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Problem of technical translations
Thread poster: Rolf Kern

Rolf Kern  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 04:50
English to German
+ ...
May 23, 2006

After a lot of proofreading of translations for agencies and a lot of involvement in KudoZ I come to the conlusion that a translator without technical education (BS, MS etc.) will never be able to understand nor translate a technical text and should not accept such work for the sake of the reputation of our business. On the other hand, a person with technical background may well be able to translate a non-technical text. What do you think?

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Riccardo Schiaffino  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:50
Member (2003)
English to Italian
+ ...
I don't agree May 23, 2006

A translator "...will never be able to understand not translate a technical text"

and

"a person with technical background may well be able to translate a non-technical text"

I disagree with the former statement, as I believe that a translator who interests herself in the subject matter which she translates, studies it, reads about it both in her foreign language(s) and in her native tongue will very well be able to learn what she needs to fully understand and translate a technical text.

As for the latter statement, I believe that it is possible that a person with a technical backgroung may learn to translate non-technical and technical documents.

It is, however, not much more likely than the case described in the former statement.

A person without a specific linguistic preparation is very likely in my experience:

a) to misinterpret non-technical language (this includes not recognizing cultural allusions, slang, etc. for what it is, and translate things more or less word for word)

b) impose one's technical knowledge on technical translations (not translating according to what was written in the original, but according to the paper one would have written on the subject, instead).

A couple of years ago there was a wonderful article about this very subject on the ATA chronicle, were a translator specialized in medical documents described various serious errors found in medical translations done by medical professionals.


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Wouter van Kampen
Thailand
Local time: 09:50
Danish to Dutch
+ ...
Damn right May 23, 2006

Many try with disastrous results.

In general.... if you do not really understand the source text then stay away from attempts to translate it.

Rolf Kern wrote:

--snip--
a translator without technical education (BS, MS etc.) will never be able to understand nor translate a technical text and should not accept such work for the sake of the reputation of our business. On the other hand, a person with technical background may well be able to translate a non-technical text. What do you think?


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Cintia Pecellin  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:50
Member (2003)
English to Spanish
Absolutely right!! May 23, 2006

Just a very recent example: my new DVD Recorder showed me the following message today:

"Uña del pulgar"

Need I say more???


(FYI, this is the literal translation into Spanish of the term "Thumbnail", a miniaturized picture. In this case, the translator thought a good idea to translate this term as the fingernail of the thumb!!)


[Edited at 2006-05-23 21:24]

[Edited at 2006-05-23 21:24]


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Eva T
English to Albanian
+ ...
Agree with Rolf May 23, 2006

I agree with you you Rolf. It is so true. At times I feel sorry for those who claim that they studied "English" from a foreign university, because in reality they do not have any specialization. They make good proofreaders by the way.

In my personal view, a translator does much better if she/he accepts something in her/his area of specialization. I rarely use a dictionary when I translate something that is completely in my area of specialization and I feel I am a real expert on that field.

Eva


Rolf Kern wrote:

After a lot of proofreading of translations for agencies and a lot of involvement in KudoZ I come to the conlusion that a translator without technical education (BS, MS etc.) will never be able to understand nor translate a technical text and should not accept such work for the sake of the reputation of our business. On the other hand, a person with technical background may well be able to translate a non-technical text. What do you think?


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bohy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 04:50
English to French
+ ...
I do agree May 23, 2006

Having read and proofread a lot of technical documents (IT), it is also my opinion that they should be translated by people experienced in this area. It is very frustrating for a reader, when the translator translates word to word hoping that others will understand what he doesn't ! This also happens in Kudoz.
However, this is not only the translator problem. From my experience, I can tell that translation agencies don't care at all about explaining what the text they want translated is about. How many say "Web site translation" when they should say what the Web site is about, or "IT experience required" when you simply need to translate the messages of a software which have nothing to do with IT ?
Because of this, I have ended in translating things totally outside my area, while I can see regularly on Kudoz, that other translators get stuck in documents that I would love to translate ! It's not their fault, it's not mine. In my opinion, many agencies are not very professional, don't understand the texts they send to translation... and don't understand resumes either.


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 23:50
Spanish to English
+ ...
Sharing Rolf's view ... May 23, 2006

The organization that first employed me as an in-house technical translator had English and French as official languages and all documents and publications were supposed to be issued in both.

The organization insisted, as a matter of principle, that its technical translators should be engineers with at least 5 years hand-on experience in their specialist field. It mattered little to them if their technical translators had any qualifications in languages beyond having English (or French) as their mother tongue and the ability to write meaningfully. Their approach was the same when recruiting legal translators, and only those in the 'non-technical' translation office had recognised qualifications as translators - which no doubt serve them well as they handle a vast variety of administrative and literary material that I wouldn't touch with a barge-pole.

Their interview technique for technical translators was simple - they put candidates in front of a few sample texts, drawn from their regular publications, and took whoever produced the best translation. 'Best' meant the translation that was: a) the best 'technical' match for the source text; and b) the most likely to be understood by German or Croatian engineers reading English (or Spaniards or Italians reading French, as appropriate).

In the 2 years prior to my applying for a vacant position I had been 'fully immersed' in Spanish; I hadn't spoken a word of French in the previous 8 years. That didn't stop me applying, on the basis that French is 'a bit like Spanish' and, after all, I'd done 4 years of French in school, hadn't I? I did their tests, got the job - and continued working for that organization for over 20 years, as a translator and later as Chief Editor of their Technical Publications service.

Sadly, soon after I moved on to 'other activities', the organization abandoned the use of French in its technical documents and publications, in the belief that all European engineers (and those working in R&D in particular) are quite capable of expressing themselves clearly in English. That, in my experience, is not entirely true - even of engineers of English mother-tongue. Many times I found myself translating BBC or Oxbridge English into something understandable to the vast majority of the organization's readers, i.e. people using English as a second or third language.

MediaMatrix


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 23:50
Spanish to English
+ ...
Blind faith is no substitute ... May 23, 2006

Riccardo Schiaffino wrote:

I disagree with the former statement, as I believe that a translator who interests herself in the subject matter which she translates, studies it, reads about it both in her foreign language(s) and in her native tongue will very well be able to learn what she needs to fully understand and translate a technical text.


Next time you're in hospital, Riccardo, best check first who translated your surgeon's text-books!


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xxxsarahl
Local time: 19:50
English to French
+ ...
Beg to disagree... May 23, 2006

A technical translator is not necessarily someone who uses words straight out of a dictionary, or who coins words as he goes. To me, a technical translator is 1) a very good translator and 2) someone with extensive knowledge in his area(s) of specialization.

Now, they're far apart, I agree...


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Stephanie Wloch  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 04:50
Member (2003)
Dutch to German
Definition of technical translation May 23, 2006

to what degree technical?
And which target audience?
I stay away from heart surgeons and nuclear physicians but I dont have fear of contact with construction workers.
And what makes you (tekkies) so sure that a person with a technical background is a good copywriter?
In my opinion technical translations demand technical comprehension as well as being a good copywriter.
And tell me:
Is a graduate engineer (tea drinking only) able to put himself into the position of a consumer with a nervous breakdown because of an unmanageable coffee machine?


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xxxIreneN
United States
Local time: 21:50
English to Russian
+ ...
What is "technical translation"? May 24, 2006

Is there such thing as a unified "technical" subject? I doubt it. Oh, sure, I understand what basic college-level technical training means, including technical writing skills, and that those who major in linguistics might lack some or all of it. However, should I go around asking technical questions, a radio engineer would send me to a drilling engineer with a queston about cementing... I can guess that much:-)

[quote]titi-at-home wrote:

Many try with disastrous results.

[quote]

OK, let the world sit around or rather stand in line and wait for sufficient number of MDs to turn into medical translators, electrical engineers - into Elect-Electronics translators and so on. Let's tell the client that he needs to line up 7 interpreters to kick in for each sentence/paragraph in a different area of expertise during one presentation. Let mechanical engineers turned translators earn their daily bread excepting only stress analyses for translation:-) Do you guys really understand the uniqueness of translation trade?

May I remind you of a simple truth - just like not everyone who speaks 2 languages is an interpreter, not everyone who translates these days is a translator, I'd say the percentage of "no-translators" (those same "many" you've mentioned) seems to be on a higher end. If you (or the agency you work for) are dealing with bad translators - tough.

I'd rather worry about self-proclaimed "omnivore" translators, or a common hazard of omitting the editing part altogether, or everyone claiming to be an editor (nothing personal, this is general statement only). This is a sad truth - from my personal experience I am prepared to state that very few translators understand that editor is an entirely different profession (which, BTW, I worship), or have even ever met a real professional editor - mostly it's another translator who plays this role and the two usually fight over a style or a synonym harder than over the point itself, sometimes because neither understands that point:-). When having a problem with understanding a point, I call my editor and not for the term, but for the process description, and then I do my job - find the right wording. That's what the editor wants of me, and that's what I want of him. A Good translator and a Good technical editor with a final magic touch will give you what you want to see. Yes, a gentle magic touch with the respect for translator's work, not a re-write because "he is the boss and does not like it, period". Have you ever tried to show such "tailored-to-personal-taste" editing to another editor with the same degree:-)?

You get crappy translations from bad translators, not from "bad engineers".

I leave it up to each individual to list a set of features mandatory for a "good" translator for himself - don't want to go over obvious things.

My first major was history, second - English. Today I'm prepared to sit next to you and translate the test on orbital mechanics both ways in my pair. I have never practiced translation/interpretation in medical and/or chemistry fields (mainly because I hate it), so don't even try to offer me oil processing, I won't take it for $1/word. But I'll challenge you in oil well overhaul. Here is where the good translator starts (sorry for not being too modest) - with honesty and experience, not with the degree.

As for the technical gurus being capable of everything - legal? finance? economics? cosmetics? - been there, read it. Some great, some horrible, just like vice versa. I believe in translators equally terrific in a great number of fields, I work next to them and keep learning from them, yet their degrees per se do not cover their range of subjects. They are good trainable professionals, nothing more, nothing less.

I hope I need not to mention that any degree would not hurt:-):-):-).

On a supportive note - I would cut my range of technical subjects at least by half were I not also the interpreter with a chance "to touch and play with" the hardware I talk about on paper. As a professional translator I found my way to get an intimate knowledge of the subjects I work on. The process of interpretation skill leaning and "hands-on practice", among other things, was my way to replace a technical degree. Do you not notice that with the years of experience you find it easier to get familiar with a newer subject, you learn to use dictionaries and references (not such a simple task, BTW), you learn to stumble over something seemingly obvious, dig into it and take pride in confirming through your own research that it was not all that obvious? Aren't you proud of you translator's intuition once in a while?

It's just that it is so easy to become "a translator" today, it's not even funny. Why, of all the world out there, should we be the ones to join the crowd and belittle that sweat, blood and tears required to become a real translator? Are you denying the profession itself claiming that translation skill is nothing but a nice addition to a technical degree? Or don't you know how hurtful it is to hear "Oh, sure, it's just legal, nothing technical, so it's easy".

I don't give a damn about "many", I know there are a few and I look up to them.

[Edited at 2006-05-24 15:21]


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 05:50
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
You need both May 24, 2006

A text written or translated by a person with technical background should be edited by a person with good writing skills, who takes responsibility not only for the facts but also for the language as such. What happens when you leave it to the techies one can see in modern German, which seems to have lost the ability to express new facts without borrowing from English.
Good technical translations can seldom be achieved by only one person.


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Riccardo Schiaffino  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:50
Member (2003)
English to Italian
+ ...
And who's been talking about "blind" faith? May 24, 2006

mediamatrix wrote:

Blind faith is no substitute ...
...
Next time you're in hospital, Riccardo, best check first who translated your surgeon's text-books!


Hi Mediamatrix:

May I respectfully suggest that you read what you are quoting?

I wrote


I believe that a translator who interests herself in the subject matter which she translates, studies it, reads about it both in her foreign language(s) and in her native tongue will very well be able to learn what she needs to fully understand and translate a technical text.


I don't think that saying that a translator who studies her subject, reads about it, and acquires information can learn the subject so as to understand it and (yes) translate it is the same thing as saying that one has "blind faith" in a translator's ability to translate tecnical subjects.




[Edited at 2006-05-24 05:54]


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Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 04:50
German to English
+ ...
No simple answer May 24, 2006

Non-specialists who take on work in highly specialised fields can do awful things to the content of the texts.
But specialists can also make a rotten job of texts in their field.

The answer is not a simple question of whether such a text should be translated by a qualified engineer/doctor/lawyer etc. or a translator who has developed a "special subject". To put it simply, the best translator is the one who does the job best, however that translator has acquired the necessary subject knowledge and linguistic competence.

For me, this lies in a combination between adventure, understanding and attention to detail. For example, when I first worked with an agency specialising in technology, I had no previous techical training (merely an unquantifiable "general knowledge"). But on my very first day, I noticed a technical mistake in a source document (which did wonders for my reputation with that company). I found that some types of technical texts came off the keyboard easily.
But in some subject areas I felt that I was "swimming blind", and I was just not happy accepting work in these areas (and I still avoid some areas today).

It is important to know and accept your own limits. There are some subject areas that I avoid like the plague, but I have developed a few subject areas in which direct clients keep coming back to me because they like the quality of my work.

This discussion comes at a wonderful time for me. This coming weekend I am speaking about this subject (how to develop special subjects) at the Berlin ProZ conference. So I will keep an eagle's eye out for the way this thread goes over the next couple of days.


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Aliseo Japan  Identity Verified
Japan
Local time: 11:50
Member
Italian to Japanese
+ ...
This is not everyone's case May 24, 2006

Heinrich Pesch wrote:
Good technical translations can seldom be achieved by only one person.


How can you be so sure that there are not technical translators with a good writing style? Not all technical or technical-oriented-only people write poorly.

Mario Cerutti
http://www.aliseo.com


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