Broadly speaking, technical translation is the translation of materials dealing with scientific and technical subjects and using the specialized terminology of the scientific or technical field involved. Or, to put it another way, technical translation is translation that requires the use of a technical translator—one with a good understanding of the subject matter and knowledge of the specialized terms of that field both in the source and in the target languages.

The types of material that might qualify as needing technical translation are varied. At one extreme are articles from scientific, medical, engineering, and technical journals. These generally require people with graduate training in the field involved as well as good translation skills. At the other end are things like a product spec sheet for a computer, which may not need a high level of knowledge of the science of information technology, but does require a good working knowledge of the general terminology used in the field.

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The important thing to understand from the translation client’s point of view is that technical translation will cost more than general business translation and may take longer. The extra cost and time will vary according to the level of scientific or technical knowledge needed for the project, the number of specialized translators available in the required language, and the demand for those translators. For example, MTM LinguaSoft has recently had several calls for translation of medical articles from Japanese into English. The relatively high demand for technical translations in this language pair, coupled with the relatively small number of qualified translators, makes this a relatively expensive proposition.

A couple of other sub-specialties are worth mentioning here.

Technical translation: patents

Some translators concentrate on patent translation, which involves not only subject matter expertise, but also the art of writing patents, which is governed by legal and practical requirements. A freelance patent translator described one of the special demands of patent translation: “[T]he aim is often to craft the wording of a very broad claim covering all bases for all possible future applications for a new method, technique, gadget or gizmo, while disclosing as little real, new information as possible, because such information disclosure would naturally tend to narrow down the scope of the patent’s claims.”

One can see why translation of these documents would require a certain art as well as the appropriate scientific and technical knowledge.

Technical translation: user manuals

This category, which also includes things like online help, is what many people think of when they think of technical translation. This is probably because these materials are the specialty of the people we call “technical writers.” Translation of user manuals does require a specialized knowledge and approach in the translator, but they differ from other types of technical translation in a couple of major ways.

An article in the July 2013 issue of the ATA Chronicle, the official publication of the American Translators Association, argues that technical manuals should have a totally objective tone without “any sign of the author or trace of subjectivity.” ”Technical texts,” she states, “aim to convey information in a completely objective manner in order to help the reader perform a predefined task.”

Though much scientific and technical material strives for a tone of total objectivity, this is never really true in journal articles and, as the same freelance translator quoted above argues, in patents. And they are certainly not geared simply to outlining specific tasks. The dry, straight forward and usually simplified language of user manuals and is peculiar to this type of document.

The requirements of straight-forward language and simplicity do make user manuals good prospects for the use of machine or automated translation combined with post-editing. Manufacturers and technology firms who have to provide a variety of related manuals with frequent updates can particularly benefit from this technology. At the very least, the maintenance of a translation memory (TM) should speed up and reduce the cost of producing various versions of a manual in a given language.

Technical translation: software strings

So far, we’ve been talking about translation whose content is highly technical. Another form of technical translation has to do with the translation and localization of software strings for user interfaces. While the user interface may seem to be in simple language, the translator needs to know how to handle strings that are being interpreted by a program. They also need to know the terminology and expectations required by software strings in another language. Localizing software, apps, and e-learning programs requires a certain amount of technical know-how.

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Updated October 3, 2016

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