4 Common Misconceptions About Technical Translation

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors

INDUSTRY INSIGHTS | TRANSLATION

What is Technical Translation?

According to this post on pTranslate, technical translation is the translation of specialized, scientific, technical, or sensitive documents.

Being proficient in the language is not enough to perform technical translation. The translators must have a certain level of subject knowledge and a deep understanding of the terminology. Due to the nature of the job and the particular skillsets, knowledge, and experience required, good technical translators are harder to find, and therefore are more valued on the market.

Technical Translation accounts for approximately 90% of the world’s total translation output each year, which is enormous. However, technical translation has never been well-loved by the community. To many people, technical translation is the less interesting part of translation. It lacks the glamor and aesthetic quality of Literary Translation, while being noticeably more challenging, repetitive, and formulaic than Casual Translation.

The low opinion many people hold against Technical Translation has led to a lot of misconceptions about it. In this article, we will dive deep into 6 common misconceptions that people have about Technical Translation and point out the realities behind them.

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1) Technical Translation Is All About Terminology

This misconception is common even in the technical translation community. It is true that vocabulary is the most immediately noticeable aspect of a technical text and makes “technical translation” what it is. Without this high-level terminology, a technical text won’t be able to convey its messages and ideas. Technical Translators usually have to devote the highest level of attention to terminology and lexical issues in any technical translation project.

However, terminology isn’t that big of an issue once you reached a certain level of expertise.

In many fields, but most commonly Scientific and Technology fields, the terminology is remarkably similar to each other. This is, as you may have already guessed, due to the interconnectedness of these disciplines. The terminology has to be consistent in the natural sciences to reduce the misunderstandings when a certain concept is referred to.

Therefore, when working on Scientific translation projects, it is not necessary to have a specialized dictionary. Nevertheless, in occasions of extremely niche projects, some consultation might still be needed.

Similarly, in Medicine, the terminology is largely consistent, as all of them have common origins in Latin and Greek words. In IT and Computing, the terminology is also uniform as new terms are predominantly created in English and adopted as they are in other countries. When working with Cryptocurrency translation projects, it is easy to see that most non-English documents simply accept Cryptocurrency terms and make no attempt to translate them. This seeming “lack of effort” turns out to be beneficial for the field in the long run.

What’s more important is the structure of the text, or simply knowing how to write the technical text. Translators need to produce texts that are identical to those produced by technical writers of the target language. The same type of document in 2 different countries can have immense differences in the way they are formatted. Failing to acknowledge this difference and resolving it can reduce the overall translation quality. This is an extremely important aspect of Technical Translation that not enough translators are properly trained about.

So, in order, the items of importance when working on a Technical Translation are:

  • Text structure of the target language
  • Terminology
  • The subject
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2) Style Doesn’t Matter In Technical Translation

Yes, they do.

Technical Translation is undeniably “dry”. Its nature is formulaic and sometimes repetitive. If you’re a new Technical Translator, you might need to take some time to familiarize yourself with various structures of texts. However, once you have gained experience, everything becomes a loop. Identify the type of document, choose the structure, and then translate. Meaning of words don’t tend to change with context as much as Literary Translation. There is indeed more rigidity and less flexibility than Literary Translation.

Despite all of that, if you want to be a great Technical Translator, you still need a sense of “style”.

Style is the way we write things. Style is the words we choose, and the way we construct sentences and piece sentences together.

When translating a literary work, the translator needs to purposely choose words, ideas, symbolism, and metaphors that accurately reflect the meaning and intent hidden behind the many layers of the text.

When translating a user guideline, the translator needs to purposely choose words and terms that are clear, simple to understand, while still retaining all of the meaning of the original version. Moreover, in some cases, the space available for display of text is limited, and translators have to figure out how to fit their text into that space while ensuring readability.

As you can see, both situations require a strong sense of style. It’s just that the style required for each situation is on opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.

If addressed properly, the quality of the Technical Translation can be enhanced significantly.

3) Technical Translation is not creative

Technical Translation is undoubtedly restricted in the range of expression and creativity. You can’t possibly “be creative” when translating an evidentiary document for the litigation of a criminal case. If you try to do so, you may end up diverting the case to a completely different outcome.

Moreover, there is a restricted vocabulary to use in Technical Translation. If you attempt to “create” a new way to express a legal term, you will end up creating confusion and sometimes even a loophole in the legal document, which can be exploited by the parties involved.

Yet, creativity in Technical Translation is still extremely impressive. In order to convey information in an appropriate and effective way, technical translators still sometimes have to find new linguistic solutions to ensure successful communication. This is usually achieved only in less rigid fields of translation such as Business Translation or Financial Translation, where requirements of accuracy is not as extreme as Legal Translation.

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4) You Need To Be An Expert In The Field.

It is commonly believed that you have to be an expert in the field to be a good Technical Translator. While this is true to a certain extent (since you at least need a formal education in the field and linguistic proficiency in the languages to be a good Technical Translator), you don’t actually need to be a true expert to perform technical translation.

In certain cases, when the stake is too high, or when the text can only be comprehended by advanced learners and practitioners of the field, an expert is needed. However, in many other cases, the Technical Translator only needs to have education, a few years of experience in the field, and language capabilities to be able to take on Translation projects.

Nevertheless, it is essential that Technical Translators develop the following skills to grow their expertise as a subject matter expert and a translator:

  • Research Skills: this provides them with endless opportunities to learn the knowledge and terms that will be beneficial in their translation career
  • Writing Skills: this is quite self-explanatory
  • Awareness of Style, Genre, and Text Style: as mentioned above, a good sense of style is important for the Technical Translator. This almost intuitive knowledge gives them an edge when handling complex translation projects
  • Pedagogical Skills: pedagogical skill is the skill to break down concepts into easy-to-understand chunks and explain them to the readers. Although they are not a teacher, translators still need to get their ideas “known” . By knowing how to logically arrange and present the ideas, they will become a successful language expert.

Conclusion

Technical Translation is a fascinating branch of Translation as a whole. Their rigid nature has created a “stigma” within the translation community. Many even regard Technical Translation as inferior to Literary Translation, although it is Technical Translation that brings them the most work opportunities.

It is important that Technical Translators and even clients understand these misconceptions and embrace a more open notion of Technical Translation, where translators put in just as much, if not more, effort and creativity as other branches of Translation.

What do you think about the challenges of Technical Translation and how to overcome it? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below. 🙂

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