Pages in topic:   [1 2] >
What makes a good technical translator?
Thread poster: Dr. Jody Byrne (X)

Dr. Jody Byrne (X)  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:56
German to English
+ ...
Sep 23, 2006

Hi everyone,
I'm a professional translator who teaches scientific and technical translation at university and I've been having something of a heated debate with some colleagues (non-professional translators) as to what are the most important things we should be teaching students in technical translation classes.

I'd like to find out what the general consensus is among other professional translators. After all, we are the ones who are actually doing the job and know it best.

It would be great if you could tell me, in order of importance, what you think are the most important things/areas/skills a scientific/technical translator needs to know in order to be competent and professional. What is it that makes a good sci/tech translator?

Looking forward to hearing your views.



Irene N
United States
Local time: 04:56
English to Russian
+ ...
No kidding Sep 23, 2006

For non-tech-backgrounders:

1. Hands-on practice as an interpreter. I have no technical background and I do technical translations but ONLY in the fields where I have been working on-site, saw and touched the hardware, watched it in operation, or, as a minimum, worked technical meetings and had practice both in translating and interpreting for the same project to absorb professional language and jargon. On top of all the bed-time reading, that is.

2. T-E-C-H-N-I-C-A-L E-D-I-T-O-R a must:-). To this day I shall not accept any technical assignment knowing that the job is supposed to go for pure proofreading and then straight to the client.

I believe that these 2 components are mandatory.

Not for 1 minute I do believe in any successful outcome of home cooking - any compilation of cozy office, dictionaries and friendly phone consultations for non-tech people. I shall never forget hysterical, roaring laughter of technical editors of the in-house projects after reading some quite eloquent texts with all or most of the proper terms found in the dictionaries. Too bad people had no idea what to do with all that, and from the first 2 paragraphs it was painfully obvious that they had never seen the damn piece of metal or a system and, moreover, were totally incapable of comprehending how it really works. I don't want to be laughed at like that. Whenever I can't describe the process in my own words, I tell myself - steer clear, girl, you are a dummy here.

Sorry for yelling:-)

I assume that for the purposes of our topic a 2-page hair-dryer manual is not "technical translation".


[Edited at 2006-09-23 18:37]

[Edited at 2006-09-23 21:40]


Francisco Pavez (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:56
English to Spanish
+ ...
Hands-on knowledge Sep 23, 2006

As our esteemed Irene has pointed out, field experience is vital and cannot be substituted. More than once I have run into terms that have stumpped me despite the fact that I have been immersed in the subject matter for years.

Some will argue that a linguist will always be the best choice for any translation. I beg to differ; it is very hard to clean or inspect an oil pipeline with a "devil" (as a "diablo" would be correctly translated from Spanish) instead of a "pig".

Subject knowledge in both languages is just as important as linguistic skills and neither can be lacking.

The other plus of first hand knowledge is that you can spot errors in the original and report them to the client before they are spoted by the end user when he is up to his neck and the instructions say to close the valve counterclockwise.

There are alot of technical things I don't know so I stear clear, I stick to what I know well.

A great weekend to all.


[Edited at 2006-09-23 20:20]


Klaus Herrmann  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:56
Member (2002)
English to German
+ ...
Understand what you translate Sep 23, 2006

Professional translator implies a person trained to work with words, so minimum linguistic skills are covered. Hence, the most important property of a technical translator is that he/she fully understands what he/she is translating to the extent Franciso described - being able to spot mistakes in the original text.


Lucinda Hollenberg  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:56
Dutch to English
+ ...
Knowledgeable about the subject Sep 23, 2006

1. Be knowledgeable about the subject. Either have studied it, worked with it (these two preferably) or have read/ researched it extensively. Know what the equipment is that you are translating about. Preferably know how to operate the machine(s), etc.

2. Know how to write, be a linguist. Nothing reads more gratingly than a translated piece that does not flow well.

3. Have subject matter experts read the translation and also be well-versed in the target language. If it is a manual, have the people who work with the equipment use the manual, operate the machinery with it.

I know that this is not always feasible, but a lot of errors would be avoided if it were so.



Mariam Osmann
Local time: 12:56
English to Arabic
+ ...
"Specialized in field"! Sep 23, 2006

Klaus Herrmann wrote:

Professional translator implies a person trained to work with words, so minimum linguistic skills are covered.

Yes. Many times I had to proofread texts translated by translator professional in the language pair, and with high education degree in translation. It was like lines of "concatenated" words, faraway from the original text.

Highly technical or specialized texts are difficult to understand even for the native. For me for example, may be I can't fully understand a specialized sports article in my native language, just because i'm not in.

But for a specialized or better saying "hands-on" translator, even It's a kind of new technology, but he/she have a background about the mechanism, and he/she could imagine how it works, he/she is capable of manipulating the words to deliver the true meaning.

[Edited at 2006-09-23 21:35]


Local time: 02:56
Spanish to English
+ ...
All of the above plus... Sep 23, 2006

patience and attention to detail.


nruddy  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:56
German to English
My 2 cents Sep 24, 2006

Hi Jody,

I agree with all the above - experience in the field and INTEREST are a must, as are good writing skills. Your problem is really how to teach technical translation to people who often have little interest in science/technology and no practical experience. Then, of course, the field is extremely broad.

I think that students need to be taught to be good copy cats. They need to study well-written native texts in depth, analyze the content with someone who understands it and can explain it in simpler terms (possibly with post-grad engineering/science students?) and also study the style and linguistic aspects with a language professional. The next step could be to analyze parallel texts in the two languages (comparative linguistics).
Then they could try to produce something similar and see whether the science students understand it. I think lectures on scientific topics do not work very well for the majority of language students because the information tends to go in one ear and out the other. If students had the opportunity to work closer with non-lecturers, ask questions, etc., they might develop more of an interest in the topics and retain more information!

Another idea would be to arrange practical workshops (e.g. visits to different production/plants to see how things work), but I realize that that would be even more difficult to organize.

Good luck!


Magdalena Reyes  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:56
English to Spanish
+ ...
Some points to consider Sep 24, 2006

Hi Jodi,

I believe professional translators, including technical translators, should:

- have a good knowledge of the source and target languages
- be able to recognize accurately type of problems that can be found in technical translations
- have a wide range of options/solutions in order to solve those problems (that means a lot of practice to identity problems and propose solutions)
- know their own difficulties (personal weaknesses related to translation process)
- specialize in one field (studies and/or working experience, as mentioned before)
- be able to search on the topic and ask experts doubts about vocabulary, processes, etc.
- support knowledge on the subject with paralell texts, i.e. to read and compare similar type of texts in source and target language
- finally, enjoy translating!!

Then, of course, proofreading by an expert on the topic.

Good luck and i hope you tell us what are your conclusions on this topic and outcome of debates with collegues.



[Edited at 2006-09-24 02:04]


Chantal K.  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:56
Member (2006)
English to French
Background Sep 24, 2006

Technical background first (studies or work experience). I believe that it is not possible to accurately describe, for example, the mechanism of a machinery if one does not master mechanics. Then good linguistic skills (acquired by a way or another).



ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:56
English to French
+ ...
Something nobody has mentioned yet Sep 24, 2006

I agree with most of what you all say - hands-on experience, knowledge in the field, etc. But something I've seen when I proof technical work is that people fall into the trap of wanting to make technical texts sound like literature. For example, they purposedly use different synonyms for the same thing with a given text to make sure the stuff is not too repetitive. In technical translation, I think that we should steer clear of literature stuff because it can actually threaten the consistency of the terminology. We are not translating something here that needs to be fun to read (like marketing and travel, for example), but something that needs to be very clearly understood (these are instructions and descriptions, so they are meant to be boring).

My two cents - added to the 50 cents already in the walleticon_wink.gif


Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:56
Dutch to English
+ ...
Audience Sep 24, 2006

Another issue that has not been mentioned is the target reader. Certain manuals are for the general public while others are for engineers that work in the x sector. It is important to adjust your terminology to the audience the technical material is aimed at.

If the tecnical material is to be given EU approval, for example, the terminology you should use should be EU terminology no matter how inaccurate it may be. Only after proper discussion with all involved parties should you change terminology.


Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:56
Swedish to English
+ ...
Terminology resources Sep 24, 2006

This is at a slight tangent to your question and to most of the other replies, but I think one of the most important things, if not the most important, is to have a wide range of terminology resources (by which I mean dictionaries, glossaries, encyclopaedias, reference books, information sources, whether on paper or the Internet).

This is not to downplay the importance and value of technical knowledge, but inevitably such knowledge is fairly specialised. For example, many translators claim a good knowledge of computing -- which usually turns out to mean PCs, and they are out of their depth in mainframe computing or non-Windows systems. But with the right terminology resources, related fields like these can also be handled.

If only for financial reasons, a technical translator is almost bound to have to cover a wider range of topics than just a specialised field. The answer is to be terminologically well-prepared, specifically by:

- purchasing a wide range of technical dictionaries and reference works, preferably on CDs. Expensive, but essential.

- preparing your own terminological resources, generally from Internet research. Takes time and effort, but is essential.

- getting familiar with all the Internet search options available. Not just Google -- understanding all the options is essential.

- persuading customers to prepare terminology in advance. One of the most satisfying translation jobs I ever did was when I persuade a customer to pay for me to go to their headquarters and spend three days sorting out the terminology for their specialist user guides in advance. This saved me time and effort, and saved them money and aggravation in the long term.

To sum up, you might almost say that the three most important things are terminology, terminology and terminology.


Niina Lahokoski  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:56
Member (2008)
English to Finnish
+ ...
Agree with Peter Sep 24, 2006

The ideal situation would of course be that every technical translator can see and use the machine before he/she translates anything related to that machine. But unfortunately that is impossible. Technical translators just cannot concentrate on the few machines they know well. So they have to translate many different technical texts for many different technical devices, even for those they have never seen or heard of before.

IMO it is not so important to know everything than to know where you will find help, when you don't know something. You will have to know where to ask or how/where to search. The ability to search for information and resources is the key.


John Jory  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:56
Member (2004)
English to German
+ ...
Reading between the lines Sep 24, 2006

Another aspect of technical translating I have come across frequently, is that the author of the source text is so deeply involved in the subject that he/she has difficulties imagining readers who are not necessarily at the same level.

As a result, it is often necessary to read between the lines in order to understand what the author 'actually' means.
Occasionally, this leads to the (unusual) situation that e.g. an English target text is longer than the German source.

Therefore, and as Klaus Hermann has already pointed out above, it is absolutely esential to have in-depth knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.

I also agree fully with Viktoria Gimbe's remarks on consistent use of terminology, and sh.. on literary merit. We are not aiming for the Pulitzer Prizeicon_smile.gif

Pages in topic:   [1 2] >

To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

What makes a good technical translator?

Advanced search

CafeTran Espresso
You've never met a CAT tool this clever!

Translate faster & easier, using a sophisticated CAT tool built by a translator / developer. Accept jobs from clients who use SDL Trados, MemoQ, Wordfast & major CAT tools. Download and start using CafeTran Espresso -- for free

More info »
Manage your TMs and Terms ... and boost your translation business

Are you ready for something fresh in the industry? TM-Town is a unique new site for you -- the freelance translator -- to store, manage and share translation memories (TMs) and glossaries...and potentially meet new clients on the basis of your prior work.

More info »

  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search