Energy, law, medicine, economy, IT tourism, technology – specialisms, and the specialist terminology that comes with them, are constantly evolving. Many of the necessary terms no longer appear in standard dictionaries. So good translations in these specialist areas require more than just language experts: translators must also have in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.
An expert in every field
If you need translations of machine instructions, contracts and agreements, software texts, marketing materials, and perhaps even your whole website, then you need a translator who understands your product and can convey the information in the target language accurately, use the right style and adhere to cultural target-language conventions. The problem is, no one person can do all of those things for all the above fields. So it’s almost always a case of horses for courses.
What works for one text won’t work for another
Each type of text makes different demands of its author and translator. Texts for different specialist areas have key features which must be taken into account in order to produce a high-quality translation: for example, considerable finesse and creativity is required in order to successfully translate the message of marketing material for the target market. Each region, country and culture has slightly different norms, such as:
- forms of address used
- syntax required
- style of language expected
- how emotive texts need to be
- and much more.
So it’s clear that a literal translation won’t cut the mustard for marketing texts. Legal texts, meanwhile, are an example where the requirements are different: their authors and translators need to take great care in order to use the correct terms. And similar levels of specialist knowledge and attention to detail are required in order to translate technical or medical documentation. The translation must be 100% accurate, both in order to keep people safe when using machinery and to protect the manufacturer from financial losses – if mistakes in the translation lead to personal injury, the manufacturer may in a worst-case scenario face expensive claims for damages. Another consideration for authors and translators (and one which can be vital in ensuring safety) is consistent use of terminology across the entire documentation, no matter how many pages it runs to.
Just how much specialist terminology is there?
Specific vocabulary is required in order to describe all the components, technology and process in technical documentation. The Würzburg Language School estimates that there are:
- 20,000 specialist terms for the automotive industry alone,
- 60,000 names for disease patterns, and
- 80,000 names for drugs.
But it’s not just technology and medicine where this applies: each specialist area will have between 1,000 and 10,000 terms. And their numbers are increasing every year.
It’s a question of the right expertise
From these numbers, you can see that it’s impossible for a translator to have in-depth knowledge of every single field. And because translators need that in-depth knowledge of the source text subject matter in addition to being outstanding linguists (both in the source language and in their own native language), today’s translators usually develop individual specializations so that they become experts in their field. This should be borne in mind when choosing a translator: it isn’t a good idea to send a 450-page instruction manual for a highly complex machine to someone who specializes in tourism with the message “Please translate”. After all, you wouldn’t go to see your cardiologist if you had toothache.
How specialists benefit you
The picture is very different if the translation is produced by a translator familiar with the subject matter: simply put, the client gets a better translation. Translators who focus on more specific areas (rather than broader sectors) have detailed expertise and are familiar with the required terminology, the common abbreviations and the latest developments in the field. Many specialist translators even have their own glossaries, which they have built up and maintained over the years. And this usually has the additional benefit of speeding up the translation process, as they don’t have to spend time researching individual terms.
Communication is key
One client will often send different types of text for translation: today it might be instructions for a machine, tomorrow it might be a press release. The person who translates the instructions may well not be the best person to translate the press release, so translation agencies need to have enough translators on their books to cover all their clients’ needs. But even if different translators are involved, everyone – translators, project managers and the client – should communicate and work closely together to ensure consistency across all texts in the areas where it matters. Primarily this is terminology, and online term bases that client and language service providers can work on together are a key part of what a translation agency offers.
Taking care to choose the right translator
Finding the right translator is an essential element in a translation agency’s ability to deliver a high-quality translation. The project manager will usually select the right translator from the agency’s pool of available translators and ask if they’re available for the translation. Who the right translator is depends on the subject matter of the text. If it’s electrical engineering, for example, the project manager will
- search the agency’s database to find a translator with expertise in electrical engineering,
- look closely at the CVs of potential translators,
- and ask their colleagues or Vendor Relations Management for their recommendations, if they’ve never worked with a particular translator before.
Finding the right translator: where Vendor Relations Management comes in
When recruiting translators, it’s Vendor Relations Management who are responsible for ensuring that translators actually have the experience they say they have on their CV. It’s important not to simply take the translator’s word for it – the VRM team needs to talk to the translator in person to dig deeper and find out exactly what expertise they have in which areas. Sometimes the application and interview process reveals that a translator’s experience in a particular area isn’t actually enough for them to be able to deliver complex translations. Something else that sets alarm bells ringing is an allegedly professional translator who says they cover lots of different specialist areas and can translate into lots of different languages: that’s simply not possible. So to avoid problems down the line, the recruiting process is extremely important.
The ideal technical translator
The ISO 17100 standard requires translators to have one of the following: a degree in translation; a degree in a different subject and two years’ full-time professional translation experience; or five years’ full-time professional translation experience if they don’t have a degree. But for complex technical instructions that’s usually not enough on its own – specialist expertise in the subject matter is crucial. In an ideal world, the translator will have acquired the necessary knowledge through a technical degree and/or by working in the field in question. They may also have experience as a technical writer, whether full-time or as a sideline. These qualifications, combined with years of experience in translation, are the bedrock on which accurate translations with the correct terminology are produced.
When specialization can be a problem
Every silver lining has a cloud. When translators have expertise in one specific area, that can make it impossible for agencies to cover all their clients’ needs. And clients should respect that. A professional translation agency will be honest with its clients when they don’t have the right translator for their text. It’s better that way – saying nothing and giving the text to a translator who doesn’t know their way around the subject matter would be a big mistake. But it depends on each individual situation, so ultimately it’s a question of consulting your translation partner to find out where and how you can get the translation you need.
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