Do Technical Translators Really Need to Have an Engineering Background?

Who are you calling “eccentric”? — a mistranslation story

Recently, a new automotive industry client asked Language Scientific to re-translate portions of a manual that their former translation agency had mishandled. The client realized there was a problem only 6 months after the original translation was completed. He was visiting a Swiss distributor, and was surprised to see several pages from his company’s service manual posted on the cafeteria bulletin board. The pages were marked up with colored crayons and had lots of comments. The client would not have been surprised to see pages from the manual in the shop but what were they doing in the cafeteria, and what was the lively discussion all about?

The distributor explained that mechanics found the manual to be hilarious and posted the “best parts” on the bulletin board. We looked at the translation and understood immediately what happened: the original localizers may have been good translators, but they clearly had little understanding of mechanics. Not only did they make some major mistakes they did not even realize how bad their work really was. Ultimately, we had to re-translate the manual from scratch into all the European Union languages, because the existing translations were so poor.

One of the more interesting errors, though far from being the most egregious, was in the translation of the original English instruction: “Loosen the eccentric bearing carrier pinch bolt.” In the Italian version of the manual, the sentence was referring to an eccentric bearing; in the French manual, it was referring to the eccentric bearing carrier; and the Spanish translation referred to the eccentric pinch bolt!

What is interesting is that the translators tried to be as diligent as possible. They were astute enough to understand that the term “eccentric” here had a technical, not colloquial meaning. They must have looked up all the words in automotive dictionaries and translated every word of the sentence correctly yet two of them got the meaning of this sentence wrong. Even if they were so diligent as to look up word combinations, it would not have helped. There are such things, after all, as eccentric bearings, eccentric carriers and eccentric bolts. Only an engineer or a mechanic would know that in that particular instance, it was not the bearing and certainly not the pinch bolt that was eccentric it was the bearing carrier.

The problem was not in the terminology. Any translator with a good dictionary and Internet access can look up the translation of technical terms. The problem is that there is nothing in the language itself or in any dictionary that can help a translator disambiguate and properly translate phrases that involve the concepts he does not understand. In this case, none of the translators had sufficient automotive background to understand the meaning of what they were translating, and consequently, were unable to disambiguate correctly the reference of the word “eccentric.” Language works only when the speaker and the audience share the same background knowledge and understand the context of communication. The document the translators worked with was targeted at the audience of automotive service mechanics and presupposed the basic understanding of how gears, brakes and differentials work.

At Language Scientific, we insist without exception, technical information must be translated by professionals with the subject-specific background. Adherence to this principle restricts us to a narrow circle of localization professionals and increases our costs, but is what makes the quality of our work stand out and keeps our clients coming back time and again.