How can you learn how to write a technical document?
Thread poster: RafaLee
Local time: 09:56
Spanish to English
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Jun 18, 2003

How you guys manage to learn how to translate a technical document in various field without having a technical background ?

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Camaxilo  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:56
English to Portuguese
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lack of background on a particular subject matter Jun 18, 2003

RafaLee wrote:

How you guys manage to learn how to translate a technical document in various field without having a technical background ?

RafaLee, when one is lacking a technical background to a specific field or subject matter, such a translation becomes difficult, and in many cases impossible. To embark in such a task, if you must, one needs to do lots of research: you have to educate yourself in the technical field under scrutiny, by reading and researching; you need a good technical dictionary in that particular field; and you must grab magazines and literatures that discuss the area; and you need to work under advisement of an expert in the field. The best thing to do is to steer away from the uncharted waters and stick with your sphere of knowledge. If you have to do the translation, for any reason (be it because you are a house translator or whatever), be prepared to do plenty of research, reading, educating yourselve in the subject matter and make friends in the field, so you can ask questions when you get stuck. There is to say: If it is in the field of medicine, for instance, you will need a doctor (MD), if it is aviation you may need a pilot etc. Advantages: if you already are an expert in some technical field, it will be much easier to probe into another technical field, in which you aren't all that familiar with. That is only because you will have a whole bunch of bag of tricks that can be unleashed for similar situations under both fields, when it is applicable. In summary: be cautious; have a good technical dictionary; educate yourself; have a good insurance (in case of malpractice); work under an expert advisement; research difficult areas; talk with experts that are already working in the field; get feedback from a knowledgeable person of the field; work at a slow pace; attend trade shows and seminars in the field of activity; get magazines and news letter of the area; visit local main libraries for resources; read magazines and literatures, especially in those target languages, which you are aiming at; actually in both languages (your native and target) for a deeper understanding of the discipline. Get a seasoned expert in the field to review your work, until you get enough experience and know-how-in the subject matter. I hope this help! It depends on you, to ascertain the situation and see if it is (economically feasible) all that worth, to delve into an unknown field. Good luck

[Edited at 2003-06-18 13:45]

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Gayle Wallimann  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:56
Member (2001)
French to English
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What??!! Jun 18, 2003

What do you mean? Who are you talking about? Who doesn't have a technical background? Who are the "guys" that you are referring to?

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English to German
It's not that wrong to ask... Jun 18, 2003

RafaLee's quite right - I (too) often wonder about the thousands of bids on jobs with highly specialized background requirements.

And sometimes it happens that I get those finished (and I really mean finished) translation jobs for proofreading - and I just want to hide my face and cry out loud.

RafaLee: The truth appears to be that (too) many collegues apply for just any job - if they have the needed expertise or not.

But to answer the headline of your question: Some people have a special degree in writing technical documentations; I am one of them; a certified Technical Writer.

[Edited at 2003-06-18 16:05]

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xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:56
German to English
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Everything Camaxilo said Jun 18, 2003

Everything. Great advice there. I read it through three times and agreed with every word.

A couple of minor things: the Internet has made research easier. When I began translating, I would make a list of terminological queries at the end of my first draft, then cycle over to the British Council library. The Internet has made the trip unnecessary. (The library has also closed.) The Internet can only supplement good dictionaries and reference works, and not replace them, but research is now often less time-consuming than it used to be.

As for "technical background", if you stick to one subject and familiarize yourself properly with it, you will become something of an expert after a few years.


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invguy  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:56
English to Bulgarian
In short: you can, but it takes time. Jun 18, 2003

In translation, industry-related experience *can* stand for a technical degree.

In most cases, the technical understanding of an avid Popular Mechanics reader would be just enough. Not that it means you know all there is to know - it simply allows you to ask the correct questions (which is what knowledge is basically about, IMO

Years ago, I used to work with a lady who had a university degree in German language and literature. She had been employed for more than 15 years as a translator in a large machinebuilding company, and had just the necessary grasp on technical terms to produce intelligible, fluent, and - ultimately - useful translations. Compared to her, my engineering degree hardly gave me a significant advantage. Of course I knew much more than her about technology - but my ability to write the formulas and graphs describing a process was hardly relevant in most cases.

BTW we worked very well together. She consulted me on the ins and outs of language usage, and I often explained to her the essence of a technical issue, or just helped her 'decipher' some poorly written technical description. Each one of us knew enough to ask valid and focused questions, without wasting the other person's time.

Else, I wholeheartedly second what Camaxilo said. Read his words carefully - lots of valid (and important) points in there.

Good luck!

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Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:56
German to English
Go to a community college/polytechnical Jun 18, 2003

If you live in the US, you might try attending classes at your local community college in a field that interests you. Courses are generally job-oriented (med technology, automotive fundamentals) so you won't get lost in theory which might be useful for a physician or mechanical engineer. Many community colleges also offer classes in technical writing. In the UK, polytechnical colleges frequently serve the same function as community colleges in the US.

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Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:56
Dutch to English
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Technical translations Jun 18, 2003

Invguy wrote:
In most cases, the technical understanding of an avid Popular Mechanics reader would be just enough. Not that it means you know all there is to know - it simply allows you to ask the correct questions.

Invguy is absolutely right. I do technical translations and write the odd technical manual coming from a language background. One day, many years ago, I just got asked to do it. And I did. I do have a degree in Mathematics, but my major assets are asking the right question from the right person and being able to do very specific research.

I am married to a technical person which helps because he can explain virtually anything: from how a cog works to how some machine works!

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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:56
Member (2000)
Russian to English
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Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set Jun 18, 2003

They say a specialist is someone who learns more and more about less and less until he eventually knows everything about nothing.
For a translator, it is better to work the other way round. I started from a three-year apprenticeship and some practical experience on aircraft engines, so started only doing that subject, then broadened out into mechanical engineering, automotive engineering, electrical engineering etc.
I also learned a lot about the generally accepted style for academic papers whem for two years I subcontracted some translations from a Professor of Physics at Oxford, who corrected my work and returned it to me to show me where my efforts could be improved. (I also learned something about fluid state physics in the course of this.) I never used to accept offers of work in the medical field, but then having refused to do such a job for a client, he came back and asked again, this time suggesting I could cooperate directly by email with the doctors who had commissioned the translation. I did so, and it worked out well. So I learned something in this field, and though I still reject most medical work as outside my competence, I do at least have a look at what is on offer and sometimes accept something I feel I can cope with. (But anything in a doctor's handwriting is still rejected out of hand!)
Ideally a technical translator should be highly qualified both in the field and in the language, but since such people are few and far between, most technical translations are probably done by people highly qualified in one of the two and competent in the other.
But I agree with all the good advice given by others in this column. It is important to know your own limitations.

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Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:56
Member (2004)
English to Thai
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Technical writing text Jun 19, 2003

I wrote a technical writing textbook and teach students in postgraduate degree to use it. They said the writing style was too hard to read.
Students is lileky to accept new matters rapidly, however.
Soonthon L.

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sylver  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:56
English to French
:-) Jun 19, 2003

Jack Doughty wrote:

They say a specialist is someone who learns more and more about less and less until he eventually knows everything about nothing.

Great one Jack! So true. Quote of the day!

To me, translation is all about understanding. It goes case by case, document by document. Get the doc. Are you able to understand it with a reasonable amount of research? Do you have sufficient vocabulary to relay the message to the intended recipients? That's your limit.

Now, how do you widen the scope of the stuff you can do? Learn. Roam the web, study, study, study, and then... study some more.

Studying doesn't mean sitting in a course room, or learning to pass exams. It means applying your attention to understand things in such a way that you can use them.

For many subjects, where adequate manuals, tutorials and ressources are freely available, there is no need for formal schooling.

As far as accepting documents goes, ALWAYS get the document first. Then, you can decide whether you are capable of doing it or not. There are VERY few people able to honestly accept EVERY document in a given field.

[Edited at 2003-06-20 08:31]

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HRiley  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:56
Spanish to English
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Get someone to check your work Jun 19, 2003

Camaxilo wrote:

Get a seasoned expert in the field to review your work, until you get enough experience and know-how-in the subject matter.

This is the absolute key aspect for me. It's so important to have somebody point out exactly where you're going wrong. Nothing's worse than thinking you know how to translate something and then discovering 5 years later that you've been getting it wrong all along!

When I started working in-house in an IT company, I was lucky because the person I was replacing stayed on for a month to train me, correcting all my work and teaching me the jargon. It made all the difference

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:56
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
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And who writes the originals? Jun 19, 2003

In most cases I would appreciate, if the engineer who wrote the original manual had have some idea about how to write for users. Very often the translation of such a manual is easier to read and more understandable than the original. The fact is, that those people write for themselves and not for the user.
Anyway most manuals have one main function: if something goes wrong and breaks or someone gets injured, the maufacturer says: Why didn't you read page 125 of the manual? It's your fault, not mine!
Probably it's better if the translator has some other education than technical and knows how to use language efficiently. The technical part is much easier to learn.

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Suzanne Blangsted  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
Danish to English
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technical documents Jun 20, 2003

I am - like "simplyme" - also certified as a technical writer, and the expenditure for that education from the local University was well spent and has helped me in my translation jobs. I highly recommend you take courses in technical writing. Of course, you should also know about the subject matter you are translating. I fully agree with all of the above answers to your question but wanted to get in my 2 cents worth.

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