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Technical documents: how to make sure you get accurate translations

By Josian Phillips, 

Getting your technical translation service to deliver on the level of accuracy that you need for your technical documents can feel like catching a runaway train.

Whether translating user manuals, spec sheets, patents or scientific, healthcare or engineering articles, you need to understand how to choose a technical translation service that can get you to your desired destination as smoothly as possible.  

But before we jump aboard, let’s look at what we mean by technical translation and how it differs to its more common cousin, general business translation.

What is technical translation?

Technical translation is the specialised translation of scientific or technical materials such as those outlined above, that require a technical translator who has a solid understanding of the subject matter and knows the specialised terms required in both the source and target languages.

Technical translation costs more than general business translation and may take longer. Generally, the more specialised and technical the subject, the more you should allow in your budget and time-frame. These two factors will depend on the level of scientific or technical knowledge required, the number of specialised translators available in the required language and the demand for those translators.

For example, the cost of translating an instruction manual for an inkjet printer from English into German should cost less than translating a patent into Japanese.

This is because patent translation is highly specialised. It requires good knowledge of both the subject matter and the art of writing patents according to strict legal and practical requirements. So there are fewer translators with this kind of level of expertise around. Similarly, there are fewer Japanese translators available than German – although demand for Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, for example, are on the rise. And to secure all three requirements in one individual is a highly specialised requirement.

You can read more here: What is technical document translation?

When technical translation goes wrong

Choosing the right translation services agency for the job can make or break an organisation’s reputation. At best, it makes the company appear unprofessional. At worst, it could be fatal. It’s one thing printing a minor grammar error. It’s entirely another thing miscommunicating instructions in, for example, a naval ships’ technical manual for crane operations, maintenance and safety.

Four problem areas with technical translation

Common technical translation challenges include:

  1. Choosing the right translation service

Choosing a technical translation service based on cost is always a mistake. It’s more important to focus on your required output, and which agency can deliver on that. Otherwise, you could end up wasting time and money – and even paying twice. So:

  • Be clear on what you want to achieve.
  • Know your audience and plan your timescales.
  • Consider, for example, whether you want desktop publishing.
  • Will you require technical support? For example, website translation may involve coding skills.
  • Ask your agency about their experience working with different cultural subtleties.
  • Avoid comparing apples with pears.

You can read more here: How to choose the right translation agency.

2. Supplying your technical translation agency with a brief

The tighter your brief, the better the outcome. As a bare minimum, you should include five key elements in your technical translation brief:

  • Your project scope
  • Deadlines to be met
  • Required languages
  • Source files, where possible
  • Reference materials

3. Managing the process – your involvement 

Maintaining communication at the level you want is important, so make sure you discuss this with your agency up front so you can agree on the best working environment for you and the project at kick-off.

If you need a flexible agency to work around deadlines, make sure you communicate this, too. Some agencies won’t commit to much flexibility, so it’s good to cover this one off asap. It’s important to give your agency as much warning as possible about deadlines, and that the project is mapped out from the start, with clear indications of who’s responsible for what and when, including the signing-off process, for example.

4. Providing feedback

This relates to two areas.

First, you will provide feedback during the translation process. This can be helpful for your translator to update your organisation’s translation memory database, which will make future projects much faster. There may be certain words, phrases or even sections that you know you will want to use again in the future. If this is stored in the translation memory system, then it can be translated automatically next time, which will speed up the process and lower your costs.

Second, at the end of the project, take some time with your agency to flag what did and didn’t work and why, so you build on your working relationship so the process becomes easier and the results, even better.

How to prepare your technical documents for translation

Before sending your technical documents to your translation agency, you should make sure you’ve ticked off the following actions:

  • Be specific about your target markets and readers, so your agency can identify any linguistic or cultural nuances in advance.
  • Make sure your documents are finalised. Last-minute edits once the translation process has started can cause delay and confusion.
  • Identify a suitable file format – ask your translation service agency which file formats they support.
  • Create a glossary that covers your specific, technical terminology.

To find out how we can help with your technical translations, give our team at Brightlines a call on 01225 580770 or contact us here for more information or a quote. Advice is free – we’re happy to help.

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