Understanding Technical Translation
When thinking of translation, one most probably thinks first of literary translation, revered for all the creativity and artistry that goes into translating a work of literature. Some might think of more specialized translations, such as legal or medical translation—well-known areas in which interlingual communication is of the utmost importance. These are all equally valid and important areas of translation that exist in the world; at heart, translation fulfills its purpose by facilitating communication between people and entities, bridging a gap that only translators—capable of navigating the difficult nuances of various languages—can bridge.
Technical translation is often left out when discussing fields of translation. It gets a pretty bad rap, as it is deemed inferior to, say, literary translation, on the basis that technical translation does not require as much deliberation and work. On the surface, it seems like an easy task translating a rigidly written, formal document into a different language. Equipped with the proper terminology, anyone could perhaps engage in technical translation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s blog post, we discuss technical translation and why, despite its near-dominant presence in the translation market, it is still derided for being a mindless task.
What is technical translation?
What ideas do you conjure upon hearing the term “technical translation”? Science, mathematics, technical manuals—these are all parts of technical translation, though in the realm of translation, boundaries are drawn as to where technical translation starts and ends. In his book Technical Translation: Usability Strategies for Translating Technical Documentation, Jody Byrne discusses the precise definition of technical translation as it is commonly accepted in the field today. “Simply because a field or subject area has unique or specialised terminology does not make it technical,” says Byrne, noting the difference between specialized translation and technical translation. “Technical translation deals with technological texts” in the strictest sense of the word; “more specifically, technical translation deals with texts on subjects based on applied knowledge from the natural sciences.”
This distinction and delineation is critical in understanding technical translation. Medical, economic, and legal translation all are specialized forms of translation in the same way that technical translation is specialized, but the aforementioned forms of translation are markedly different from technical translation in a number of ways. They, like technical translation, come with specific constraints in language, grammar, and terminology, and must be seen as different activities. Technical translation, as a result, deals strictly with “texts on subjects based on applied knowledge from the natural sciences,” because these subjects and texts abide by common, distinguishable traits that both bring them together and set them apart from other types of translation.
Byrne also notes that technical translation is often confused with scientific translation, which are connected yet different ideas. In his book, Byrne notes that “scientific translation relates to pure science in all of its theoretical, esoteric and cerebral glory while technical translation relates to how scientific knowledge is actually put to practical use, dirty fingernails and all.” In other words, technical translation deals with subjects and texts that are applications of science, not descriptions of science itself. Distinguishing this difference is critical in understanding technical translation; the application of science lies at the heart of technical translation, and this focus on facilitating the application or usage of science in the real world (via manuals, directives, etc.) is what makes technical translation different yet special. Unlike legal, medical, or literary translation—all of which have their own purposes, objectives, and processes—technical translation is closely related to technological advancements and technical communication.
Why is technical translation so important?
There are a number of reasons why technical translation is important, the most prominent of which is that it is simply the most widely used form of translation. Byrne cites a 2002 research in his book that has found that “technical translation accounts for some 90% of the world’s total translation output each year.” Byrne attributes such numbers to “increasing international cooperation in scientific, technological and industrial activity,” as well as “various laws, directives and regulations across the world that require the provision of comprehensive, accurate and effective technical documentation in a variety of languages.” In an increasingly connected world, technical translation is more important and relevant than ever, as it helps businesses conduct trade and share technical ideas that foster economic and scientific growth and trade.
Byrne, an ardent and well-known advocate for technical translation, is cited in Mahmoud Altarabin’s The Routledge Course on Media, Legal and Technical Translation:
Virtually every aspect of our lives from education and work to entertainment, shopping and travel has been swept along by a seemingly unstoppable wave of new inventions and technological advances. What many people do not realize is that these inventions and advances are accompanied at almost every step of the way by translation in its capacity as a vehicle for disseminating scientific and technical knowledge.
Likewise, Altarabin notes that technical translation “promotes the most significant technological advances, which remarkably change our lives… the advances would not be possible without translation, the key role of which is sharing technical knowledge.” And while all this seems obvious and irrefutable, the truth is that technical translation is so often misunderstood, misrepresented, and disregarded. Byrne cites a 2004 report by Franco Aixelá, which reveals that, “out of 20,495 publications listed in the [Bibliography of Interpreting and Translation, BITRA] multilingual bibliography of translation research only 1,905 or 9.3% addressed technical translation. Literary translation, on the other hand, is the subject of some 4,314 entries accounting for 21% of the total number of entries despite its niche status in professional practice.”
Byrne attributes this dire lack of interest and research into technical translation to the fact that research on technical translation is “restricted to terminological issues or technical issues.” The general population—and even academic and professional circles—think of technical translation only in terms of terminology and technicality, despite the fact that technical translation is so much more than that. Not only do these statistics prove that technical translation is important, but they also prove that research and interest in technical translation is also sorely needed.
Features of technical translation
Given the importance of technical translation, it is helpful to assess how exactly technical translation differs from other modes of translation and note its peculiarities. In his Routledge course, Altarabin notes three major features of technical English, citing research by scholar Isadore Pinchuk. While these features have to do with technical language and not technical translation, per se, we must realize that technical translation in itself is technical writing—a process of rewriting a technical source, a process that is, at its core, a fundamental act of writing in technical language.
- Technical language is a specialized language and, as opposed to ordinary language, tends to become more specialized.
- Technical language seeks to be economic in terms of using linguistic means.
- Technical language avoids ordinary language associations and defines terms accurately.
The above features apply generally to all forms of specialized languages, but it is useful to note that technical language—technical translation—has its own set of grammatical, stylistic, and vocabulary-related features that mark it different from other types of specialized languages.
Style and metaphors
For one, Altarabin notes that technical writing features “simple and informative language.” Language used in manuals, user guides, and other kinds of technical writing are very different from what we see in novels or daily conversations in that the style is markedly impersonal and informative in nature. Furthermore, technical language tends to use metaphors to “put a concrete name to an abstract concept.” Altarabin gives examples such as Black Hole and Greenhouse Effect to reveal how technical translators must work with extended metaphors to aid readers as they attempt to understand difficult scientific concepts.
Terminology and facts
Perhaps one of the most recognizable features of technical language is the terminology. Words—even those used in everyday language—have very set and strict definitions in technical writing, and sometimes their definitions veer from their commonly accepted meanings. Altarabin cites scholar Peter Newmark, who found that “about 5 to 10% of a given text contains specialized terms.” While this is not a large proportion—a fact to be discussed later—the presence of specialized terminology also means that translators must understand and be familiar with specialized terms when translating.
Another major feature of technical writing is, of course, the “presentation of facts.” Such a factual, fact-heavy style of writing lends technical writing its informative, formal voice.
Due to the fact that technical writing must deal with such terminology, the grammar of technical writing is rendered more malleable and prone to change, resulting in the fact that “the grammar of scientific language is complex to the layman” according to Christopher Tylor, as cited by Altarabin. There are a number of grammatical differences between normal speech/writing and technical writing; for example, technical language “has a higher proportion of complex noun phrases and a few simple noun phrases as clause subject” (Tylor). Altarabin gives an example:
Two or more atoms joined to forma molecule are represented by…
Abstract subjects and passive formations
Drawing on various research, Altarabin notes that “subjects in technical texts tend to be abstract… the pronoun I is replaced by we or passive forms.” Oftentimes, the pronoun “I” is omitted so as to direct the focus of the text onto the subject at hand or to make the writing less personal, overall maintaining the impersonal, informative diction of the text.
Related to this phenomenon is the extensive usage of passive structures in technical language. Altarabin cites Ana Fernández Guerra, who explains that “the passive voice is normally used to emphasize the importance of the message.” By omitting the subject and rendering the text passive to important information, the text can retain a razor-sharp focus on the subject at hand.
Connectors and simple sentences
Guerra also notes that “the use of connectors and repetition of key words (mainly nouns) is common in technical texts.” Connectors here means conjunctions, adverbs, and other grammatical components that direct the reader’s attention. These include words such as on the other hand, secondly, therefore, etc.: words that are used as signposts to guide the reader through the difficult text and provide referential points.
At the same time, the difficulty of the subject also means that the sentence structure must be as simple and straightforward as possible; otherwise, readers will struggle with not just the difficulty of the subject, but also of the content and writing style. Byrne points out that “simplicity aims at reducing the work readers need to do and reducing the risk of misunderstanding.” Utilizing “simple and declarative sentences can improve the simplicity of technical texts,” writes Byrne, giving the following example of how simplified structures work in technical sources:
The detector automatically checks the condition of the batteries.
Perhaps one of the most defining features of technical writing is nominalization, which is defined by Hervey and Higgins as “the use of a noun which, in the same language or [translation type], could be replaced by an expression not containing a noun.” In other words, technical writing features the usage of nouns in place that nouns normally wouldn’t go. According to Pinchuk, the reason for utilizing nominalization is because it “is easier to write and its impersonality avoids commitment to tense, unlike the controversial style.” An example of this given by Byrne is something you would see very often in technical writing: “the flywheel housing installation position must be ensured.” Nominalization heavily slows down reading speed as much information is given in shorter spans, leading to decreased legibility. However, nominalization also helps translators maintain an impersonal, formal style of writing necessary for technical writing and understanding.
Altarabin, M. (2022). The routledge course in Arabic Business Translation: Arabic-English-arabic. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Byrne, J. (2010). Technical translation: Usability Strategies For Translating technical documentation. Springer.