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


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