A common question that is often asked of our team is “Why do I need a subject matter expert to perform my translation?” I can provide you with a real life example. Suppose you are translating a patent application for an experimental drug. Throughout the document there is the common term used in neuroscience “potassium channel blocker.” A linguist can look at this phrase in two different ways. Should it be interpreted to mean a potassium substance that blocks channels, or a blocker of potassium channels? Without a background in neuroscience, the translator is left with a 50/50 chance of interpreting this phrase incorrectly.

While the English language often allows for some ambiguity, other languages are not as forgiving. Now if the linguist were to choose the first option, the patent would be rejected, thus costing the pharmaceutical company millions of dollars and significant lost time. Only a neurobiologist would know that the second version was correct. Since language contains so many ambiguities, simply knowing what the words mean won’t make a difference if the context isn’t understood.

Without the knowledge of both the language and the subject matter, it is easy to see how what seems like a major concept can be confused, even if every translated word is correct. Even just one small mistake can hold severe consequences such as in the instance above.

Many companies looking to save money on the translation of their documentation often turn towards a machine translation. While this is a cost effective way to handle a translation, it is less effective at capturing the actual meaning of a document that is technical, medical or scientific in nature. A machine translation may give you the gist of the meaning of a document, but it takes a linguist with the proper background to get its full meaning.


If you have come across an egregious mistranslation in your travels, please feel free to share it in the comments section below. Also please don’t forget to link and share this article socially using the links above!

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