Technical-Scientific Translation: A Wondrous Voyage

Today, without a doubt, technical-scientific translators play a leading role in the world’s social, economic, and political arena.

(The author originally published the following in Spanish in Intercambios, the newsletter of ATA’s Spanish Language Division. He adapted the original content for this translation in order to reach a broader audience.)

Some time ago, a few students and rookie translators who were interested in the technical-scientific aspects of our profession caused me to reflect upon my own journey.

I’m Argentine and was formally trained as an English>Spanish translator in my country, where translation training programs tend to offer the following options: public translation (with a legal orientation), and technical-scientific and literary translation (with a generalist orientation—literary and technical training go together in one bundle). My training took the latter path. The observations presented here, however, are based on my experience in the international market, where I often collaborate with colleagues from a diverse range of professional backgrounds.

Technical-Scientific Work as an Option

Many colleagues find that technical-scientific translation is a logical niche within the profession, and thus proactively seek out such work. Others enter the field through unexpected opportunities, and find themselves challenged and excited by the work. Seeing the chance to further their professional development, they devote considerable time and energy toward working on technical-scientific projects, which might not have been on their radar screens at the start of their professional careers.

What Does Technical-Scientific Translation Involve?

Technical-scientific translation is a specialized type of work that entails the translation of documents produced by technical writers (e.g., specifications, user guides, owner manuals, catalogues, instructions, etc.). It might also cover texts related to areas of technological interest, either for practical application or for providing scientific or technical information. In general, among other elements, the work requires a reasonable understanding of the subject matter, the terminology, and the relevant writing conventions.

Technical vs. Scientific Translation

In broad terms, technical translation is related to scientific knowledge put into practice, while scientific translation is related to pure science (i.e., theoretical knowledge). There can sometimes be a stark difference between theory and practice, but occasionally they may be intertwined to the point of being inseparable. For example, a research paper on a particular disease—one that would be presented at an international symposium of specialist physicians—would encompass the analytical aspect of pure science in combination with practical knowledge applied to the treatment of the disease (e.g., the clinical trials of an experimental drug).

Characteristics of a Technical Translator

Years ago, I heard a colleague who—through the deliberate use of upper and lowercase letters—described what characterizes various types of technical translators. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my colleague’s name or the specific event. (I admit that the original idea is not my own, but my personal criteria are in alignment with it.) This colleague stated that there tend to be four types of technical translators in the international market:

TECHNICAL translators: These translators haven’t been formally trained in the art of writing (composition, grammar, spelling, and stylistics, etc.), but have entered the international translation market because of their technical/scientific knowledge and ability to communicate in one or more languages. In other words, they master the content, but need the collaboration of an editor to improve the quality of their product.

technical TRANSLATORS: (This is my case, and probably the case for many of our colleagues with similar professional backgrounds.) These translators enter the field through the exact opposite career path from the one described above. They have been formally trained in the translation profession, but don’t initially have the same degree of familiarity with the content as do professionals in technical and scientific fields. These translators have the opportunity to improve their performance in the course of their own experience through research and involvement in work projects.

technical translators: I hope I’m leaving no room for misinterpretation here. In the translation world there are people whose professional training is insufficient, and yet they somehow get work as technical translators. Some of them complete their initial formal training, but don’t continuously develop their skills. Thus, they produce work of objectionable quality. One way or another, there are technical translators (exclusively in lowercase letters) who are active in the market today. With time and experience, some of them end up improving the quality of their work. But others do not, and their involvement in a project can mean a real headache for the other team members.

TECHNICAL TRANSLATORS: These are a select minority, quite different from the immediately preceding category. These individuals are distinguished by their mastery of the art of writing as well as their knowledge of technical and scientific fields.

The Path Traveled So Far

I started translating professionally in 1983. Initially, I would translate during my spare time, as opportunities arose, since I had a full-time day job to cover my basic needs. After a few years, I began working on technical-scientific translations. It was a gradual process. Nowadays, I work both in editing and translating those types of materials. I didn’t choose this path on purpose. Rather, that’s simply how opportunities came along.

When I decided to work in the profession full-time, I managed to get a list of several hundred companies and offered my services to each of them through a personalized letter with my résumé attached (this was back in the 1990s). Less than 20% of those companies responded, but the investment paid off with enough clients to get started. I would go on to develop other contacts through third-party recommendations (i.e., colleagues, project managers, other clients, and friends). Currently, most of my clients are a product of those relationships. As for my current marketing strategy, I would say my method is similar to a spider’s. In other words, I attract potential clients, rather than using the tiger method, which implies going out and hunting for them.

Tackling a Technical-Scientific Translation Opportunity

Before agreeing to accept a project, I evaluate what it involves, including the subject matter, terminology, work volume, turnaround time, and whether I’ll be teaming up with someone else. If I’m familiar with the topic and believe I can deliver the required quality by the expected deadline, I take the project.

I start off by doing a quick, cursory reading to detect any possible terminology challenges, errors in the original text, problems with graphics, etc. If I see such errors or problems, I immediately notify the project manager. After that, I can start translating and managing the terminology. Throughout the process, to prevent a last-minute frenzy, I make sure to keep the communication flowing with the project manager and, if applicable, with the editor as well.

Glossaries and Other Necessary Tools of the Trade

Glossaries are assembled quite differently now that translation memories have become such a standard industry tool, but they are no less important. Sometimes, a glossary will need to be prepared before the actual translation work can begin. I can think of two examples of why this would be the case.

    1. Because the end-client requires one, when their internal contact person wishes to apply their own terminology and wants to evaluate the translator’s vocabulary in advance.
    2. Because the end-client wants to reuse the vocabulary from documents that their organization previously translated. In this case, the translator is usually provided with copies of the reference documents in both languages. (Note: don’t assume this will happen—make sure to ask!) Then, the key terms—those used most frequently and/or those that are difficult to translate—are picked up for the glossary. The terminology file usually has two columns, with the source text on the left and the translation on the right. For purposes of clarification, some reference to the original context or source is often added in a separate column. Glossaries are frequently assembled using a terminology management tool, along with a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool. Such tools automatically search for and offer equivalent terms during the translation process.

    Besides CAT tools, other essential resources include specialized dictionaries, online forums, interaction with colleagues, and contacts who have specific technical knowledge. Other key considerations include how much time needs to be devoted to the project (without sacrificing hours of sleep), a healthy attitude of self-criticism, the premise that no one is perfect, and, of course, an excellent internet service provider.

    Daily Productivity?

    On average, I translate about 2,500 words per day or edit about 7,000 words translated by another colleague. The word count is based on the original text, and my productivity varies with the complexity of the subject matter, among other factors.

    What if I’m assigned a translation of 10,000 words or more? First, I evaluate the basic aspects of the project, such as the degree of terminological difficulty. I then distribute the project over a work schedule that allows me not only to produce a given number of words per day, but also to devote some time to smaller projects for other clients. Naturally, all of this is subject to the deadline, which is agreed upon before starting a project.

    How Much Will It Cost?

    I tend to price my work with a per word rate (based on the word count of the original), and my rate needs to be in line with the market’s supply and demand. Some clients require the use of translation memories that are already available. If so, once a base rate is agreed upon, with the translation memory as a reference, the cost is calculated based on a discount system for partial and total matches. Then, with the help of a CAT tool, the translator or the project manager can run a budgetary analysis of the source-language text.

    Opportunities Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

    The outlook for technical-scientific translators has changed considerably since I started walking this path. When I got my diploma, I saw other colleagues who had preceded me trying to make their way as professionals in the field. Some were barely able to get jobs as bilingual office clerks with international companies. Others turned to teaching, which seemed to be the natural alternative to subsidize the lack of translation opportunities. A few others, such as yours truly, eked out a living in an unfulfilling job that offered no future but helped pay the rent. My contemporaries and I would translate as an occasional paid side gig and took advantage of every opportunity to develop ties with potential clients. Today, without a doubt, technical-scientific translators play a leading role in the world’s social, economic, and political arena. We live on a planet enriched by science, the exchange of ideas, international travel, immigration, and major social changes. Transcultural communication is critical for all of that.

    What about the Robotic Threat?

    It seems that quite a few colleagues feel intimidated by the advance of technological resources in our industry, such as automatic and semiautomatic translation.1 However, these advancements wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of human translators.2 So far, the machine’s output is no match for the professional human translator. Moreover, on a daily basis, humanity continues to generate an ever-increasing volume of information, much of which needs to cross linguistic barriers. Work opportunities will continue to change along with the ways we interact and collaborate with one another. We’ll keep playing an essential role for the foreseeable future, and keep making a living with our passion. I love it.

    Additional Resources
    1. Zetzsche, Jost. “GeekSpeak: Fake News,” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2019), http://bit.ly/GeekSpeak-Fake.
    2. Tomarenko, Valerij. “Translate Differently and Don’t Fear,” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2019), http://bit.ly/Tomarenko.

    Guillermo “Willy” Martinez, CT is a freelance editor and ATA-certified English>Spanish translator based in Argentina. Contact: willyspanish@gmail.com.

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