Friday, August 20, 2010

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 This is not surprising since most dictionaries are at least 10 years out of date and the majority of them anywhere from 20 to 50 years out of date.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.

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