Search Icon

Blog

Our latest news & views

The ultimate guide to technical translation

By Josian Phillips, 

Accurate technical document translation is vital in today’s global market, but getting it right is easier said than done. The language of science, engineering and manufacturing is also the language of absolute precision, which is why technical documents demand impeccable accuracy. Without an understanding of the subject matter, even skilled linguists disappear up proverbial creeks.

So how can you ensure that your technical documents are translated to a high standard? Well, it helps to have a good understanding of the process and what to look for when it comes to technical translation. Our ultimate guide to technical translation aims to do exactly that! We want to provide you with an in-depth understanding of what technical translation means, when you’ll need it, and the challenges you might face along the way so that you can make sure your technical translation is up to scratch.

What is technical translation?

In comparison to other types of translation, technical translation is highly specialised. Ranging from science, software or engineering, right through to detailed medical data sheets and beyond, technical translation is more than just translating specialist language and key terminologies accurately.

A good technical document translator must:

  • Have an in-depth understanding of the intricate subject matter and preferably have worked in the industry
  • Understand the preferred terminology and vocabulary of the company
  • Be an expert in the culture of the target language, communicating the translated text in a natural and culturally appropriate way

When do you need technical translation?

If your source text contains complex or industry-specific terminology and concepts, you will likely need the help of a specialist language partner who is an expert in technical translation.

We’ve outlined a few specific types of source texts that will often require technical translation:

Patent translation

Patents are governed by legal and practical requirements. The translation of patents is highly complex and requires the linguist to have subject matter expertise and be skilled in writing the documents. The subject could be medical, chemical, mechanical or pharmaceutical.

A clear understanding of the context of the document is required – whether it’s a claim, description, or if it’s going to be needed in a legal dispute.

User manual translation

User manuals are one of the other most popular types of document to need technical translation. As with patents, this type of text also needs the linguist to be an expert on the subject matter and preferably to have had industry experience. In addition to this, the linguist also needs to be an expert on the translation of manuals and guides and be able to execute the right style of writing that is culturally sensitive.

According to an article published by the American Translators Association, technical manuals should have a totally objective tone without ‘any sign of the author or trace of subjectivity’. To achieve this in the target language requires specialist skills.

The translator also needs to understand the correct industry terminology to use in the manual, so it fits nicely into the norms of that language. To help with this, your language partner of choice should be able to start a glossary which is kept up to date with every project – we’ll look at translation glossary’s in more detail later!

Software strings

­Another form of technical translation has to do with the translation and localisation of software strings for user interfaces. While the user interface may seem to be in simple language, the translator needs to know how to handle strings that are being interpreted by a program. They also need to know the terminology and expectations required by software strings in another language. Localising software, apps, and e-learning programs requires a certain amount of technical know-how.

Health and safety documents

There’s a lot of specific terminology when it comes to health and safety, and failure to translate these terms correctly could cause harm to the user – something which we’re sure you’d like to avoid! After all, a company’s most valuable asset is its employees.

To effectively translate health and safety documentation, a skilled linguist is required. They must have a thorough understanding of the language surrounding health and safety and be able to translate the content in a way that is easy to understand and suited to the target audience. Using a professional translation agency will ensure that your documentation is translated by an experience and skilled translator.

Other areas of consideration

The realm of technical translation is vast, and it covers a wide range of content. On top of what we’ve already mentioned, technical translation also has its place within the following formats:

  • Articles/journals
  • Brochures
  • Feasibility studies
  • Internal communications
  • Manufacturing and engineering articles
  • Marketing communications
  • Material safety data sheets
  • Patents and patent applications
  • Product labelling, packaging and catalogues
  • Product specifications
  • Regulatory documentation
  • Service, maintenance and policy manuals
  • Site surveys
  • Software strings
  • Technical reports
  • Textbooks
  • Training materials
  • User and operating instructions
  • Website translation

The processes behind technical translation

As you might imagine, the processes involved in technical translation are… well, technical. Here is some of the terminology you might come across and what it means:

Translation glossary

Consistency is key when it comes to technical translation, and a translation glossary is an ideal tool to ensure that terminology is consistent. It’s sometimes referred to as a lexicon, term base, and terminology collection, but they all mean the same thing.

A translation glossary is fairly self-explanatory; it’s a glossary of translations and key terminologies that are commonly used within a specific technical field. It’s often used as a tool to eliminate uncertainty in the translation process and shorten the translation time, which also reduces the overall cost.

The glossary might also contain a variety of metadata – such as context, definition, part of speech – to give the translator as much information as possible, especially when it comes to words that have similar meanings. For example, words such as positive’ and ‘optimistic’ both have similar meanings but can be used differently depending on the context. With this in mind, the translation glossary will aid the translator when it comes to particular words in order to streamline the process and make sure the language is consistent.

Translation memory

Along with the use of a glossary, leveraging translation memory is also an important part of the process for technical document translation.

A translation memory tool works by building a database of source and target phrases previously translated by the linguist. These can then be reused where the same phrase reoccurs in the same document or a new document. Like the elephant, translation memory never forgets. It also makes new memories. It learns, stores and suggests translations based on previous translation activity – all in real time.

So, let’s say you’re preparing to relaunch an updated product or service into Europe or Asia. It’s got all the old favourites from your previous version, with a few more add-ons that new and existing customers will love. Chances are, 80% of the new version contains the same features and benefits as the current one, so you only need to update 20% of your marketing materials. Using translation memory, your translation team can recycle the existing, pre-approved translations and focus on the new content.

No matter who is translating it, where or even when, the preferred translation for certain strings, words and phrases are already there. For example, sometimes multiple translators will work on the same project – sometimes even years apart. With translation memory none of that matters. This saves our translators time and of course keeps materials consistent.

However, for original technical documents – which are different to anything your company has produced before – a translation memory tool will not initially produce any time or cost savings. It will, though, increase consistency in this first document by making sure the same phrases are reused.

If it’s your first time working with a language partner, then discussing putting together a glossary of preferred technical terminology would be beneficial for any future document translation project.

Using machine translation

Today, machine translation engines have more advanced algorithms and efficient statistical models that can produce more accurate translations.  They are not the right approach for every project, but in some cases they’re extremely useful, and for the best result are in conjunction with a human translator.

There are large bilingual databases packed with industry-specific terminology, glossaries and translation memories. Advanced algorithms even make it possible to translate documents completely, for information purposes, without the need for a human translator.

If machine translation is used in the process of technical document translation, an expert specialised technical linguist must always thoroughly review the translation.

The best language companies will help clients identify the right times to use human and machine translation. Some documents are too important to use machine translation, while others are high-volume and low importance, and post-edited machine translation can help reduce costs.

How to prepare for technical translation

When it comes to technical translation, a little more preparation is often required in comparison to other types of translation. This is mostly due to the level of technical and specialist knowledge that will be needed in order to effectively translate the document.

We’ve outlined some of the key areas for you to consider before working with a translation services provider:

  • Be specific about your target markets and your readers. This will allow your agency to 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 delays and confusion, so sign it off before the process begins to save yourself some hassle.
  • Identify a suitable file format. Ask your translation services agency which file formats they support and agree on a platform that works best for both of you.
  • Ask your translation partner to create a glossary that covers your specific, technical terminology. Getting a head start on your translation glossary will help streamline the translation process.
  • Prepare your text for design changes. Throughout the translation process, the copy will undoubtedly expand or contract, so make sure you allow white space. For more information on how to prepare for design changes, head over to our blog.

Get these things right and you immediately benefit from better, faster and cheaper results from your translation services provider!

Challenges

Much like any type of translation, there are challenges that may come your way. Hopefully, you’ll be well equipped to deal with those challenges having read this guide!

So what exactly are the challenges that come with technical translation, and how can they be overcome?

Terminology

Scientific and technical industries have an endlessly growing list of terminology. The extensive list of vocabulary is made all the more challenging by the concern that it may have a different name in different parts of the world, so it can be difficult to keep on top of specific terminology.

To mitigate any challenges with terminology, make sure that your translation agency matches translators with indepth working knowledge to the subject matter, not all do! This means that the translator will have first hand knowledge, meaning they will have a full understanding of the terminology which is normally used and will be best placed to use it correctly. They will also be able to identify any incorrect terminology throughout the translation process, which is equally as important.

Style and format

Depending on the target audience, the style and format of the document may have to be reworked. An experienced linguist will understand how the source text will have to be reimagined for global markets and will be able to incorporate these changes throughout the translation process.

The format of the document must also be followed exactly to ensure the meaning isn’t – apologies for the cliché line – lost in translation! When translating an instructive technical manual, the instructions must be accurate and with the correct context – especially if it’s for assembling a tricky product.

Translating from one language into another can result in language expansion and in some languages, contraction. If a manual was translated from English into Italian, it would need to be considered that Italian text would be about 30% longer when translated. This can alter the layout and number of pages, which can cause issues if not addressed before translation begins.

Linguistic form

Looking even deeper into technical translation, the linguistic form of the language must be understood. Elements such as tone, syntax, manner of questions posed, and the context of use need to be understood by the translator to avoid any miscommunication within the translation.

Cultural awareness also needs to be considered, as differences between cultures could mean that the text needs to be translated in a certain way. For example, cultural differences could include varying concepts of politeness and perceptions of various stereotypes. Such features tend to reflect on the text level, and any literal translation may sound strange – or even offensive – for the target culture.

Choosing the right translation partner

Finding the right translation agency is paramount to ensuring that your technical translation hits the mark. You need to be sure that your translation partner has the experience, knowledge and capability to translate your content to the standard that you need. Working with the wrong agency could be detrimental to the quality of your translation, so it’s important that you work with an agency that’s right for you! 

Have a look at our blog for a deeper insight into finding the right translation partner.

The cost of technical translation

Technical translation often costs more than standard translation and can take a little longer. due to the amount of work required to ensure the translation is accurate and of good quality. 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. There are a limited number of translators in each specific field, so the pool is smaller, and the prices therefore increase.

Think of it like this; 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 and 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 specialised requirement.

You can learn more about costs by heading over to our guide to translation pricing

Contact Brightlines today

For a free quote, or to find out more about our translation services, get in touch with us today. We’ve been well established in the industry for over 20 years and have a pool of over 4,000 experienced and reliable translators to choose from. Whatever you’ve got in mind, we’ve got the experience and capability to help you out.

Follow us for the latest
translation news and opinions