What Is Technical Translation? Definition & Best Practices

Chidinma Egwuogu
27 Dec 2023

9 min. read


Thinking of hiring someone from Fiverr for translating user manuals, datasheets or technical reports? A bad idea. And don't even think about using Google Translate or Deepl for such critical tasks. What you truly need is specialized technical translation.

Here, we're about to dive into the world of technical translation with our detailed guide.

Pro tip: Use Centus to streamline your technical translation process and ensure consistent, high-quality translations across all projects and languages. Learn more.

What is Technical Translation?

Technical translation is the process of converting technical documents, manuals, or text information from one language to another. This specialized type of translation requires a deep understanding of the specific industry jargon and terminology, as well as knowledge of both the source and target languages. What is technical translation?

Types of Technical Translation

Technical translation can be broken down into several types, such as medical translation, engineering translation, IT translation, patent translation, and scientific translation. The specific type depends on the field of knowledge the text pertains to.

Documents that typically require technical translation include but aren't limited to:

  • User manuals
  • Technical guides
  • Product specifications
  • Patent documents
  • Scientific texts
  • Safety instructions
  • Installation instructions
  • Technical training materials
  • Technical reports
  • Software UI documents
  • Technical drawings
  • Excel sheets

Technical Translation Importance

Translating technical documents is an intricate art that must be done with the utmost care, as even one mistranslated word could turn into a disaster. Case in point: a failure to translate English units to metric led to the spectacular demise of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter and a monumental $125 million loss.

An artist's depiction of NASA Mars Climate Orbiter

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The orbiter’s crash is a sobering reminder of why technical translation is so important.

However, technical translation isn't only for NASA scientists or multi-million dollar space missions. Its importance also extends to a multitude of industries and scenarios. Here are a few reasons why technical translation matters and who might need it:

  • Communication: Businesses with a global presence need technical translation to communicate complex documents clearly. This includes policy files for overseas partners, product/service manuals for customers, or even employee handbooks.

  • Regulatory compliance: Many industries are regulated and require companies to provide technical information in the local language. Failure to do so can lead to penalties and reputational damage.

  • Increased market reach: Technical translation boosts the effectiveness of companies’ market expansion efforts. By offering technically accurate and culturally relevant information, businesses can effectively target and engage with customers in new markets around the world.

So, whether you're a global corporation or a small business expanding overseas, technical translation can help you communicate effectively, meet regulatory requirements, and reach a broader audience.

How to Perform Technical Document Translation

Technical document translation is not easy to handle. But by following the right process and best practices, you can ensure translation accuracy and clarity.

how to perform technical translation

Here's how to perform technical translation:

Step 1: Understand the document

First things first: understand the document's context. This means identifying who will use the document, what its purpose is, and the environment it will be utilized in. Depending on these factors, the language, tone, and terminology used in the translation can differ.

Example: Unlike tech reports and patents, user manuals should minimize the use of industry-specific jargon and complex sentences.

Understanding the document also involves identifying its structure, layout, and potential cultural references. Having this knowledge upfront allows the translator to make appropriate language choices throughout the translation process.

Step 2: Build a glossary

Identify and list the key technical terms that appear in the document. This glossary' will help you ensure that specific terms are consistently translated across the document.

For every term in the glossary, it's helpful to note:

  • The original technical terminology in the source language
  • The translated term in the target language
  • A brief explanation or definition for context

The glossary is particularly essential for technical translation, as consistency and accuracy in technical terms are valid concerns. Glossary building can be done manually or with the use of glossary-building features in your translation management software or localization system.

Step 3: Translate the document

The actual translation work begins once the glossary is ready. Use your understanding of the document and the glossary to translate the text. There are three primary methods of translation you can use for this stage:

  • Human translation: In this traditional method, skilled linguists or a single technical translator translate the document. It is the most time-consuming method, but it is also typically the most accurate because humans understand context, nuances, and cultural factors that machines cannot.
  • Machine translation (MT): In this method, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools are used to translate technical texts. While this method is faster, it may not be as accurate, especially when dealing with complex language pairs and specialized technical terms.
  • Machine translation post-editing (MTPE): This is a hybrid approach that combines machine translation with human editing. The document is first translated using MT, which saves time. Then, technical translators review, edit, and improve the machine-translated text, adding a human understanding of context, idioms, and cultural references.

This approach balances speed with accuracy. It's usually more effective than either MT or human translation alone because it combines the best of both methods.

Step 4: Reviewing and editing

Once the translation is complete, the document must be thoroughly reviewed and edited. Here, a second linguist usually cross-checks the translated document against the original.

The purpose is to ensure that the translation correctly conveys the original's intent, message, and tone. This process also includes checking for and correcting any errors or ambiguities and ensuring that the translation conveys the original text's meaning accurately.

You should also check the structural integrity of the translated document. For example, the formatting, layout, and graphical elements need to be checked for accuracy and consistency.

Step 5: Quality assurance

The final stage of the process is Quality Assurance or QA. In this step, QA software checks the translated document for any missed errors, inconsistencies, or issues related to formatting.

Learn more about localization and translation quality assurance in our comprehensive guide.

Pro tip: Use a translation management system, Centus, to streamline your technical translation process. Learn more.

Technical Translation Best Practices

Now that you've got the hang of what technical translation involves, let's share expert tips to further assist you with your translation process.

  1. Stay current with industry terminology: Industries evolve, and so does their language. Staying up-to-date with industry-specific terminology, and regularly updating your scientific or technical knowledge ensures accuracy in your translations. This could mean engaging your technical translators in continuous learning, subscribing to industry-specific publications, or joining professional networks.

  2. Don't just translate, localize: When translating technical documents, consider the cultural context of your target audience. This includes not just language, but also local conventions, units of measure, date formats, etc. Localizing your content makes it more relatable and understandable to the audience.

    Work with professional translators to avoid cultural insensitivity in technical documentation: innocuous language in one culture can be offensive in another. Be mindful that some technical translations may not exist in different cultures, so you’ll need to take a creative and delicate approach to your translation.

  3. Get to know your audience: Knowing who you're translating for can guide your language choices. What is their education level? How familiar are they with the topic? What is their culture? Adjust your translation style to match their needs and make the content both accessible and meaningful to them.

  4. Keep your writing simple and straightforward: Technical topics can be complex, but your technical translations don't have to be. Avoid unnecessary jargon and overly long sentences. Make your point clear, so your audience can understand it easily, no matter their language or background.

    You should also try to keep all your original technical images free of text. If you need to label part of a product, it’s best to do it in a small list beside the product picture.

  5. Regularly update your translations: Technical documents often contain information that changes over time. As your products, services, or processes evolve, so should the technical documents that describe them. New features are added, old features are removed, instructions change, and terms are updated.

    Failing to update your translated documents might result in confusion, misuse of the product or service, and potential safety risks, especially in industries like healthcare or manufacturing.

  6. Use a Translation Management System (TMS): Handling multiple translations can get overwhelming. However, a translation management system can make it manageable by automating and streamlining the process.

    Reasons why a TMS is essential for your technical writing include:

    • Efficient project management: A TMS helps manage multiple translation projects simultaneously. You can track progress and deadlines, all in one comprehensive dashboard.
    • Collaboration: It enables real-time collaboration between technical translators, reviewers, and project managers, improving productivity and communication.
    • Consistency: By leveraging translation memories and glossaries, a TMS ensures consistent use of terminology across all translated documents.
    • Cost-effectiveness: Automation reduces the time and resources spent on managing translation projects and saves you a ton of money.
    • Quality control: Any good TMS has automated quality checks that help spot and rectify errors early and enhance the overall quality of the translation.

    One such TMS is Centus.

    Centus handles everything from building glossaries, managing translation memories, and monitoring project progress, to coordinating multiple translators. It’s a cost-effective solution that helps you keep tabs on and measure the speed and accuracy of your translation projects.

    What’s more, Centus comes with built-in quality assurance tools to help you deliver perfect technical translations, time and time again. Learn more.

Centus dashboard

To Sum Up

Technical translation is an integral part of business communication, especially for companies that have a global reach. It's a complex procedure that requires a keen understanding of the subject matter, the cultural context, and language proficiency.

In this article, we've explored what technical translation entails, its significance, and how best to execute it. We've also talked about how tools like translation management systems can vastly improve your translation process by providing you with tools to better manage your projects.

Now that you have a deeper understanding of technical translation and its importance, you can take what you've learned and apply it to your own projects.

Remember, careful attention to detail and a focus on accuracy are the keys to a successful translation.

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