Jun 2010

How can you guarantee the best quality technical translations?

Somewhere, orbiting the Sun in the far reaches of the solar system, there is very likely to be a lost space probe. It was intended to monitor the climate on Mars; but a technical error meant that it went astray. The nature of the blunder? Part of the engineering team used centimetres and another part was working on metric. The cost to NASA was about $125 million. Technical miscommunication can have expensive consequences; hence the importance, on international projects, of sound technical translations.

Technical writing is almost a foreign language in itself. Anyone knows this whose computer has ever thrown up one of those cryptic messages of the ‘The memory could not be referenced’ type. It seems that people who write dialogue boxes don’t particularly value user-friendliness. (The webcomic xkcd has a splendid cartoon of ‘the author of the Windows file copy dialogue visits some friends’: ‘I should be there in fifteen minutes – actually, it’s looking more like six days – no, thirty seconds.’)

But the message isn’t for us: it’s for the IT department. And the IT department doesn’t want florid prose: they want certain precise points of information about the error. It’s designed to be used by a specific group of people. By its very nature, technical translations can only be done by someone in this group.

There are reasons for the opacity of technical translations. It’s not to maintain the exclusivity of the technicians’ clique. Nor is it purely because of the abstruse subject-matter – though that’s an important factor, and one that underlines the importance of leaving technical documents to specialists. It would be irresponsible to entrust, say, an instruction manual of safety mechanisms in braking devices to someone with only a vague idea of what they were translating.

There are more subtle reasons for technical translations. When I convey a message to someone, the words spoken represent only a part of the information I put across. The recipient of the message picks up a lot more from the context: from the situation, from my style of communication, from tone of voice; what linguists call pragmatics. This is why officials are so fond of standardised forms and box-ticking. It’s not awkwardness: simply that, if the context can be kept the same, then the information remains constant.

For technical writers the necessity for standardisation is even greater. Aspects of technical writing are even monitored by the International Standards Organisation, whose role is more usually to ensure components are compatible across different systems (for example, to ensure that a plug will actually fit into a socket). Inept technical translations, therefore, may not just be those that are not quite what the technicians were expected. Inept technical translation of, say, a manual could prevent the customer from achieving an ISO certification. Technical writings are about more than just the words.

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