Thursday, December 9, 2010

From Spoiling Chicken to Spoiling Terrorism: A Tour of the National Institute of Standards and Technology

By Dana Scruggs
On a gorgeous autumn day in the Colorado Rockies, an enthusiastic group of translators from around the world gathered in Denver to catch the bus to Boulder for a tour of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), on October 21, 2010. The tour had been arranged by Karen Tkaczyk as one of the preconference activities of the 51st Annual Conference of the American Translators Association. The 20 or so of us who participated are certainly thankful for her efforts.

Scientific information without end, data that defy imagination, mind-boggling facts, the furthest reaches of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, and electronics, not to mention lasers, clean rooms bathed in yellow light, the mystical atomic clock, superconductors, absolute zero, nanotechnology, quantum voltage, devices and computing – this is merely a sampling of the provocative concepts we found ourselves immersed in during our 2-hour tour of the NIST Boulder laboratories. The facility itself exudes a "way-back" feel, having been dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1954. The stark contrast between the somewhat bleak interior design and the prodigiousness of the work being conducted therein could not have been more pronounced. It is rarefied work being performed in a rarefied atmosphere, figuratively and literally, since Boulder sits at 5430 feet above sea level. Directly behind the facility the iconic Flatirons soar nearly two thousand feet into the sky and runners can be seen traversing the trails that extend along their base.

I will not attempt to list all of the facts and information we learned during our tour since much of it can be found on the Internet ( I also highly recommend the video "What is NIST?” as a great overview of the impressive mission that defines this agency (

To paraphrase two statements made in the above-cited video, NIST is a group of "very smart and dedicated engineers and scientists who are making measurements and standards that affect our lives positively every day”. It is a federal research agency – part of the U.S. Commerce Department – that is “working to improve our nation’s economy and quality of life”.

Now that I have toured a NIST facility, I can say that I wholeheartedly concur with these statements. I was very impressed by the depth and variety of talent represented among the relatively small population of only 350 employees of NIST Boulder. The scientists and engineers who work there perform research at the furthest edge of science and engineering to develop applications for use across the entire spectrum of human activity, from the mundane to the abstract. NIST won the Emmy Award in 1980, for instance, for developing closed captioning. At the other end of the developmental spectrum, NIST scientists co-created the Bose-Einstein condensate (in 1995), which is the fifth state of matter and the potential of which is still unknown.

Much of the work underway at NIST assists in homeland security efforts. Specifically we learned that the “puffer machines” (explosives trace detection portal machines) we encounter as we go through airport security were developed by NIST. The materials reliability lab in Boulder tested pieces of steel beams recovered from the fallen World Trade Center to learn how to improve the safety of future buildings. The events of that day have prompted yet another project currently underway at NIST, namely that of synchronizing communication systems for first responders.

Our group met with four specialists in their laboratories, where we learned about the atomic clock, quantum devices, testing hydrogen pipelines for safety, and thermophysical properties testing.

Of the many endeavors underway at NIST Boulder, the atomic clock is certainly one that captured our imagination. It is referred to as NIST-F1 and is the world’s most accurate standard for measuring the length of the second. All U.S. civilian time and frequency are based on this standard.

Exactly how accurate is the atomic clock? Get a load of this: NIST-F1 is off by one second every 80 million years. Drop that factoid at your next cocktail party to liven things up! And, when you send out the invitations to that cocktail party, be sure to invite Steve Jefferts, the overseer of the NIST atomic clock. He is irrepressively exuberant. We were told that he has appeared on NOVA, contributes to the Web site “How Stuff Works”, and that we should simply “Google” his name and enjoy all of the hits we get.

NIST-F1 provides accurate timekeeping for practical use in our everyday world. The NIST server responds to about 3 billion automated requests each day for atomic time, e.g. to update the time on our personal computers.

A key concept we encountered during our visit to the atomic clock lab was the definition of time. The "time" output by the atomic clock is defined by a certain number of cycles of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the cesium atom as it switches between its two lowest energy states. This “certain number of cycles" is about 9 billion.

Every passage of 9 billion cycles is deemed to be one second. Why? Because the “cesium second” is identical in length to the second as it was defined in 1967 when this new (atomic) method was implemented. Dr. Jefferts told us that the second used to be defined as a certain fraction of the time it took for the Earth to make one complete revolution about the sun. I find it fascinating that we have switched our calibration point for the second from one of the largest objects in our immediate universe, the sun, to one of the smallest, the cesium atom.

Heady stuff, this visit to the atomic clock laboratory! Yet the lab, the atomic clock, and Dr. Jefferts were as unpretentious and robust as they could be: the configuration of the atomic clock itself, comprising lasers that cool the cesium atoms to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, and the tower in which cesium atoms are bombarded with microwave radiation to change their energy states is protected behind hanging strips of thick, transparent plastic like those that hang in the entrance to a walk-in freezer in a warehouse. We did not have to wear hair nets or protective clothing. The air inflow into the lab has been redirected away from the atomic clock set-up using a cardboard box duct-taped over the vent near the ceiling. Dr. Jefferts joyfully oversees the device that provides accurate time-stamping for billions of dollars of financial transactions every day, among other portentous tasks, in a comfy pair of Birkenstock sandals and may likely use as transportation to and from work one of the myriad of bicycles we saw parked in the bike rack outside the building.

Hyper-accurate timekeeping enabled the development of the global positioning system (GPS). We were told that the accuracy of GPS for civilian use is +/- 10 cm at the range between a satellite and a point on the Earth (such as your car). Military applications of GPS, however, must account for tremendous velocities such as that of a fighter jet or a missile and are much more accurate.

The puffer machine mentioned initially was developed by the thermophysical properties division of NIST. The scientist in that laboratory, a young woman, Dr. Tara Lovestead, described how those machines can detect a single molecule of TNT or C-4 on a person. Her laboratory is developing a technique to detect volatile fire retardants in car interiors, for instance. She showed us a chunk of plastic material that had been taken from a car dashboard. This type of material, which is commonly used in our automobiles, is saturated with a fire retardant for our safety but which ironically may be harmful to our health as it is slowly released inside the car.

Dr. Lovestead also reminded us about the "plastic bottle" scare we experienced a few years ago, when we were told to avoid drinking fluids from bottles made of biphenyls because that chemical was carcinogenic and could leach into the beverage. Her lab tested biphenyls in plastic bottles and determined that they did not pose any danger to our health. We recognized how successfully the media had created an alarming story.

A current project underway in her laboratory involves developing a device for monitoring food spoilage. She demonstrated how this handheld puffer device tests the gas that forms in packages of chicken commonly sold in supermarkets. Meat inspectors may someday use Dr. Lovestead’s invention to monitor the safety of our food supply.

Our next stop took us to the hydrogen pipeline testing facility, where James Fekete showed us a section of a pipeline that had been cut open and etched with a minor crack. He said the next step would be to apply enough force to the crack to break the pipe apart. The objective is to develop a pipeline made of a material that can successfully conduct hydrogen gas and safely withstand earthquakes and other immense forces. Hydrogen is an attractive fuel source because it burns cleanly without carbon emissions and can be derived from domestic sources. But containing it within pipelines poses numerous challenges which this laboratory is attempting to overcome.

Dr. David Rudman, Quantum Devices Group Leader, described his group’s research into superconductors and nanoelectric circuits. A superconductor is a material that conducts current with no resistance, although it must be cooled to extraordinarily low temperatures to do so. He was especially keen on "Josephson junctions" which are composed partially of superconducting material. The written summary of his talk mentions that his group develops complex circuits containing up to 32,000 Josephson junctions. We may not understand what these devices are now, but I suspect they will make an impact on our lives some day, thanks to the work being done at NIST. (Remember: You heard it here first!)

Dr. Rudman also mentioned, as an aside, that their group has developed the capability to examine spent Iranian fuel rods from space and determine if they’d been used for bomb-making or not. Hearing that definitely made my day. Another project his group is working on aims to measure a single photon. A photon is the most fundamental unit – or packet – of light, and we therefore say that a photon is a quantum of light. Examining this definition may help us to better understand the work being done in this laboratory.

“Quantum Voltage” was the descriptor printed on a nameplate hanging by an office in this area. As my mind wrestled with this abstruse concept, we continued our tour and eventually passed by an office belonging to someone with the faux title “Stunt Double”. Levity and good nature abounded throughout the NIST facility and among everyone we met there.

Witnessing our nation’s highest level tinkerers in action at NIST Boulder made me feel quite proud and gave me a sense of well-being. Above the fray of alarmist talk about national security, energy dependence, food safety and other issues, hundreds of dedicated scientists calmly go to work every day and apply science and engineering for altruistic purposes on our behalf.

Special thanks to Dr. Karen Tkaczyk for arranging this tour! We also owe a debt of gratitude to our tour guide, James Burrus, Public Information Officer for NIST Boulder. He did an excellent job of making the mysteries of NIST accessible to all of us.

Dana Scruggs is a German-to-English technical translator who had the good fortune of living in Boulder, CO during her collegiate years at the University of Colorado. Her business Web site is:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Conference Session Review: SOP Bubbles Galore and "Aha" Moments

Review by Valérie Chataignier

Seminar C: From Soap to Drugs and Back, via Quality Assurance & Standard
Operating Procedures; Dr. Karen Tkaczyk

Dr. Karen Tkaczyk deftly polymerized a number of topics across the diverse domains of her cosmetic/pharmaceutical/chemical experience from the perspective of the technical translator. Seminar C, “From Soap to Drugs and Back via QA and SOPs,” held Wednesday morning at the ATA Conference in the "Mile High" city of Denver was indeed a refreshing overview and cross-section of this broad industry.

Conjuring up the trials and tribulations in translating handwritten records and tackling terminological obstacles, she emphasized strengthening one’s field-specific research techniques, finding images on the Internet, and conferring with colleagues when in doubt. Dr. Tkaczyk’s sparkling presentation cleared up technical terminology and writing style and included a generous hand-out list of resources and references for the chemical industry.

Concepts across the spectrum of methodologies and equipment used in the cosmetic/chemical industry were covered in Part I. Here, Dr. T. succinctly clarified complicated technology and concepts with extraordinary effervescent clarity, making transparent both theory and application for a wide range of laboratory and manufacturing instrumentation. Enriched with more sources and references, Part II was an overview of QA/QC, the product review process, document control, scale-up, and production complete with colorful anecdotes and helpful pointers.

In essence, Dr. Tkaczyk gave a vibrant and colorful presentation that non-comedogenically stocked the translator’s shelf with aids for "clarifying, foaming, solubilizing, and emulsifying" away the blocks and impediments to quality technical translation.

Valérie E. Châtaignier has been a freelance French to English (US) translator specializing in biomedicine and the life sciences since 2001. After six years of service and training in the U.S. Navy at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, she worked for several years as a clinical/research chemist and now resides in the "Silicon Valley" of Northern California. Valerie holds bachelor degrees in Zoology and Microbiology/Medical Technology and an M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy. When not translating she enjoys long hikes in the redwoods or reading French literature by a fire, both with chihuahua "Étoile" at her side.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Conference Update

We're having a great time in Denver. There have been two highlights for me: the pre-conference tour of NIST (it was described as 'geek heaven' by one attendee!) and the division's annual meeting, where an enthusiastic group of about twenty people discussed our areas of expertise and what we can provide and share to help one another, and the division, grow.
In the following weeks we will post more about that, along with reviews of sessions of interest to our division.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

From the 51st ATA Annual Conference in Denver.

From the 51st ATA Annual Conference in Denver. We’re looking forward to the pre-conference Seminars on Wednesday, Oct 27. Especially Seminar C From Soap to Drugs and Back via Quality Assurance and Standard Operating Procedures, Karen m. Tkaczyk; Seminar D Nuts and Bolts: A Visit from the Entrance Gate to the Dispatch Dock of an Industrial Plant, Paulo Lopes and Seminar G Biomedical Translation Seminar, Damián Vázquez

Monday, October 4, 2010

Translation and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Gary Smith

Having begun my translation work through engineering (nearly twenty years ago in an industrial research centre), I have often faced suspicion from linguists who wonder what on earth I’m doing "invading their territory". However, when faced with translations on nuclear reactors or catalytic converters these people grudgingly accept that I can translate texts they themselves won’t touch. That said, this suspicion is mutual; I have also faced it from engineers who wonder why they need a translator ("what do linguists know about bridge construction?"). These attitudes give rise to misconceptions such as the myth that "good grammar doesn’t matter in technical texts". It is a sobering thought that a misplaced comma in the emergency procedures for a nuclear power station or an aircraft maintenance manual could have catastrophic results. But who is "qualified" to translate such texts? A monolingual nuclear engineer? A scientifically illiterate linguist? My aim with this article is to reverse the negative attitude of certain linguists towards scientists "invading their turf" and encourage them to do likewise – "invade" the area of science, where there is good money to be made and you are needed, whatever some engineers may tell you.

Firstly, let me stress that people who master different languages are by definition intelligent people, and therefore perfectly capable of learning new subjects, especially if they decide to specialize. And the wide world of science has enormous possibilities for specializing in something you like (astronomy, the environment, marine biology, medicine, sustainable architecture, antique motorcycle maintenance…). The problem is that many who have only studied linguistics believe that this is an esoteric world of microbiology druids whose secretive terminology is accessible only to a chosen few. This is a strange attitude in people who boast of having a greater vocabulary than most.

This was brought home to me when a translator friend of mine saw a text I was working on about the isomerization of certain compounds. She burst out laughing, finding it incomprehensible. Where to look? Which bilingual specialized scientific dictionary to use? If you have an ordinary, medium-sized monolingual dictionary at hand, look up the word "isomer" now. (If not, check the Wiki). Go on, I’ll give you a few seconds while I wait… Found it? Surprised that such a word exists in any old run-of-the-mill dictionary? You should be – after all, you are a translator and should therefore find no surprises in such a dictionary. (Take note, by the way – for scientific translation you will need a monolingual dictionary. There is little point knowing that isomer in Spanish is isómero if you still have no idea what the word means in your own language). My point is, science is not so mysterious nor the texts so difficult as you may think at first. In fact, you’ll probably find that the average 15-year-old high school student is familiar with isomers, as you yourself probably were at that age before your linguistic specialization led you to forget half the things you learned at school. This is a common drawback in education in the developed world. Again, it works both ways – I once had an engineering client who didn’t know what an adjective is. This may explain why many believe that there are no Da Vincis or Aristotles around today, which is quite untrue – they just specialize now. I myself know a production engineer for a multinational glass manufacturer who studied fine arts, and a globetrotting troubleshooter for the cement industry with a degree in philosophy. As translators, we are condemned to be cultivated and always win at Trivial Pursuit – but there’s a piece of the pie to be won too if you wish to show just how cultivated you truly are. Science is also culture, and it changes the world and society far more than any poet, politician or preacher. And it therefore provides a seemingly infinite amount of texts to be translated.

To my mind, there are two very distinct kinds of text: scientific and technical. The former are usually of a standard layout – abstract, method, results, conclusions and bibliography, rounded off by effusive acknowledgements for the translator, preferably with your e-mail address. These are often written by academics with fairly good linguistic competence, to be published in international journals. Technical translations, on the other hand, can provide more problems and should be taken with some humor if you are not to end up banging your head against your keyboard and sobbing loudly. They are often written by private company technicians with scant regard for such trifles as commas and full stops/periods.

A classic example is provided by instructions manuals. One may well be mistaken for thinking that everybody reads instructions manuals in the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth; even cultural issues come into play. Let us take the example of the mobile/cell phone manual, a technical text which we are probably all familiar with and which some of you may even have actually bothered to read. In Mediterranean and Latin countries, the procedure after purchasing a mobile/cell phone is as follows:

1- Open box.

2- Throw away pesky bits of paper (i.e. instructions manual and guarantee).

3- Proceed to fiddle with buttons and moveable parts for 10 days until:

a) you realize you don’t know how the phone works.

b) you receive an electric shock.

c) the phone breaks.

4- Look for instructions manual (being chewed by cat/dog and/or at bottom of bin).

5. Discover phone is indeed broken and/or parts are missing and/or is in fact an electric razor.

6. Look for guarantee.

7. Discover 10-day trial period has now expired.

8. Curse manufacturer.

In colder climes, however, the procedure can be quite different:

1- Open box.

2- Proceed to read instructions manual step-by-step for 10 days.

3- Take phone out of cellophane. (Keep cellophane out of reach of children as instructed.)

4- See points 5 to 8 above.

The point is, instructions are read differently depending on who reads them, and this affects how they should be written. In warmer climes people often skip "boring bits" and prefer to discover the product for themselves, using the instructions only as a reference when they come across something they don’t understand. This implies avoiding the use of pronouns or references to other sections, even if you end up being repetitive. Technical texts are not meant to be works of art, but to be unequivocal and unambiguous. Indeed, many of the rules that should be applied to instructions manuals can be applied to legal texts too.

Apart from cultural preferences, there may also be other reasons for skipping points. Take emergency procedures. All companies have two possible emergency procedures in the event of a fire, for example. Let us call them plan ‘a’ and plan ‘b’. Plan ‘a’ involves following a well-rehearsed drill and assembling staff at a pre-arranged meeting point. Plan ‘b’ involves racing round like headless chickens, arms flailing, screaming for dear life. Unfortunately, when people’s lives are in imminent danger, it is plan ‘b’ that prevails.

So let us imagine a fire breaks out in a factory. Our hapless hero worker seizes an extinguisher and begins to read the instructions with understandably great haste:

1- Congratulations on purchasing your X-300 fire extinguisher, the top of the range bla bla bla.

A ball of flame flares up, searing the seat of their pants.

2- Ensure this apparatus is cleaned every two months according to European guideline 1:2002 F. Begin by carefully applying a damp cloth etc.

As the hair on the back of their neck begins to singe, they will obviously move quickly on to point 10:

10- Connect the former to the latter and turn in the same direction as in point 5.

At this point the worker wisely decides to wield the extinguisher as a hefty weapon with life-or-death ferocity, mercilessly beating a ruthless warpath through the pack of panic-stricken people blocking the emergency exit (indicated in diagram ‘f’ of emergency procedure appendix II). At least it came in handy.

Clearly, essential points should be brief and come first, points 1 and 2 should come later if at all in publicly visible emergency instructions, and full nouns should be used rather than "former" and "latter". Again, one should avoid references to other points that may have been omitted by the reader.

Such rules when writing technical texts and instructions can be found in "controlled languages" created artificially for this very purpose. These are used in multinational joint ventures where people from many countries are involved and where English is used as the common language but the employees’ grasp of this language is not perfect. One such example is ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English. They include rules such as avoidance of the passive voice, keeping sentences short and always using an article. Such rules, while helping to prevent misunderstandings, inevitably lead to a repetitive style, which in turn leads to a high degree of translation memory fuzzy matches. This fact has not been lost on some companies that have even produced controlled languages with this in mind (Caterpillar and CLOUT).

One more tip on translating technical texts – find pictures! To fully understand the parts of a ship, the cross-section of a road or the workings of a machine, the "Images" search you can make in Google is priceless, not to mention picture dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster online. And what better example of a picture dictionary than an encyclopedia? And what better example of an encyclopedia than Saint Wiki? Obviously, the Wikipedia should not be used as a reference for correct terminology, but as a learning tool it is unbeatable, especially if you need to understand scientific texts. But first perhaps it is necessary to explain just how to use it – and how not to.

The Wikipedia is a site that depends entirely on contributions – both in terms of financing and information. The articles are written by volunteers, which should obviously set alarm bells ringing as to its reliability as a dictionary. Sometimes you’ll find a symbol next to the language that has been defined as a "good article" (often in German), and the site applies a "verifiability" policy which means that all pages should cite sources whose reliability you can then check. So why use it at all? Well, its reliability is proportional to the simplicity of the subject matter, due to its democratic form of editing. For example, if you decide to write an article about kangaroos, saying that they are a kind of gigantic mollusk that lives in the Arctic Ocean, it will immediately be removed by Wikepedians with more authoritative knowledge than yours on the world’s fauna, not least because they have a "no original research" policy and the idea of huge polar mollusks is, well, quite original. If, however, you decide to give the world the benefit of your meager knowledge about erythropoiesis in hemopoietic tissue, there will be far fewer people qualified to dispute you if you affirm that it is caused, say, by ingesting huge Arctic gastropods (though you’ll have to provide prior research into the phenomenon, which could be tricky). In other words, the Wikipedia is the Sesame Street of Science. It’s where Grover explains isomers to you, and in this respect it does indeed work and can be an invaluable self-learning tool.

Another important point to note about the Wiki is that the texts in different languages are written by different authors who usually bear absolutely no relation to each other. In other words, the texts are different and this may even lead to slightly differing definitions.

One trick to help check the names of flora and fauna is to look for the Latin name which scientists have generally agreed on to find the corresponding common name in each respective language. Again, double-check with official sites other than the Wiki. It is a curious fact that in certain scientific respects Latin is still the most widely used language (and some may argue that it still is in a wider sense through its daughter languages). A similar tip applies to chemical nomenclature. Find the chemical notation for a compound and you can find its name in another language – but beware of isomers! The chemical notation can also change slightly from Asian to European languages. You can also look up the International Non-Proprietary Names (INN) for chemicals at the WHO, with their corresponding official translations, to avoid prosecution from companies that have patented a chemical product (similar considerations should be applied to technical translations).

While my intention with this article is to encourage translators to delve into science, I must obviously stress that you should not attempt to translate texts that you honestly do not understand. All I’m saying is that before you reject a job upon seeing the title alone, give yourself fifteen minutes to check it out first and see if it really is as difficult as you thought at first. You may surprise yourself; maybe even Grover can understand it. That said, obviously medical texts, for example, should be left to the experts. Nevertheless, if this subject interests you, make yourself an expert by studying official courses for translators on the matter. The same goes for perhaps the most difficult of all subjects to translate: mathematical texts. These also require sound understanding. By no means do I advise anybody to try to bluff their way through the translation of a text they if haven’t really understood why the Dirac delta is not strictly a function since it should have total integral zero. I’d like to see Grover try to explain that…

Copyright © and the author, 1999-2010. All rights reserved.

Editor's Welcome to the ATA SciTech Division Blog, by Stephanie Delozier Strobel

How interesting that Steve Marzuola’s September, 22, 2010 post to the SciTech list would refer to Aristotle and rhetoric in relation to PhD programs in Technical writing. Our next article to be posted to the ATA SciTech blog also refers to philosophy. We technical translators are privileged to be possessed of two minds or perspectives, technical and linguistic. From reading Blaise Pascal, I came away with an impression of these two minds as being géometrique and romantique. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the perspectives are named Classical and Romantic.

It is fairly unusual in the U.S. to possess linguistic skills in two or more languages. It is also prized to be technically adept. These two strengths are often characterized as polar opposites or as mutually exclusive. I’m excited to participate in the new SciTech division because here is where our unusual, yet like, minds meet.

I have my own take on the concept of two minds. I think those of us who approach things first and foremost from a technical perspective, we feel physics; we think in pictures. As opposed to a poet friend of mine, who has a master’s degree and is romantique to the extreme; she thinks in words. More than once she has told me she just didn’t get physics. One day at the beach I saw what she meant as she tried (repeatedly!) to unfurl her towel at the beach while facing into the wind. Shocked speechless, I gently grasped her shoulders and turned her to stand with her back to the wind. Having regained my tongue, I said “Try now.” The beach towel unfurled crisply. With off-handed thanks, my friend Ann began to settle various objects onto her towel. Despite being physics-challenged, Ann is a cherished proofreader. Perhaps there is hope for her yet.

In response to the Gary Smith’s article “Translation and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, I personally have no issues with identifying adjectives. However, when the linguists at the ATA conference start talking postpositional or nominative it makes me sweat.

Besides feeling physics, we of the technical persuasion may crunch numbers, enjoy a good logical challenge and investigate phenomena. Being translators though, by default, we must work in the romantic region of language.

When a translator doesn’t have a good feel for the technical, the translation is a bit disoriented. A translator who does not benefit from possessing both the technical and romantic perspectives might render a Picasoesque phrase such as “the rate of work of the floor” when to an esprit géométrique it is obviously a “soil modulus”. It has been said, “Nothing is obvious to the uninitiated.” Gary Smith’s article encourages the uninitiated to delve into the technical and become familiar with technical subjects.

Words and grammar compose the verbal erector set we use. As translators and technical writers we will encourage and accompany each other as we work to advance skills for technical writing and technical translation.

A few words about our SciTech Division and Blog:

When I stop to think about it, I find the advances in communication technology mindboggling. I remember getting goose bumps when a drawing from the design office in California was printing out at my nuclear power plant in New Jersey. With technology such as the Internet, webcams and online conferencing, we are living parts of Star Trek here and now. Hearken back to my days as an engineer in an office full of engineers (slaving for ‘the man’) in the days before email and the Internet (I date myself). When someone had a question, he would stand up and broadcast the question over the tops of our cubicles. Anyone within earshot could pop up and provide an answer or guidance. I see the SciTech Division as sort of a Cosmic Cubicle where we may not have the physical proximity, but through technology we share the same communal immediacy.

In this spirit I’m broadcasting a call for articles. Hey, guys! (In the greater Philadelphia area “guys” may be used to address a group of people regardless of gender.) Please let me know if you are interested in reviewing the SciTech Division presentations at the ATA National Conference. The reviews will be posted on this blog. Contact me at to tell me which session you would like to review.

Other articles would be very welcome and can be sent to me at

Stephanie Delozier Strobel, ATA SciTech Division Blog Editor

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Events at the Denver annual conference - part 1 - Wednesday

Another post will follow on the core conference sessions, but for now this is a summary of Wednesday's events that might be of interest.

Morning: Three seminars look like they will be specifically of relevance to technical translators, depending on your field and language.
The first one session is language neutral, and it's mine. If you're not sure whether this would be useful for you, just ask and I'll give you more information.

Seminar C
From Soap to Drugs and Back, via Quality Assurance and Standard Operating Procedures
Karen M. Tkaczyk, PhD, CT

This second one looks great if you work with Portuguese.
Seminar D
Nuts and Bolts: A Visit from the Entrance Gate to the Dispatch Dock of an Industrial Plant
Paulo Lopes

The third one is in Spanish will be relevant to tech translators who work with biotech and medical devices.
Seminar G
Biomedical Translation Seminar
Damián Vázquez

Afternoon: Tour of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, NIST
We have arranged a site tour of the Boulder laboratory from 2-4pm. We have asked for a few specific labs to visit, which are as follows, though that won't be finalized until shortly beforehand. There is a list of 20 or so interesting labs to choose from, should any of these be unavailable that day.
Atomic clock
Detecting explosives
Clean rooms and quantum devices
Hydrogen pipeline testing

Evening: Division Open House 7-8pm
We will be at the Science and Technology division area during this reception to answer any questions. Desserts and coffee will be provided free of charge by ATA.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review of the International Technical Translation Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, by Karen Tkaczyk

Tower of Babel
Thirty-six nationalities were represented by the 200 translators present at this two-day conference held in Lisbon on 28-29 May 2010. That alone made it a stimulating environment for any member of the T&I community, even before we consider the technical sessions. English was the language of almost all of the sessions, but the hallways and meeting areas exhibited great diversity. Conversations were sometimes held in several languages at once, it seemed. Many English dialects were represented, from both southern and northern hemispheres. There were people from many European countries and from most of the Portuguese speaking countries. There was also a delegation from China.
TradulÍnguas is developing a reputation for putting on excellent conferences. Organizers João Roque Dias and Lina Gameiro had been very responsive and well-organized in the run up to the event, and it ran very smoothly, so they and their team are to be congratulated. It is worth mentioning that the coffee breaks, on-campus lunches, and conference dinner improved the overall experience in giving us a flavor of Portugal. Delicious ‘pastéis’, Portuguese pastries, were served during the breaks, and a lively, (dare I say loud, perhaps even boisterous as the evening wore on!) conference dinner was held at a location within easy walking distance of our hotels. I would highly recommend future TradulÍnguas events.
So what did I learn?
I had chosen to attend because of the specialized technical content, and combined it with a visit to my parents in the UK. I am a highly-specialized technical translator, and I crave good training in the area. It is not easy to find such training, even if you are willing to travel. Medical translation, legal translation, even financial translation, are commonly catered for. Technical translation is not often the focus of conferences. Since this one sold out and had a waiting list, it suggests to me that there is a market for other similar events.
I arrived with decisions to make, as the program was two-track apart from keynote speakers. We had good choices available, as each time slot had a session on a technical subject, then there were other options on building your business and terminology management, for example, for those who wanted a more general program. There were sessions that were of direct relevance to my work, and several that were not directly relevant but left me with a sense of satisfaction afterwards. I felt ‘well-fed’ intellectually after the two days.
My conference began with a member of the in-house translation department at CERN in Geneva, Mathilde Fontanet, speaking on the common difficulties of translating technical English. Oh, those noun pairs! As well as the huge value to the obvious ‘out of English’ audience, there was a lot of food for thought for those of us who work into English.
UN translator Prof. Marie-Josée de Saint Robert gave an excellent session on how terminology must be defined within the UN, in her case for work into French. It was an eye-opener to see how decisions must be made. I think it is best explained by an example, which I hope I relate faithfully. In one area of automotive technology (as I recall the context was anti-lock brakes) manufacturers were using a variety of phrases to describe a new technological concept in English. The equivalent French phrase had to be defined for a new standard, and a study was made of the French phrases in common use. It was then important to consider whether those phrases were used exclusively by one auto-maker. Selecting that phrase would not do! So not only was the meaning of the terms important, but the accepted phrasing in the industry and the degree to which a phrase was accepted by only a part of the industry, before selecting an ‘official’ French translation.
I was looking forward to a session on translation for technical journalism, as it is an area in which I wish to develop my skills. This is difficult work, as the translator must have both the technical skill set and be able to write excellent marketing copy. Presenter Steve Dyson met my expectations and may be the only translator I have ever met who is more narrowly specialized than me! His narrow area is translation of naval defense related subject matter for that industry’s professionals, and his discussion of the issues involved in marketing technical subject matter was the highlight of the conference for me. His technique is emulation, and he immerses himself in that industry’s publications to build up his expertise.
A Belgian professor from University of Mons, Viviane Grisez, gave us a great session on how French scientists usually write English papers, giving insight into what to look out for in the area of revising English texts written by non-native speakers, which is a reasonably large field for scientific translators like me. Major areas of consideration were modal verbs and tense use, then other smaller issues that we all recognize were mentioned, such as hyphenation, or the difference between ‘make’ and ‘do’, and the dreaded ‘realize’.
There were a number of sessions on specific technical areas including high speed rail, bearings, my own session on the chemical industry, and a very popular session on translating manuals. There were also a number of more general sessions on tools, terminology and building a business. Renato Beninatto gave a lively presentation on the state of the translation industry and how old we all were – literally, but more importantly figuratively, in how we think about the business and they way it may change in the near future. The conference ended with sessions from the head of the Portuguese team at the European Commission, and the last Q&A was a lively one that scratched the surface of the current ferocious debate on the potential reform of the Portuguese language.
And back to work
This was a stimulating, well-run conference where I met many interesting people. It left me enthusiastic about my chosen niche in the profession, and eager to return to work. There was even an added bonus! When I returned home and looked at the CD-Rom I saw it was chock-full of solid reference material in addition to the presentations. This was a superb professional development event.

The author is an ATA-certified French to English translator working in chemistry and its industrial applications and IP. She is the current Acting-Administrator of the Science and Technology Division.

The Unending Quest for Terminology and Style in Technical Translation, by John Rock

Two things happened recently. First, I had cause to translate a job on textiles, and second, I edited a job on cherry-pickers— you know those truck mounted mobile platforms which maintenance crews use to work at height.
The two jobs could not be more different, but in a strange way they were related.
Early on in the textile job, I realized that my technical dictionary resources had next to nothing on textiles. This is not surprising since most dictionaries are at least 10 years out of date and the majority of them anywhere from 20 to 50 years out of date. I was way out beyond the dictionary.
Fortunately, I had a reference source bequeathed to me by a friend, and after slogging through the 20 or so pages on modern textile manufacturing, I was a little more confident. I still had to do a large amount of terminology research, but I felt on firmer ground.
As an object lesson, if not a real eye-opener, I thought it would be interesting to share with you the subjects covered in the various chapters of this book on Industrial Chemical Processes. They are: Water Treatment and Environmental Protection; Energy, Fuels, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration; Carbon Based Chemical Products; Combustible Gases; Industrial Gases; Industrial Coal; Ceramics Industry; Portland Cement, Calcium and Magnesium Compounds; Sodium Chloride and other Sodium Compounds; Chlorine and Alkalis Industry: Soda Ash, Caustic Soda and Chlorine; Electrolytic Industries; Electrothermal Industries; Phosphorus Industries; Potassium Industries; Nitrogen Industries; Sulfur and Sulfuric acid; Hydrochloric Acid and Miscellaneous Inorganic Compounds; Nuclear Industries; Explosives, Toxic Chemical Agents and Propellants; Photographic Products Industries; Paint and Pigments Industries; Food and Co-Products Industries; Agricultural Chemicals Industries; Perfumes, Fragrances and Food Additives; Oil, Fats and Waxes, Soaps and Detergents;
Sugar and Amide Industries; Fermentation Industries; Chemical Derivatives from Wood;
Pulp and Paper Industries; Plastics Industries; Synthetic Fiber and Films Industries; Rubber Industries; Petroleum Refining; Petrochemicals; Intermediates, Dyes and their applications; Pharmaceutical Industries.
This yields a total of thirty-eight sub-specialties within the general field of Industrial Chemical Processing. Most merit whole books to themselves, rather than one meager chapter. Some smart readers will note that the list is not exhaustive.
So the question remains, how is a technical translator supposed to represent him/herself when confronted with such material? They may have in-depth experience in a handful of fields and possibly passing experience in a handful more, but certainly not in the whole gamut. Yet that is what the client wants – in depth experience in such and such an industry.
What is a translator to do? One translator told me quite candidly that one technical translation is much like the next – it is all junk. Could it be that this particular translator did not understand the material and simply plugged in the terminology without thinking, like a cookie dough recipe?
At the same time you can be brutally honest and say that you have never translated this kind of material, but that you have translated lots of similar material. After all, a great deal of industrial processing equipment is similar from one specialization to another. You might stand a chance of landing the job over someone less qualified than you are. However, you are going invest a lot of time in terminology research, and remember, nobody is perfect.
Then there are also the supremely over-confident translators, the ones who claim that they do not need a dictionary to translate. I find such statements extremely hard to digest without a ton of salt.

So we come to the editing of the cherry-picker translation. I happen to know the job required Trados. Now I am not a big fan of Trados and make no secret of the fact. I think it encourages mindless translation by translators who should not be venturing into the swamp in the first place. After all, what can go wrong? You have a TM for all your terminology needs. And hopefully the TM has been vetted by the client. Or has it? Is the client competent to determine the correct terminology? I have seen awful gaffes.
Or has the TM ever been edited? Has the terminology been created by some equally bold and audacious translator who has made a stab at the unknown terms? Because let’s face it, anyone following in their footsteps through the bog is certainly not going to change the TM unless they are absolutely certain it is wrong, and maybe not even then. A lot of clients get really upset if you change the TM and are happy to remain blissfully ignorant and allow the errors to propagate from translation to translation.
I have known some translation agencies that simply dump every translation in a given language pair, irrespective of the subject material, into a giant TM, so large it will not fit onto the average PC. Now is that a recipe for disaster, or what?
But by far the biggest problem with something like Trados is that it fragments the context of the translation into segments where the translator loses sight of its relationship of one phrase to the context as a whole. It is not just a case of fitting a square peg into a round hole, but finding the precise shape and size of the peg that fits the hole.
I myself have done it more than once. “Okay that fits – send it on its way.” Upon closer inspection of the surrounding text, it demands a different translation.
I have already talked about being beyond dictionaries with many technical translations. “First come – first plugged,” simply does not work. Often the term you are looking for may be the last in a long list, and you have to know in what subject context it is used. Otherwise you might commit the faux-pas of using terminology from a completely different industry.
This demands something which was sorely lacking in the cherry-picker translation – the human thought process.
I have on occasion preached that good technical translation uses a “connect the dots approach.” Truly, I prefer the more colorful description “the thigh bone connects to the knee bone- the knee bone connects to the shin bone- the shin bone connects to the ankle bone.”. If you do not know what you are translating or have only a vague clue, then you might need a diagram to help you out. It would not be the first time I have scrambled through a pictorial dictionary.
Thus Trados gives you the dots but very little connectivity. And if someone has translated one of the dots incorrectly, it can throw you for a loop.
In another example of the fragmentation effect, I was asked, as it so often the case, to translate first the graphics to a fairly complicated translation so the DTP people could do their magic. But after the translation was finished I had to go back and change the translation of the graphics. I did not make any friends.
I am not trying to be overly critical. We all have to learn, and you cannot gain the experience without translating the material. But when the translation comes out disjointed and does not make sense, and it is up to the editor to rescue it; then it is clear that the translator has put the minimum of thought into it and deserves a reprimand.
The whole point is that translation, and especially technical translation requires thought. No matter how experienced you are, or how many dictionaries you have, you are going to come across a translation where you are beyond the dictionary and will be thrown back on your own resources. That is our unending quest, to provide just the right terminology by falling back on the well of our experience.
Translation unencumbered by the human thought process is not translation, but instead, junk.

For pure chemistry, the author uses a McGraw Hill Chemical dictionary and a Penguin Dictionary, which he prefers. John Rock is an ATA certified Portuguese into English translator who works in a wide variety of fields, including oil and gas, geology, applied and natural sciences and patents.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Here is the very first post for the new ATA Science and Technology Division blog. It's a short one, just to get us started. The team who asked ATA to approve this division thought that a blog would be more valuable to division members than a twice-yearly newsletter. Stephanie Strobel volunteered to be the blog editor, so all suggested submissions should be sent to her at sds at strobelengineering dot com. We want to encourage all division members to submit posts. Long, article types will be approved by ATA before posting. Short ones like this just get reviewed by Stephanie. We hope for both articles and short pieces that will be of interest to translators who work both into and out of English, and in a wide variety of technical fields.

The Science and Technology Division has about 100 members already. We look forward to hearing from you. Please add a comment to tell us what you would like to see here.