Technical writing is everywhere. From user manuals to product descriptions, patents to certification documents, certain things require precise, specific language to convey clear instructions or information.
What is technical translation?
Most people will have had the experience of having bought a piece of DIY equipment, or home furniture, only to look at the user or assembly manual and find themselves dumbfounded. In the best cases, technical writing facilitates our understanding of something outside of our normal technical know-how. In the worst cases, it confuses us more than if we were never to have read it at all.
When technical writing is translated from its original language, potential issues are compounded. For consumers, this can often turn out humorous – for example, one user manual for a Mianshu self-balancing scooter in 2015 instructed users, ‘Don’t let the child contact with animal cells,’ and ‘Charging mouth moist, don’t charge.’ But for companies that desire to appear professional, and for situations where serious liability and/or legal ramifications are at stake, badly translated technical writing can spell disaster. One word used incorrectly could invalidate a contract or a patent, or invite accusations of criminal misconduct.
Why do technical texts have to be handled by a technical translator?
As the old saying goes: the devil is in the details. Technical writing often features highly esoteric language. Whole, dedicated vocabularies apply to particular technical fields and functions. Without in-depth knowledge of a given field, in more than one language, the use of these vocabularies tends to lie outside the reach of a general translator.
Why is it hard for a general translator to adapt? Because understanding the definition of a given word or phrase does not necessarily prepare a translator to use it – they must also have a contextual understanding of how, where and when it can and can’t be used, abiding by a specific normative logic.
Take, for example, the use of the word ‘normative’ in English. In some situations, like in the paragraph above, it is used to describe the degree to which something abides by an already established set of conventions and expectations. But in others, such as technical writing about international relations or the social sciences, it is often used to describe an idea about how something ought to be, as a matter of changing conventions and expectations. In situation one, it means compliance; in situation two, it can mean non-compliance.
When do you need technical translation?
Patent applications require filing several documents that are written using highly specialized language. In China, the specific use of the item applied for, its description, evidence of priority right and more must be correct to the letter, otherwise delays of months may ensue, or in the worst case an outright denial.
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Should a company wish to avoid their product becoming a viral hit for all the wrong reasons, good translation of user manuals is a must. Beyond reputational factors, liability claims could be filed against companies that do not adequately warn against uses of products that might cause injury or harm.
It’s now more possible than ever to sell software internationally – be it an app on desktop or mobile. For localization, all user interface (UI) strings will need to be translated with an understanding not just of the original text’s purpose, but with an overall view of how it interacts with the user experience (UX). As a simple example, some countries will default ‘yes or no’ questions with the affirmative button on the right, and the negative button on the left. Other countries typically use the reverse format.
From wine to cheese, lawnmowers to USB sticks, the potential pitfalls in translating product descriptions are myriad. Not only are there nuanced differences between translated versions of individual verbs and adjectives, but different languages also employ different cultural and technical referents.
Be it for a degree, a birth certificate, or an electrical goods safety certificate, translated versions of official documents are often important requirements for conducting personal and business affairs around the world. To avoid delays in getting something approved, such as a visa or a product launch, credible technical translation is a must.
Manufacturing, performing arts, film production and more often require simple but precise communication about how certain technologies can be used. Technical operators and planners need to be able to compare different machines, and gain a quick grasp of their capabilities, so as to meet capacity and avoid accidents.
What’s the state of technical translation now? What’s next?
Technical translation remains, and will perhaps always remain, a difficult, specialized and wholly necessary field. Changes are afoot, however, that are making the process easier for everyone involved, increasing both the availability and quality of high-quality technical translation. First of all, with advances in communications technology and online networks, expert local interpreters are becoming more readily accessible. The increase in digital communication across the globe makes cross-checking and corroboration faster and easier.
Second, new tools such as ‘translation memory’ (TM) software have become available, and are getting increasingly sophisticated. TM refers to a database of previously translated units of text that are used to aid human translators. TM software can provide suggestions, and references, to any technical translator, drawing on a vast bank of similar translations from the past.
Keeping abreast of these changes, and of the importance of technical translation in general, is vital for operating internationally – be it in life or business. Luckily, high-quality translation is on the up.
What industries benefit from professional translation in 2021? Read our next article to learn more!
HI-COM is a multilingual translation agency dedicated to providing professional translation and interpreting services to companies all over the world. Working in over 40 languages, HI-COM is the localization partner for hundreds of companies and brands. Contact us today for your free consultation!