The Expertise Factor in Business/Technical Translation

One of the surest ways to tell the difference between an expert and a layman in any field is their use of specialized language. The expert is a master of nomenclature, fluent with the signs, symbols and phrasings of a particular science, discipline or art. The layman uses common terms in discussing technical matters, betraying a lack of extensive knowledge of the subject.

When it comes to translation of technical or business documents, this difference can become even more pronounced, leading to significant misunderstandings and even mistrust. Just imagine the procedural instructions of a brilliant neurosurgeon rendered in the words of a high school biology student or a manual regarding the installation and maintenance of a naval radar system created by someone with no military or engineering background. The results could be laughable at best and life-threatening at worst.

That’s why anyone with a need for accurate business/technical translations should consider very carefully the degree of industry knowledge that translators bring to their craft. In most cases, linguistic proficiency is simply a minimum requirement. Specialized education and direct experience in the field are what make one translator worth so much more than another, even to the point of being indispensable.

Identifying Expertise

Most engineers can earn a better living pursuing their chosen careers than working as translators, so it is rare to find a practiced specialist available fulltime in the field of translation, something of which Chinese Connects spent years developing. However, in general there are certainly engineering students who have a firm grasp of their subject matter, as well as retirees with extensive knowledge. Such individuals can often apply themselves to the task of translation with excellent results.

What’s more, there are linguists who have chosen to carve out a particular niche and become self-taught masters of the related business or technical field. These specialists are recognized more readily by their portfolios of successful projects than by the degrees that hang upon their walls. Experience is what counts.

In translation, just as in other professions, expertise comes in many forms. There are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), who know not only technical jargon but also how tasks are performed. They may not presently perform in their area of expertise—such as a college professor who teaches business—but they are familiar with the subject from past activities in a wide variety of contexts.

A somewhat different type of expert is the “exemplary performer.” This is a person who can perform the tasks for a certain subject area and is worthy of imitation, having acquired a great deal of knowledge about the peripherals that surround the subject or task. Unlike the SME, this person may actually work in the field by day, such as a physician’s assistant who moonlights by doing translation at night.
Areas of Application

Medical science, business and engineering are certainly fields that deserve the benefit of expert translation, but they are not the only ones. Contracts and legal documents may benefit from the knowledge of a translator with paralegal experience. Information related to food products might be best entrusted to someone with a background in nutrition. From agriculture, construction, mining and manufacturing to education, cinematography and sports, output is enhanced by employing those who fully understand the content of the documents being translated.

In fact, the level of expertise that is required for any project can be defined very specifically. The translator’s knowledge of the subject matter should be at least equal to the level of the audience that will be reading the resulting documents. This applies just as much to patent applications, insurance policies and pharmaceutical descriptions as it does to machinery operation manuals, specification sheets or other technical documents.

That said, there can be times when too much expertise can actually be a hindrance. A good example is the toy manufacturer who produces telescopes for children. The marketing materials and instructional manuals for these products must be geared for parents and grandparents, not astrophysicists. Having a retired astronomer prepare the translation might actually complicate communication, whereas experts are often loath to “dumb down” their knowledge and apt to fall into over-explanation or mind-numbing nomenclature.

Avoiding Ambiguity

By its very nature, language is growing and changing every day, complexly connected to the culture that spawns it and the social situations in which it is used. That’s why a translator armed only with dictionaries is no match for a subject matter expert or exemplary performer with linguistic skills. Language contains many ambiguities and is often meaningless outside of its technical context.

Take, for example, a simple term like “CD.” Although the abbreviation commonly refers to ways of storing music or money—compact disc or certificate of deposit—in fiber optics, it’s shorthand for “chromatic dispersion”; in telecommunications, it refers to a “call distributor”; and in currency markets, it’s the “Canadian dollar.” English offers at least 247 different meanings, most of which are technical in nature.

To complicate matters even more, word order in English is almost deliberately confusing. In a discussion of hypertension, do “calcium channel blockers” actually block calcium channels or are they calcium substances that block channels? An expert medical translator would know the true meaning and could even produce a less ambiguous alternative description: “calcium antagonists.”

Clearly, the opportunities for confusion and misinterpretation are huge when taking a business or technical document from one language to another. A mistranslated operating manual might easily result in an industrial accident; a hospital patient could receive inappropriate treatment; or an otherwise worthy patent application might be rejected. To avoid such pitfalls and achieve accuracy, the translation process must be based on full understanding, not guesswork. That’s why translators with specific industry knowledge remain in high demand. There is no substitute for premium quality.

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