Translation of Technical Terms: A Practical Guide

Chidinma Egwuogu
05 Nov 2023

6 min. read


Miscommunication, dwindling sales, or even a tarnished brand image. The aftermath of incorrect translations of technical terms isn't just embarrassing; it's a business catastrophe waiting to happen.

Imagine the legal implications of mistranslations in a safety manual or an engineering blueprint.

But worry not. We'll break down the intricacies of technical term translation and show you how to sidestep common errors.

Pro tip: To ensure the accuracy and consistency of technical term translation, use a professional localization management platform – Centus. Learn more.

What is the technical term translation?

The translation of technical terms is the conversion of technical vocabulary from one language to another. It ensures that terms maintain their original specificity and integrity when carried across linguistic borders, allowing professionals to communicate effectively. What is technical term translation

Technical translation is a broad field that can be classified based on the various dimensions, aspects, or angles it addresses. These divisions include:

  • By industry: Technical translations tailored to specific sectors. This includes areas like the medical, engineering, IT, financial, and legal industries.
  • By document type: Categorization based on the kind of technical document being translated. Examples are user manuals, patents, datasheets, white papers, and scientific journals.
  • By complexity: A division based on the depth of specialization. There's basic technical translation for general documents and advanced specialized translation for more complex subjects.
  • By target audience: Tailoring translations based on who will read them. B2B focuses on professionals within an industry, while B2C targets general consumers.
  • By nature of content: Differentiating based on the document's primary purpose. Descriptive technical translation provides information, while operational technical translation offers instructions on usage.

Understanding these categories ensures precision in translation. It's also foundational when creating a technical translation glossary, which we'll discuss later in this guide.

Importance of accurate technical terms translation

Technical translation is more than word replacement. It ensures intricate concepts are communicated and understood across languages and cultures. Here's why clarity is essential in any technical translation project.

  • Consistent understanding: Clarity ensures uniformity of message, which is vital in technical fields where standardized procedures and practices are crucial.
  • Efficient decision-making: Clear information lets professionals decide quickly, without seeking further clarification.
  • Building trust: Clarity in technical documents boosts trust. Users feel more confident with clear and straightforward instructions.
  • Avoiding costly mistakes: Inaccuracies in technical translations can lead to errors in processes or operations. For instance, a misinterpreted engineering specification could result in a flawed product design. The 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter was lost due to a unit conversion error between metric and imperial measurements, resulting in a $125 million loss.
  • Maintaining safety: Translation errors can cause damage to life and property, particularly in fields like healthcare or aviation. Proper translation ensures instructions, warnings, and guidelines are clearly understood.
  • Upholding a professional image: Mistranslated technical documentation can tarnish a brand's image, making the company seem unprofessional or careless.
  • Facilitating clear communication: Accurate translation ensures all stakeholders, irrespective of their language, are on the same page. This is particularly vital in global projects involving cross-border teams.
  • Legal implications: Some industries are bound by regulatory compliance and legal standards. Misinterpreted translations could lead to breaches, resulting in penalties or legal action.

Common terms translation challenges and solutions

Technical translation comes with different challenges depending on the nature of the text and the languages involved. However, there are some challenges that professionals might commonly encounter. They are:

1. Complex sentence structures

Technical documents often contain long and complex sentences. When translated, these structures can become confusing or lose their meaning in the target language.

Solution: The key here is simplification without dilution. For instance, consider a sentence in a software manual that says: A textbox with the text: After pressing the red button located on the left side of the screen, which is adjacent to the settings icon, the user will be directed to the main dashboard This can be translated more succinctly as: A textbox with the text: Press the red button next to the settings icon on the left. This leads to the main dashboard

2. Ambiguity in source language

Sometimes, the original text might contain terms or phrases that have multiple meanings. Without proper context, it can be challenging to determine the intended meaning.

Solution: Ensure that translators have a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and a robust translation glossary to go with it. When in doubt, liaise with the content creator or an expert in the field for clarification.

3. Lack of equivalent terms

Some technical terms may not have a direct translation in the target language. This can lead to improvised translations that might not convey the same meaning.

Consider the term "Software as a Service (SaaS)" in English. While this term is widely recognized in the tech industry globally, some languages might not have an exact equivalent for "SaaS".

Solution: Use transliteration or retain the original term, but provide a footnote or a brief explanation to clarify the term's meaning for the audience.

For instance, in a Japanese document, SaaS might appear as "SaaS (ソフトウェアとしてのサービス)" where the term in parentheses is a transliteration and not a direct translation.

4. Maintaining flow while retaining accuracy

Achieving a balance between a text that reads naturally in the target language and maintaining the exact technical meaning can be tricky.

Solution: Instead of word-for-word translation, focus on conveying the core message. Ensure that the translation retains technical accuracy while being fluid and readable.

5. Adapting to cultural differences

Cultural nuances can influence the understanding of certain terms or instructions. What's intuitive in one culture might be alien in another.

Solution: Employ technical translators familiar with the cultural norms of the target audience. They can adjust the content to make it culturally appropriate while ensuring the technical meaning isn't lost.

6. Keeping up with evolving terminology

New terms emerge daily, and old ones change their meanings or become obsolete, especially in fast-paced industries.

Solution: Regularly update translation glossaries to minimize inconsistencies and errors. Also, conduct periodic training or workshops for your technical writers to keep them abreast of industry developments.

How to create a technical translation glossary

The earlier section highlighted some challenges faced during technical term translation, and one potent solution that kept surfacing was the use of a translation glossary. Now, let's briefly define what this glossary type is and how to effectively create one. what is a technical translation glossary? A technical translation glossary is a compilation of specialized terms and their accurate translations. This tool doesn't just help in maintaining consistency across documents; it also speeds up the translation process, reducing the need to re-translate recurring terms.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a technical translation glossary:

  1. Identify core terms: Start by listing down industry-specific terms, abbreviations, and phrases that often appear in your content.
  2. Consult with experts: Collaborate with industry professionals or stakeholders to ensure that you're capturing terms accurately.
  3. Define the terms: For every term in your glossary, provide a clear, concise definition to ensure that translators understand the context.
  4. Add the translation: Collaborate with native speakers or experienced translators for the target language to get the most accurate translation for each term.
  5. Use translation memory (TM) tools: These tools can integrate with your glossary, ensuring that terms are consistently translated as per your guidelines. On average, TMs can cut translation update costs by up to 30% and slash delivery times in half.
  6. Feedback loop: Encourage translators to give feedback on the glossary. They might spot terms that are missing, unclear, or have a more fitting translation.
  7. Regular review: Periodically go through the glossary, removing outdated terms and adding new ones as they come up.

When you diligently create and maintain a technical translation glossary, you're setting the foundation for clear, consistent, and accurate translations.

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