Understanding the Material
The key to translation, as has been stressed many times before, is
not only understanding syntax and the words, but also understanding the material. The
fields of science and technology are expanding exponentially. Not only are new words
entering the language every day, but new disciplines are being born, maturing, and
developing offshoots. Even well-established disciplines which have been long static, such
as geology, have developed very specific subdisciplines such as marine geology,
astrogeology, environmental geology, volcanology, seismology, borehole geophysics, and
this list is not exhaustive. Thus, the dividing line between one discipline and the next
tends to become blurred.
The Role of Terminology
What role does accurate terminology play in communicating the
content of the translation to the reader? Long ago, when first starting to translate, I
was told by a fellow translator, "Dont worry. You can call the gizmo anything
that sounds remotely close. The engineers will figure it out!" This, of course, is
being ingenuous. Technical translators are often upbraided for using too much jargon,
nontechnical translators for using none. But jargon is the lingua franca of the engineers
and scientists. They dont speak like that to sound pompous or learned; that is the
language they use every day in talking to one another. If we do not use the correct
terminology, to which they are accustomed, we run the serious risk of confusing the
Too often, when translating a document, the technical translator
comes to a screeching halt over a term he has never encountered before. When the light
finally dawns, the fact emerges that some original translator translating from English
into the foreign language did not know and did not research the appropriate term in his
own language. The scary result is that some of the foreign personnel are using this
terminology concoction in their standard vocabulary. Whereas some "coinage"
provides sharper tools for the language, terminology concoctions only serve to bastardize
the language when perfectly good words exist.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. English is a comparatively
rich language, wherein often a single word suffices to describe an item, whereas other
languages make a root word perform multiple duty by employing it in conjunction with a
whole host of qualifiers. Yet people are notoriously lazy, both in writing and in
speaking, so that in any particular discipline the tendency is to drop the qualifier and
just use the root word. After all, they know what they are talking about.
But does the nontechnical translator? Of course not. That is where
the background experience of the technical translator comes into play. If the root word
does not make sense, the technical translator researches alternative meanings for the word
that can fit. Sometimes, even with technical drawings and diagrams accompanying the text,
it is difficult to choose just the right word to convey the meaning, so how well can the
nontechnical translator be expected to fare?
Often the Internet can be a real boon for a term that is a complete
stumper, but when the Internet is not very helpful, the technical translator can waste a
great deal of time trying to research a term there. If we define a discipline as a subject
which merits its own monolingual dictionary or reference tome, we can come up with
something like 400 disciplines for science and technology, 60 for medicine, and 40 for
law. Notwithstanding, we are often very lucky to find one good bilingual dictionary to
cover any one field: science and technology, medicine, or law. This leaves the technical
translator in the dark regarding a lot of the terminology, thus making monolingual
reference dictionaries essential if we are to stand a chance of doing a good job.
The Situation in Practice
There are a series of malpractices being carried out within our
industry, which we seem powerless to stop. By way of example, I cite a few horror stories:
I had to take over the translation of a series of drilling
reports in which the original translator had the terminology mostly right, but really did
not understand the operations going on. The measurement units were confused, and the
translation did not make sense at all. Each offshore well costs $40 million to drill.
I "proofed" the work of a group of translators on a
large technical report for a utilities distribution system in a major metropolis (15
million people). The English in the reports was so bad in places as to be unintelligible.
There was no attempt to employ the correct terminology, and the technical portions made
for very heavy reading and contained numerous errors.
I had one agency call me to provide "confirmation"
of certain foreign language words to help a translator. The words turned out to be
elementary for any translator with minimal experience in the field, and I shudder to think
what the final translation looked like.
More than one agency has brought in foreign
"bilinguals" with no experience, temporary work visas, or no visa at all, to
work on major projects, at rates which far undercut what local translators receive.
Whats more, they have done so with no attempt at coordination or terminology support
for the translation group.
The simple fact of the matter is that as the market expands, a large
volume of technical translation is being handed out to translators who are both
technically incompetent to translate it and do not have adequate reference materials for
that specific field, but who nevertheless charge lower rates than the average technical
translator. When the agency is called to task, the translation is given to a competent
technical translator for proofing. The agency suffers no penalty except that of reworking
a translation rejected by the client, for which they do not pay the poor translator.
Furthermore, this particular breed of agency does not provide any terminology support to
its translators. The translator is supposed to be the sole arbiter of terminology. If the
client complains about the translation, then rightly or wrongly, the translator gets
blamed, with nobody to mediate in his favor.
The situation is so bad that major clients are moving to train their
own translators in-house, who by definition are not necessarily qualified for the job, but
by dint of familiarity and training do a better job than the ad hoc translator assigned by
the agency. There is no attempt to assess the enormous financial and legal penalty
engendered in multinational corporations by giving them poor translationsit probably
runs into the billions.
The price is being paid by our industry in terms of our image, and
ultimately in work irretrievably lost by the dubious practices of the agencies. The client
is often held hostage by an agency that provides "language training" and has
zero translation experience, so that the client does not know where to turn for good
translations. The technical translator is being undercut by "part-time"
translators who do not have a fraction of the knowledge or terminology needed to generate
a good translation.
Because the client gets such poor translations, they often resort to
doing "gisting" translations themselves on the Internet, and reworking the
translations "in-house" so as to make sense. Alternatively, by opening a foreign
office and doing the translations abroad, they are often getting better service, even with
the poor English and inexperienced translators, than the services provided by unethical
In other words, since technical translators are not made overnight,
these unethical agencies are doing a good job of putting all the technical translators out
of business as a professional group.
In conclusion it is appropriate to state just what we mean by
professionalism and ethics in technical translation.
It is unprofessional to accept a translation in a technical
field in which you have no experience.
It is unprofessional to tackle a technical translation in a
field where you have no reference resources.
It is unprofessional, if an agency insists on assigning you
the translation, not to forewarn them either that you have no experience in the area, or
that your dictionaries and/or reference material may be deficient in that area.
It is unprofessional not to hand back a translation, or to
omit to flag for review those parts of the translation that do not make sense.
It is unethical to assign a translation to a translator whose
capabilities in the particular field are unknown to you.
It is unethical to bid on a job at a price at which you know
no competent technical translator would touch the job.
It is unethical to assign a translation, on the basis of
price, to a translator whose credentials for doing the job are dubious, and then turn
around and ask a competent translator to "proof" the translation.
It is indeed professional to help a colleague with
terminology in a field where you may have acquired expertise.
It is unprofessional to help a colleague with terminology
when it is very clear that he does not have any background experience in the field. By
doing so, you may contribute to the illusion that the translation is a good one, whereas
it may contain hidden defects that may ultimately penalize the client.
It is unprofessional to assign a person to proof the
technical content of a translation who does not have qualifications at least commensurate
with the translators qualifications. Often these proofers do more harm than good.
It is unprofessional to assign a person to
"proof/edit" a translation whose command of the target language is not at least
commensurate with the translators command of the language. Often these persons
modify the original intent of the translator.
It is unprofessional to assign a translation abroad at a low
rate, and then clean up the English in the target language using someone who is not
bilingual and does not understand the foreign translators intent, or who does not
understand the subject matter.
It is unethical to bring foreign nationals into the country
and not tell them what the going rate is for the job, or not pay them something close to
the going rate.
It is unethical to assign all your major projects to foreign
translators working abroad, thereby prejudicing the livelihood of the U.S. resident
translators, and then expect the domestic translators to turn around and do small and rush
I personally believe it is unethical to claim a business advantage
as a minority-owned business, and not tell the clients that the minority-owned business
contracts a significant part of its business with nonresident aliens.
Lastly, because of complications with the tax code and the ultimate
prejudice to the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. economy, it is only ethical that any business
in the U.S. contracting a significant part of its business with nonresident aliens should
be forced to make a full and complete declaration to the IRS of that fact.