Occasionally, an enterprise client comes to our firm for post-translation help. The scenario usually looks like this: they needed a technical text translated, they had someone in the company fluent in the target language, and they decided to save money by having their bilingual colleague perform the translation. This rarely ends well. The reason? Translation of technical texts requires much more expertise than mere bilingual fluency.
The Precision of Terminology
Why is a technical translator so imperative for a technical text? Two words: specialized terminology. That is, each technical term has a precise meaning. If the translator fails to convey the precision of the term, the translation fails in its purpose. For example, “titrate the reagent at a rate of 10ml per minute” may require a translator who understands titration. Some languages, especially those from a culture with a scientific legacy, probably have an exact equivalent of the term. Other languages may not. In either case, it’s the translator’s job to convey the scientific meaning.
A non-scientific translator who lacks an understanding of titration might Google the term and attempt to render it literally. If the source text is English, the translator might use target-language terms such as “pour,” “measure,” and “analyze.” These, however, fail to convey the precise definition of the word.
Only An Expert Can Convey the Correct Meaning
If no target-language equivalent of titration exists, the pharmacist-turned-translator (or chemist, or science teacher, etc.) will face the difficult task of rendering the meaning using various workaround methodologies, several of which are detailed below. In most cases, successful implementation of these workarounds would prove difficult if not impossible for the layperson translator. After all, making the right choice depends on a thorough understanding of the subject matter, which is why you should not choose just anyone to do a technical translation.
Who Is the Reader?
Every text is written for a specific audience. One technical text might be written for the author’s peers, who will generally be experts in the relevant field. Another text might be focused on educating the public. Both texts contain technical terms, but one assumes that the reader is familiar with the subject matter and the other does not. From a translator’s perspective, each text poses a different set of challenges. If the translator has expertise in the subject matter, he or she will be able to adapt the translation to the target audience. Again, this requires making finer distinctions concerning the proper word choice than most layperson translators can manage.
A Tale of Two Translations
Imagine that a clinical research team has discovered specific genes that play a role in functional mitral regurgitation. They publish a paper stating as much. A journalist hears of the study, interviews the research team, and writes on the topic for a popular science magazine. As chance would have it, both the clinical paper and the magazine article need to be translated into the same target language. Both texts contain many of the same technical terms (although the clinical paper includes the most). For the translation to succeed, the translator needs to have a thorough understanding of medical terminology and research methodology. He or she also needs to understand how the audience will receive the terminology and what target-language equivalents will best accomplish the goal.
With the published clinical study, the translator needs to ensure precision. If the translation conveys the exact meaning of the original, the translator’s work is done. With the magazine article, the translator must walk a fine line between accessibility and precision. Because readers of the magazine are assumed to be ignorant of the subject, the translator needs to intersperse exact translation with a less precise, more vernacular syntax. At the same time, the translator must ensure that the latter does not misrepresent the former. All of which, naturally, requires a deft touch.
The Economy of Expertise
In addition to being technically unqualified, a layperson translator would take far too long to render a semi-acceptable translation. Most specialized fields have their own language of sorts—a distinct vocabulary and jargon that, while it may employ English, French, German, etc., to constitute itself, nonetheless traffics in an esoteric vernacular largely inaccessible to outsiders. To penetrate the arcane logic of such a field adequately, the (non-expert in the field) translator would need to research each term thoroughly and mull over its ramifications and its relationships to other terms. Even then, it’s doubtful that the resultant text would suffice.
In contrast, the subject matter expert would breeze through the translation with comparative ease. Of course, he or she would need to slow down occasionally to ponder the best rendition of some especially tricky phrase, but such pauses would already be built into the market rate for technical translation.
Which Methodology Is Right?
In any translation, a translator chooses between different translation methodologies. In technical translation, however, a translator will have difficulty selecting the translation method if he or she is unfamiliar with the technical field. To understand why this is so, let’s review some of the translation options that translators alternate between. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive.
- Literal Translation: This method is just what it sounds like. Literal translation emphasizes simplicity and fidelity to the source. Sometimes, when syntactical structures render word-for-word translation impossible, literal translation can take a phrase-by-phrase approach.
- Borrowing: Importing terminology from the source text directly into the translation. Terms such as e-mail, RAM, and barcode are often—depending on the language and culture—transferred over as-is. In a non-technical corollary, this happens regularly with loanwords such as algebra (Arabic), rodeo (Spanish), and dais (French). In technical terminology, this could happen if a target language lacks an adequate term and if the translator decides that borrowing is more apropos than other options (some of which follow).
- Calque: A French term meaning “close copy,” calque refers to a translation of a term’s constituent parts and creating a neologism (new word) in the target language. For example, Spanish did not have a term for “skyscraper” until someone literally rendered “sky” and “scraper” to create rascacielos. For some technical terms, and for certain language pairs, using a calque may fit the bill perfectly. In other scenarios, a calque would be inadvisable. A term like “antimatter” could be a prime calque candidate, since most languages possess some construction for “opposite” and a corollary for “matter.”
- Equivalence: Capturing the sense of the original using dissimilar terms. Leaving aside the differences between dynamic and formal equivalence, this approach focuses on the audience rather than the source. That is, in the translation spectrum between fidelity to the source or fidelity in the perception of the reader, equivalence skews toward the latter. In so doing, it often departs considerably from a literal translation to find the best route to communicate the intention of the original.
At the Discretion of the Translator
Each of the preceding methods, as well as others not mentioned, require considerable discretion on the part of the translator. For instance, the term “acceleration” has a counterpart in most languages, but if the source text is a legal document, the term has a meaning far different than the everyday usage. The layperson translator can easily look up the word in a legal dictionary, but how is he or she to know whether the legal legacy of the target language provides a term of similar meaning? If the corresponding term does not exist, the translator must decide between: a) settling for the everyday counterpart of the term in hopes that it will be good enough; b) importing the original directly into the translation (borrowing), possibly with an explanatory footnote; c) creating a neologism—perhaps a mashup of the terms for “fast” and the legal sense of “vest”; and e) using terms accessible to the reader that describe the legal definition, but which probably inflate the text length.
Given these options, we could scarcely expect the layperson translator to make the optimal choice. Conversely, the attorney translator should be able navigate through the text easily without getting bogged down.
In the case of technical material, a translator should have the following expertise.
- Comprehension of clinical terms and sector-specific jargon in the context of a particular discipline.
- An understanding of the purpose of the text and the audience for which it is intended.
- Familiarity with the target language/culture with respect to the specific sector. That is, a knowledge of how deeply a given technical discipline has penetrated the vocabulary of that language/culture. The translator also needs to know the structural linguistic particularities that, given the absence of a corresponding term, would lend to one or the other of the above translation methodologies.
It’s Your Reputation On the Line
If you are still unconvinced about the importance of hiring a qualified technical translator, think of this. You probably would not allow your regular family doctor to perform heart surgery, so why would you let a translator with no medical experience translate a pharmaceutical prospectus? Settling for anything less than a professional technical translator can ruin your reputation.
Byrne, Jody. Scientific and Technical Translation Explained (New York: Routledge, 2014), 120-121.
Rowan, Kiri. “Translation Techniques: Battling Discrepancies between Languages” (April 30, 2014), https://blog.udemy.com/translation-techniques.
About the Authors
Austin Becker is a project manager for U.S. Translation Company, a language services provider specializing in technical translations.
Jacob Andra analyzes and reports on the language services industry for U.S. Translation Company.