial expansive mood at VISTER deteriorated gradually, departments were closed down one after the other and the Latina project, which should have offered me a new job after finishing my translations, was cancelled.

Thus, in September, 1968 I resumed my examination of help-wanted ads.

An Odd Pharmaceutical Company

VISTER has now been dead for more than 30 years, so I may feel free to relate some anecdotes about them, also considering that a statute of limitations applies to some of their 'distractions' that happened more than years ago.

The company included an Istituto di Ricerche sugli Steroidi (Institute for Steroid Research) that at the time was also developing the pill, the contraceptive not yet allowed in Italy but expected to be authorised in the near future. I was curious about its working mechanism and asked a medical excutive about it. He replied:

"It's like creating a sort of pregnancy, with estrogenic and progestinic hormones, to halt ovulation."

Dosages were then rather high, and preparing test batches of pills caused an epidemic of male gynaecomastia (breast enlargement ) among the virile workers of the tabletting department, with a dust-abatement system apparently unequal to the task.

The company's flag product, accounting for about 35% of their sales, was Hepavis, a 'ricostituente'.

My first difficulty was finding an equivalent English term (the closest I could get was tonic) for this, to us a very familiar class of medicaments, since almost every spring our mothers would say to us kids "E' ora di fare una bella cura ricostituente !" (Time for a nice tonic treatment) and gives us ampules of foul-smelling liquid or, worse still, injections.

The reason for this zeal was that, due to food shortages during and after WWII, our population had become somewhat lean and pale. 'Ricostituenti' were basically liver extracts containing Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin), the anti-anaemic factor which stimulates bone marrow to produce red cells.

To find that this was not universal lore was a surprise, and my first exposure to relativity in linguistics .

One day I saw worried expressions among the local management and asked what was amiss. Someone explained that they had learnt that our Ministry of Health was collecting samples of Hepavis from various pharmacies. My further inquiries as to why this might be a worry were met with evasive answers of "Oh, it's a damn bother, you know" and no further details.

A Hepavis ad from the 1950s

A month later I saw beaming expressions on the same faces, and much more openness to my queries:
"We just received the results of a crash study we had commissioned to the Institute of Chemistry of Milan's University, confirming that synthetic B12 cannot be analytically discriminated from natural B12 ".

In effect, translating the Hepavis production procedure I had noticed an addition of Cyanocobalamin and Hydroxycobalamin, but since their quantities were expressed in International Units, I had no idea of their weight equivalent. I had also seen in our warehouse some stacks of jute sacks from Romania marked Cyanocobalamin.

What had happened?

  1. Our equivalent of FDA allowed pharmaceutical companies to establish a certain sales price for drugs cointaining natural extracts with a given active principle - I don't know if they were simply backwards or modern-thinking, synergy and all that - but a much lower price for synthetic variants containing the same amount of active principle.
  2. Over the years, the amount of Vitamin B12 in pig livers had dropped almost to zero, possibly due to modern raising techniques and industrial feeds.
  3. The missing quantities had been quietly "supplemented" synthetically.
  4. The company could therefore continue blithely to sell Hepavis as a natural extract at the higher price .
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