Technical translation and editing is probably the largest subcategory in the wider field of translation services, encompassing specialized fields such as science, engineering, architecture, economy, accounting, math, IT, medicine, law, etc. The types of texts that each of these fields requires translation/revision for is even more diverse, ranging from instruction manuals to blueprints to patents, etc. The list is endless and incredibly varied. Research has estimated that about 90% of all translation work is done by technical translators, which makes sense considering that each field has its own jargon, almost a separate language in itself. Ever since the 1960s, technical translation has been recognized and studied as a field in its own right, yielding some interesting research. Here, we’ll discuss some general principles that a technical translator/editor must keep in mind, regardless of his/her specific technical field.
Qualifications of a technical translator
Technical translation is, by nature, an interdisciplinary field. Obviously, proficiency in both the source and target languages is a must, one that immediately comes to mind. But, beyond that, a technical translator must also be well-versed in the field of translation studies. This involves awareness of current research in linguistics, strategies for working around challenges and modern trends in the field of translation. In addition, a technical translator must also be an expert in his/her specialized field. A pharmaceutical translator, for example, needs to be well-acquainted with the specific vocabulary used in the health professions. Surely, you wouldn’t want a legal translator, no matter how successful he/she may be, translating your doctor’s prescription. Not just any technical translator will do.
Technical translators’ workflow
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to peer into the mind of a translator? How do they tackle the daunting task of translating something as complex as a clinical research protocol, for example? Research gives us some insight into the translator’s workflow and the challenges he/she may come up against.
First, the technical translator must read through and analyze the text he/she will be translating. It’s not as simple as just taking the source text and translating it word-for-word. The translator needs to understand the context, the tone and the vocabulary of the text. Does it use formal or informal language? Is the tone objective, serious or lighthearted? Who is the intended audience? What is the purpose of the text? The answers to all of these questions will inform the linguistic choices that the translator will later make. Let’s say, for example, that a medical translator is translating all the paperwork for a clinical research trial. The documents involved in this process include the scientific protocol, amendments to the protocol, periodic progress reports, informed consent forms for the patients, etc. The translator will ask, who is the intended audience for each of these documents? The scientific protocol will be designed for the investigators and the safety review board and, therefore, will be highly scientific. The informed consent forms, in contrast, are meant for patients, so the language used to explain study procedures will need to be simpler and less scientific.
Next, further research may be necessary. There may be concepts or vocabulary in the source text that the translator doesn’t fully understand, so he/she may need to refer to technical dictionaries or encyclopedias, take short courses on the subject matter to fill in any knowledge gaps and/or speak with the original copywriter of the text to clear up any doubts. Let’s say a particular protocol evaluating the safety of an experimental medication for the treatment of Alzheimer’s is being translated. A technical medical translator may be an expert on certain neurodegenerative diseases but not on Alzheimer’s, so he/she may have to do some extra research. Considering how specialized technical translation can get, it is no surprise that the translator may come up against topics he/she is not fully familiar with at some point.
When the translator begins to tackle the actual translation process, additional questions may come up, prompting him/her to seek more information. The process isn’t linear and often involves a cycle of research.
The final step of the process is revision, which is sometimes done by the translators themselves or by the translation agency’s technical editors/proofreaders. Like technical translators, technical editors/proofreaders must be well-acquainted with the specific jargon used in the text, requiring a high level of expertise in that particular field. Editing and proofreading services are sometimes overlooked and overshadowed by the translation process, but in reality they are just as crucial, if not more. Even if your text requires no translation, consider submitting it to a technical translation agency for review. Professional editors/proofreaders can help catch spelling or semantic errors that could potentially ruin the text. Technical writing is not easy, so having a linguist expert in your field read over your text is always a good idea.
Trends in the field of translation
Decades ago in the field of translation, there was more of a focus on the source language and remaining loyal to the text, favoring more of a literal translation. That, however, has shifted towards a focus on the target audience and the purpose of the text, leaning towards localization. This approach places the translator in the shoes of the audience, asking “How will the reader perceive and interpret this information? Will it make sense and sound natural?”. This strategy is especially important in the case of the informed consent forms mentioned in the example of clinical research translation. Since these documents describe to patients the medical procedures they will undergo during the research trial, it is particularly important for the translator to ensure that information is being transmitted in a way that will be understandable to the audience and that nothing is lost in translation. Research suggests that only 5-10% of any technical text is actually terminology; the rest acts as a vehicle for communication and, there, we find a lot of wiggle room for stylistic choices that can facilitate the reader’s comprehension. Studies have also found that technical translators don’t merely transmit information in another language; they actually create new meaning in that target language, essentially taking on the role of a technical copywriter as part of the process.
Technical translation agencies
As you can see, technical translation is complex, but there are professional translation agencies that can provide the expertise you need to make sure your text is top-notch. With a qualified team of technical translators, editors and proofreaders, you can’t go wrong.