Monday, January 16, 2012

ATA Annual Conference Review, ST-10 Technical Writing for Into-English Translators

We know from Karen Tkaczyk's blog posts that one of her goals for 2011 was to improve her writing and editing skills[1] -- but little did we know that she intended to improve ours as well!

Karen is a French-into-English technical translator specializing in chemistry (industrial applications and IP) and related life sciences. Through her company, McMillan Translation[2], she also offers services in scientific and technical writing, copyediting, and localization from US to UK English.

Plus, she is an engaging presenter. She held sway over the packed room, clearly comfortable with her material, and emphasized her points with humor and uncluttered slides. Here's my favorite:

(Hint: Consider charging by the source word or setting a project fee.)

Karen first described the function of effective technical writing: it transmits technical information objectively and accurately, keeping the needs of the user in mind. She then reviewed the characteristics of effective technical writing -- brevity, clarity, and precision -- and gave us before-and-after examples for each principle.

She listed strategies for writing effectively, including the following:

· Avoid long sentences (keep sentences under 21 words)

· Reorder thoughts for logical flow

· Prefer active verbs (watch out for forms of to be, which may indicate passive voice and noun-heavy constructions)

· Substitute phrases with single words (at the present timenow; in spite of the fact thatalthough; a number ofseveral)

These are writing and editing strategies, but translators can use them when translating technical documents. Karen pointed out, however, that in order to meet the requirements of our translation clients, technical translators must sometimes sacrifice brevity, clarity, or precision. We may have to curb our inner technical writer or editor when the translation must mirror the ambiguities of the original (for instance, patent translations or documents translated for use in litigation). Even when translators have some leeway to "improve" the text in translation, we don't always have access to the author and may not be able to confirm wording that we think clarifies the meaning.

Karen also highlighted specific linguistic challenges, reminding us that technical translators may face different carryover problems depending on language pair and direction. She used the example of logical ordering of events. English readers prefer sequential order from start to finish, while readers of other languages may be accustomed to having the result of an action presented first, followed by an explanation of the process in reverse order. Or they may be used to a more nested syntactic structure.

Karen observed that when translators work outside their core subject areas, they tend to write literally. She recommended an excellent strategy for crafting idiomatic language when writing about technical subjects: to find an analogy that we are comfortable with from everyday life.

As shown in this slide, cooking instructions may provide useful sentence patterns for explaining chemistry procedures. For user manuals, try substituting an analogous but simplified or generic noun to help you focus on the functions of the device in question or the actions required to handle such an object (think oven for autoclave, or webcam for bi-directional real-time audio-visual transmission device). As a medical translator with a background in theater, I think of surgical procedures in terms of scenery and prop construction. How do you repair body parts or stabilize internal structures? Well, you can choose from staples, welds, nails, screws, bolts, cotter pins, glue, tape, wire, and (of course) needle and thread. Each can serve as a familiar stand-in for a method of surgical fixation.

Karen also reminded us that units of measure differ between languages and locales, as do notation styles -- spaces between the numeral and unit of measure, capitalization, and punctuation. (I was able to use one example from her slides immediately, changing the style of the abbreviation for milliliter from the European ml to the American mL.)

Clients assume that we, as technical translators, have subject matter expertise, technical know-how, strong terminology research skills, and a command of the basics (the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in the target language). But beyond writing skills, we must also be familiar with and willing to follow the often arbitrary rules imposed by the target market -- these may be codified by the dominant professional organization of a certain country, by the industry-appointed style guide, or even by a particular publication.

Karen encouraged us to pick a style guide and use it for all assignments in which the style is not specified. Ideally, this would be one of the standard references for the field (for example, AMA style for the medical field). She suggested that when we use the same rules again and again, these rules become second nature.

The session handout contained a long list of style guides (general and technical), books, blogs, websites, and training programs. This will soon be available on the Science and Technology Division website, and division members are encouraged to suggest additions from their own fields and languages.

Karen gave an enjoyable and educational session. I hope she will offer similar sessions again, and if she does, be sure to attend.



Paula Gordon translates from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian into English, with a focus on medical records, journal articles, and clinical trial documentation. She also works as a copyeditor and proofreader, and her clients include the quarterly journal Biotechnology Healthcare (MediMedia USA) and the monthly magazine Health Affairs (Project HOPE). She edited the Serbian and Croatian into English Medical Dictionary by Svetolik Paul Djordjević (Jordana Publishing, 2009), and is currently editing an English into Serbian medical dictionary by the same author. For more information, visit and

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011 in Review

As people renewed their ATA memberships at the end of 2010 our division reached 1000 members. By the end of the year it was about 1500.

The beginning of the year was marked by finding Distinguished Speakers and encouraging people to present for the S&TD track at the Boston annual conference. Another winter event was S&TD being selected as one of the model divisions who would implement the new Leadership Council system. After asking for volunteers, we formed a Leadership Council with ten members in February 2011. Administrator Karen Tkaczyk reported on the process and how it had been received at the Division Administrators’ Summit held in Alexandria, VA, in April. That summit was a great opportunity to learn best practices from other division administrators.

We found two distinguished speakers, one of whom was a Boston local, and one of whom was from Switzerland but whose employee (CERN) helped cover expenses. The effort to find them and several reminders and requests through the group’s networking avenues led to 14 one-hour S&TD session proposals for the Boston conference. The track was set at a full slate of 12 sessions by early June, and preparations began for social events. One was a social outing to the Boston Museum of Science for the Wednesday afternoon prior to the conference, and the other was a division dinner. Alicja Yarborough arranged both those events.

A Nominating Committee was formed, and handled the election of Administrator and Assistant Administrator. Thanks go to chair Abigail Dahlberg and members Susanna Weerth and Salvador Virgen. The current Administrator and Assistant Administrator Steven Marzuola both ran, and we received no other nominations. We elected them by acclamation to serve two-year terms 2011-2013.
The leadership sought member opinions on goals, activities and communication methods in a summer 2011 survey. The analysis was published to division members.

Then it was time for the conference. We had 11 sessions in the S&TD track, after one speaker pulled out due to ill health. The biggest problem we had was good one: the room we were allocated was full to bursting for several sessions, so we had higher attendance than S&TD sessions received in recent years. The two distinguished speakers pulled in good crowds and appeared to please attendees. So did the outing to the Boston Museum of Science and the off-site division dinner, attended by 30 people. Seven members of the Leadership Council were present in Boston. All seven attended the dinner and AGM, and four gave presentations, so we set a good example in volunteering and supporting division efforts. We added a panel discussion to the division’s AGM, which members received well. We tweeted from the conference and provided news updates on the networking sites for members not attending. Reviews and photos are up on the blog and website.

After discussion throughout the year on how to improve the division’s website, work began in earnest in the fall when Iryna Ashby dove in to the job with gusto. In early December we were able to take a new site live, and we were very pleased with it. We intend to update it at least monthly with brief news updates to keep content dynamic, and to add to the resources available and division records as events occur.

Throughout the year the blog, email group and LinkedIn group were all active, with the mailing list having the highest number of active contributors. Steven Marzuola moderated the mailing list and Karen Tkaczyk handled the LinkedIn group and newly opened Twitter account. The blog had a number of great articles posted and gained a second editor, Tess Whitty, to help split the workload with founding editor, Stephanie Strobel. We were pleased with an increasing number of division members showing interest in writing. Topics ranged from photonics to the value of ATA certification, from software localization to marble runs. From the conference, we tweeted to provide those who weren’t there and those who were with some tidbits. There was also some news updates posted by email and on LinkedIn for members not attending.

After huge growth as we started up in 2010, and major progress on the conference track and website during 2011, we simply hope to continue on this path during 2012. If we have a blog that continues to serve up stimulating content and an appealing set of sessions and site tour in San Diego, it will be a successful year.

Karen Tkaczyk, Administrator