Sunday, December 4, 2011

Technical Translating With Style - by Danielle Maxson

Here is another review of Kevin Costellos very popular presentation at the annual ATA conference. We thought it would be interesting to get two peoples point of view of the same presentation. This review is written by Danielle Maxson.

Some people believe that technical writing is dry, verbose, self-aggrandizing, and just plain boring. These poor people have never met Kevin Costello. At the recent ATA conference in Boston, I attended a session by this translation instructor from James Madison University. His presentation, “Mind All the Gaps in Spanish-English Technical Translation” showed attendees that technical translation does not have to be dry, nor does talking about it.

                      Kevin drew on his former work translating and editing scientific and technical papers at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, to present his view of technical translation. In their work, technical translators attempt to bridge two “gaps” between the source and target texts, a linguistic gap and a cultural gap. Kevin believes we should be aware of a third gap between languages, a difference of writing style. Stylistic transposition, his term for application of stylistic editing to a translation, will help us to bridge this often-overlooked third gap.

                      Kevin first differentiated stylistic editing, which makes a text more readable, from copy editing, which brings the text into line with pre-defined rules of grammar and punctuation. He also introduced his audience to the Gunning Fog Index, a quantitative measurement of the clarity of a given text, and presented several sentences which fell outside the ideal “fog range” of 10 to 13. He then listed seven guidelines that are particularly appropriate for stylistic editing in Spanish-English translation:

  1. Write shorter sentences. (Spanish sentences can go on for miles. English sentences should not.)
  2. Prefer the active voice. (Passive constructions are generally favored in Spanish technical writing. English can -- and often should -- be more direct.)
  3. Use a personal style. (In English, "we looked up and saw" makes more sense than "upon looking up, it was seen that. . .")
  4. Use verbs. (The structure of Spanish allows for the use of many more nouns than we are accustomed to using in English. Changing the nouns to verbs usually improves comprehensibility.)
  5. Use consistent vocabulary. (Repetition is generally frowned upon in Spanish, so writers tend to use plenty of synonyms. In English, it is often better to pick one word and stick with it.)
  6. Use parallel structure. (The Spanish text may say "Group 1 averaged 12 accidents, and the second group had a mean of 8." An English text, however, would use the same structure for both phrases: "Group 1 averaged 12 accidents, and Group 2 averaged 8.")
  7. Remove redundancies. (Translating every word of a sentence in Spanish often leads to needless repetition. These repetitions can be omitted without damage to the meaning of the text.)

Applying these guidelines will make the English translation stronger, shorter, more concise, more comprehensible and more pleasant to read. Kevin provided a wealth of examples from his own work, including one memorable sentence that weighed in at a whopping 179 words. In each case, he applied one or more of the above rules to bring the example into line with an English-language writing style that obviously improved the text. He even improved one abstract's Gunning Fog Index from 18.58 to 13.2.

                      The audience responded well to the presentation, although some took issue with the guidelines, particularly the second. One shrewd attendee also asked, “This is all based on charging for source word count, right?” Kevin smiled and acknowledged that stylistic transposition does tend to lower total word counts in the target document. He and the audience noted other potential problems with this approach, including an author's reluctance to have the text corrected for style. The advantages, however, include stronger texts, minimized translation loss, maximized translation gain, improved readability for the audience, and greater professional satisfaction for the translator.

                      If Kevin had edited this review, I imagine he would have improved upon it a great deal (and the word “self-aggrandizing” in the first paragraph would not appear). But while I may not have used his suggestions for this text, I have used them in my daily work with encouraging results. I will be interested to see if he presents at the next conference in San Diego.

 Danielle Maxson is a freelance Portuguese to English and Spanish to English translator. She can be reached at


  1. Hi Danielle. It's nice to see another view of the session. I see we enjoyed it equally.

  2. I couldn't agree more with these 7 rules. Your guidelines also apply to Greek - English technical translation. It's all about syle after all! And about producing a clear, simple, easy-to-read text.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.