“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain

It can be easy to think of the translation of engineering and technical texts as cut and dry, with words pumped out by machine translation software like sweets out of a factory, each as perfect as the last, with no need for further thought.

But the precise translation of texts like these requires specialised training, prior experience and an understanding of the surrounding context, which can have a profound impact on how the end user interacts with your content and ultimately your brand.

Considering that the translation product can be an operating manual or even a safety manual, badly translated terms and unclear instructions can drastically alter the way the product or service is perceived. An otherwise satisfied customer will become frustrated, grappling with a piece of machinery or software product as they attempt to puzzle out the meaning of the text.

One and the same word form can have different meanings in different areas of science and engineering. A specific term will therefore be different depending on its context of use and may result in a nonsensical translation. At the very least, this can culminate in a lower NPS (Net Promoter Score) and mean that instead of waxing lyrical about a product to friends and colleagues, the dissatisfied end user is likely to damage your brand’s reputation by negative word of mouth.

A clear example of the importance of accuracy in translated text is the Translation Quality Metric, which was developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers to tackle the inaccurate translation of automotive documents. Incorrectly translated documentation can have large repercussions, such as higher warranty costs, damage to vehicles and even injury to those operating a machine. Just like we wouldn’t put a one-year-old behind the wheel, we wouldn’t ask a linguist with no understanding of automotive vehicles to translate a manual for a tractor.

Knowing your pocket from your elbow

Our Lead Finnish Translator, Antti, is convinced of the benefits of translators who are knowledgeable in their subject area. “The most important benefit you can draw from being familiar with the subject content is being able to spot if a phrase or term is incorrect, either in a reference text or a previous translation done by someone else. Any good translator should be able to handle several types of texts, so although in-depth knowledge doesn’t automatically guarantee better results in any given text, experience can sometimes help you put right something that may have been wrong in previous texts for years. It feels good when you can improve the quality of the client’s translations in this way.”

Senior Norwegian Translator Jørn is particularly interested in diligently researching terminology. “Images are often very helpful for clarifying a term, as you can see exactly which part of the product a specific word or phrase refers to. Terminology is often the first thing you research when you translate a new technical text, because a good understanding of the terms will help you translate with a better flow.”

Considering how a term is used in the real world is therefore imperative. The translation of “pocket”, for example, is entirely dependent on context, as it can have several different meanings. “Pocket” can indicate an “air pocket” in aviation, “surroundings” in military use, a “dead zone” in radio, a “deposit” in geology and a “cable channel” in electrical engineering.

It’s easy to imagine the difficulties that can arise if “a pocket of gold ore”, for example, is translated in a military context, where a pocket refers to isolated, surrounded pockets of combatants who are being attacked by an opposing force http://rusbankinfo.ru. Similarly, an air pocket in aviation simply refers to turbulence. Getting the term wrong here will baffle the end user who is attempting to access a particular product or service.

What’s the context?

Translation errors of this nature, where the translator has disregarded the context, can lead to confusing or misleading representations of the client product. This can happen when low-quality machine translation is used or when somebody translates without the proper training. An example from the German language is “Kraft”, which can be translated as “force”, “power”, “strength” or “thrust” depending on the subject content and the context of the source text.

The term “power” can have very different meanings depending on context in the Nordic languages as well, as Antti explains. “There are several Finnish translations for ‘power’, ranging from teho and voimakkuus to sähkövirta. The first one is what you would use when describing the power output of an engine, for example. Voimakkuus could refer to the power or strength of a signal, and sähkövirta (or just virta) is what’s involved when you’re talking about electrical power.”

The same issue arises in Norwegian. “Power can be translated in several ways for technical applications depending on what kind of power the text refers to,” explains Jørn. “Electrical power (strøm, and there are different types of electrical power, such as sterkstrøm ‘power current’ or ‘heavy current’ and nettstrøm ‘mains current’ or ‘public current” or simply ‘power’), or mechanical power (arbeid ‘work’, energi ‘energy’ and kraft ‘force’).”

But there are ways we can help our translators understand the context behind a term. For example, the original PDF of a user manual, containing images and diagrams relating to the product and its constituent parts, is often indispensable. Screenshots of single-word strings in help pages can also help the translator understand if the string refers either to a call to action framed as a button or to a menu item.

Singing from the same style sheet

Although understanding the context of a term and the concept behind it in the target language and culture is vital, there might sometimes be other necessary requirements. Some manufacturers may simply prefer one term over another. This can be down to stylistic preferences or there may be a technical reason for a particular usage.

Termbases, which are databases containing preferred terminology and other information such as meanings and examples of usage, can be incredibly useful for linguists to keep your content consistent and accurate across different languages. They can be maintained and built upon over time, for specific domains, products and customers, meaning that linguists can find out preferred terms with a few clicks of the mouse.

The value of termbases cannot be underestimated.

“Termbases are particularly helpful if entries have definitions explaining the terms so that we know it is right in the context. Sometimes terms can have several synonyms, and the termbase is then good for showing which term our clients prefer,” says Jørn.

Our translators and project managers have extensive experience in using termbases created using specialist software. Instead of a translator having to search through a large, convoluted Excel spreadsheet full of preferred terms and definitions, the software efficiently identifies the entries that are most useful for the translation of a particular word or phrase. The value of termbases can therefore not be underestimated. As your colleagues supporting you in the launch of your products in new markets, there’s only one thought in our mind: that we use all the resources at our disposal to represent your product in the best light possible.

In summary, the importance of employing a translator with subject matter knowledge and experience cannot be underestimated. Not only will the translator provide high quality translations, they may also spot past errors or be able to contribute towards improving the termbases and translation memories.

But a good linguist does not translate in a vacuum. They require the original source text or helpful screenshots to allow them to comprehend the full context of a term in its original context of use. Termbases are also incredibly useful in maintaining consistency in style and terminology. When all these conditions are met, you will be well on your way to producing a translation of a high standard.

If this article wasn’t convincing enough, I’ll leave you with a few inspiring real-world examples. A sign reading “Blasting In Progress” in Wales was translated as “Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro”, which literally means “workers exploding”. Although not very accurate, it’s probably enough to keep people away! But it doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. When I was in a restaurant in Portugal on holiday a couple of years ago, I sat down and started leafing through the English menu, only to find that I could order “a wild ox running over the hot coals”. It didn’t sound particularly appetising, but points for creativity.

Quality management, Technical translation, Translation tips