Every translation job brings its own challenges, no matter the field. But it’s fair to say some jobs are more specialised than others. They may require specific knowledge, a tightly defined style, perhaps even additional formal training. Technical translation can potentially cover all of these requirements and more, which is why it sometimes gets set apart from the rest of the already-demanding translation business.
The actual term is usually quite broadly defined: at its loosest, “technical translation” covers any job involving engineering, hardware, software, heavy industry or other similar subject matter. (It’s not a world away from scientific or medical translation, but these still tend to be treated as separate fields since they often require particularly advanced knowledge and experience.) When translating a technical document, it’s even more important than usual to stay faithful to the precise meaning of the original version: after all, a translated novel might allow some leeway with its imagery, but a user manual can’t afford to be anything other than perfectly accurate. If you give the user false information, the result could be a malfunctioning product, damage to personal property, or potentially even serious injury to the user or to other bystanders.
Technical documents are often, but not always, written for an audience that is already familiar with the subject matter, which makes it easy to assume that the readability and accessibility of your translation should be secondary priorities. “The reader already knows what I’m telling them, right?” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, readability is an essential criterion for a successful technical translation, for the same reasons we’ve already discussed – the user has to be absolutely clear in their understanding of what they’ve just read. How many poorly-worded assembly instructions have you seen for flat-pack furniture in your life? Now imagine scaling that up to an enterprise-level software solution, or an industrial production line, and you can begin to see why clarity matters so much. With this in mind, here are some of our favourite tips for improving your
Be critical of the source text
Readability matters as much in the source language as it does in the target language. Many technical documents are originally written by people who are engineers first and writers second, so translators will actually often have a prime opportunity to achieve their holy grail: a translation that improves dramatically on the source. If you have this opportunity, take it! For extra brownie points with the customer, you could even offer a few suggestions on how to make the source documents more readable.
Don’t use jargon where normal language will do
Don’t get us wrong – jargon and specialist terminology are sometimes an essential part of a technical translation. But too often, writers use unnecessarily fiddly wording where a simpler phrasing would work just fine. Ask yourself questions about what you’re writing: if you’re translating a white paper for an IT business, do you need to say this piece of software runs on a “fourth-generation touch-enabled wireless communications device”, or does it just require a smartphone? Will customers access an “online merchandise delivery portal” or a web shop? Obviously there is some give-and-take to be had here between technical, marketing and readability considerations, but when you have your writer’s hat on, you should always be looking for the most straightforward phrasing.
Double-check your facts and figures
This means looking not just at the original text, but also at other publicly-available sources. If you’re quoting an international industry standard, make sure that the source document uses the right name and number, and that you’re using the correct official translation (if there is one). If you’re specifying the dimensions of a machine part, make sure you’ve copied the figures exactly right and that they make sense. If a gear for a handheld tool is described as being “3 m” in diameter, it’s probably a good idea to see if the client meant “3 cm” or “3 mm”!
Collaborate with the client
Sometimes it’s possible to go even further than checking the little details. If you have a good, long-term working relationship with your client, you might be able to get involved with the document at an earlier point in its lifecycle. Working with the source-language writer to produce your version of the document in parallel with theirs can potentially increase efficiency and readability as you help each other out from the very beginning. In the dream situation, perhaps for a flagship product, you might even get to sit in on product design meetings or interview the marketing team. Not every customer will be willing or able to offer this sort of access, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
You might be starting to see a pattern in our advice here. The rule of thumb is clear enough: if in doubt, ask the client. It’s better to take the time to confirm something you feel 90% certain about, than to make a mistake that might expose them to a lawsuit down the line. And if you’ve spotted an error that they’ve missed, then they’ll definitely want to know about it. Ideally, ask to talk to the author who wrote the source document, or the engineer who designed the product. They’ll be able to explain not just what they wrote, but what they meant in other words.
Above all else, remember to ask yourself one question over and over again: could the average person understand what I’m writing here? Not every technical translation can make sense to a total layman, but it’s still worth trying to get as close to that goal as possible. Assume nothing about your reader, give them every assistance you can, and they’ll be better off for it – and so will you!