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Professionalism and Ethics in Technical Translation
By John Rock

(John Rock is an ATA member based in Houston, Texas. This article is a revised version of a presentation made at the 1999 ATA Conference in St. Louis. It also appeared in the January 2000 issue of the Gotham Translator and is reprinted with the author’s permission.)


For most of us with technical backgrounds, the first introduction we get to technical translation is the compulsory language course we took in college. For some strange reason, the arts faculties believe that the sole interest of scientists and engineers in language is technical translation. Consequently, technical translation is pitched to them at a very simplified level.

This is unfortunate, because these graduates come away with two very false impressions: that technical translation is simple, and that it is merely a matter of having the right dictionary. Small wonder that nowadays most scientists and engineers are convinced that translation is nothing more than pressing an "execute" button on a computer.

Moreover, these false perceptions extend to a number of language schools that somehow believe that technical translation can be taught to the students who have no technical background whatsoever. And if the language schools think so, then it is not surprising that most of the agencies think so, too. I never fail to be surprised when my colleagues make sweeping statements of the form, "He came into the translation business the correct way; he took a degree in language studies and in translation." This implies that reading Don Quixote gives the translator an advantage in understanding the mechanics of tilting at windmills.

The ATA’s Stance

This singular lack of appreciation for the hard work involved in technical translation also extends to the ATA accreditation exam. In my opinion this exam seems to be far more concerned with linguistically dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s than with accuracy in translating the material correctly.

My criteria for judging a technical translator do not include ATA accreditation, but whether they can make a living as a technical translator, and whether they have a suitable technical background. If the truth be known, the majority of good technical translators probably do not have ATA accreditation.


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, "Don’t 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 don’t 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 reader.

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?

Terminology Sources

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. What’s 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 translations—it 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 agencies.

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 translator’s 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 translator’s 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 translator’s 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 jobs.

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.

The author voices some controversial opinions in this article. What do you think of them? Would you like to see more controversial articles in this newsletter? Write a letter to the editor and let everyone know: Diana Rhudick, 419 Grove St., Reading, MA 01867, or
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