Technical Translation vs. Technical Translation by Industry Experts

Shockingly, the vast majority of translators who work in technical translation do not have any technical or scientific background at all.  So when vendors claim they specialize in technical languagescientific_scientific_translationtranslation, they generally mean that their translators have experience translating technical documents. This does not imply that those translators have ever taken any math or science classes or actually understand what they are translating.

If your documents are intended to be read and used by people with particular educational and/or professional qualifications, they also need to be translated by linguists with the same qualifications. If a translator doesn’t fully understand the meaning of every word and paragraph they are translating, they are liable to make critical mistakes.

Without understanding the content of source documents, reliable translation is not possible. Language works by obscuring as much as it works by revealing. What sentences state overtly is only a portion of the message they communicate. For example, the sentence “John quit smoking,” informs the audience not only that John no longer smokes (the overt message of the sentence), but also that he used to be a smoker. It also conveys other information about John—that John is not an infant, for example, or that he was not in a coma, etc. None of that implicit information about John would be understood by a visitor from Mars who did not have the background in Earthling affairs to extract that information. Rightly so—the sentence was not intended for Martians, but for an audience that shares with the speaker a whole body of common knowledge that does not need to be—and cannot be in any practical sense—restated in every sentence.

A non-scientist translating science is akin to the Martian. The technical literature he translates was never intended for him. An article in the Journal of High Energy Physics is intended to provide new information to the audience that knows the basic theories of Quantum Field Theory, Differential Geometry and String Theory. The translator might correctly render every word of a paper in that journal right in the target language by looking the words up in the dictionary (unlikely, but possible). However, because the background information presupposed by the texts is not accessible to him, the translator may get the meaning of some paragraphs completely wrong. Worse, the translator is not likely to realize there is problem because he doesn’t have the subject knowledge that may allow a scientist to notice that there is something wrong with the translated paragraph.

The authors writing scientific papers or patent applications, and the audience for which these are written, have spent years studying their subjects. All that background, that rich layer of knowledge, is presupposed in everything the science papers try to communicate. If that knowledge were to be made explicit, the papers would be thousands of pages long. Nobody would have the patience to read them—or to write them. Is it realistic to assume that the translator can “pick up” the knowledge presupposed in the Journal of High Energy Physics if he never even took a course in basic quantum mechanics?

If your documents are written for a technical audience, and precision and accuracy are important, it is vital to the success of your project that the academic and professional backgrounds of the translators and editors working on these documents match the background of the target audience for these documents. 

Please share your previous experiences using both linguists who are generalists vs. those who have intimate knowledge of a specific field!

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