Friday, April 27, 2012

Thoughts on Pharmaceutical Translation

By Karen Tkaczyk
Every so often you read an article and wish you’d written something like it. This happened to me recently, with the piece called “Big Pharma Cannot Afford to be Lost in Translation” by Portuguese translator and consultant Cristina Falcão. It can be found here, on the PharmaIQ website  . If you translate for the pharmaceutical industry you will find other insightful articles and useful resources there, including others by Cristina.
I contacted Cristina to ask her if she minded me reporting on her article to the ATA Science and Technology Division’s blog and adding a few thoughts of my own. She didn’t mind, so here we are.
The target audience for Cristina’s article is pharmaceutical companies, not translators and interpreters, but I feel that in order to do a good job as we work for those industries we also need to keep in mind the principles she raises.
Cristina starts with the commonly stated concept that we must understand to do a decent job, let alone an excellent one. But she stated it in a way that caught my attention, quoting the late Henry Fischbach, co-founder, charter member, and honorary member of the American Translators Association. I couldn’t find a better quote if I tried for hours, so I’ll restate it.
“The hallmark of a good scientific translator is intellectual honesty and a sixth sense to realize that something is amiss.”
We cannot translate effectively if we do not understand properly. Personally, I love the quote because it sets me straight. When that sixth sense kicks in, and I realize that something is amiss with a text, paragraph, or term in spite of my best efforts, I know I need to ask a colleague for help. Sometimes it is not that something is wrong but that I need confirmation from an expert in the field that they really would say it that way. When used wisely, LinkedIn ( is a good resource for making contacts like that, if you do not have them. Sometimes I am that other colleague to whom technical translators come for help, when they are translating chemistry and know their instincts are not as well-honed as mine. At times early in my career I truly did need help because I had taken on a text that was outside my areas of expertise, and it ended up being more than I could handle in the allotted time. Nowadays, I have a great, mutually beneficial working relationship with a biologist-turned-translator who can provide a quick confirmation and the reassurance I need before delivering a text.
Cristina then refers to several articles of European Union Directive 2001/83/3 and gives insights on each of them: costs, metric conversions, diacritical marks, patent effect, cross-cultural communication, and readability.
Her examples are powerful. The only area where I see things differently is metric units. Much of the English-speaking world widely uses metric units these days. Even in the US, where Imperial measurements are used for many general applications such as groceries and weather forecasts, I find they are rarely used in scientific and technological situations. I rarely see Imperial units in pharmaceutical documents with the exception of pressures, which are often expressed in pounds per square inch (psi). Regardless, we need to understand units of measure and how usage differs from region to region, and industry to industry, because we need to make the right choices as we harmonize our texts.
The Patent Effect is something well known to those of us who work in that area. Often terms appear to be unrelated, because in one language a terminological oddity is used, and in another an obvious name is used. To complicate matters, the internet is usually full of examples of fairly literal translation mingling among the correct terms. For terminology related to cosmetics, I have to research deeply, frequently due to the Patent Effect. An innovative French cosmetic company that files many patents in that field generally transliterates its own French neologisms when writing patent abstracts in English. This leads to some very odd and calque-like terms, some of which have good English equivalent terms; however, some of them are commonly used by English speaking cosmetic companies. It takes time and insight to sort out the subtleties in each case.
The pharmaceutical industry has a heavily ethical component. So do we translators, as we seek to produce a faithful translation to the best of our ability. I look forward to reading more insightful articles from Cristina and other pharmaceutical translators as I explore my area of expertise, and I hope referring to it here has been of use to readers.
Karen works from French and Spanish into English – both UK and US. She translates documents on chemistry and its industrial applications, including patents.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ten Steps to Make Your Technical Translation Project a Success

Written by Dorothee Racette, President of the American Translators Association.

With an increasing number of companies pursuing a presence for their products in other countries, your management team’s global strategy may involve the need to translate technical and support materials into other languages. This article describes ten effective steps technical writers, publishers, or communications managers can take to ensure that technical translation projects go smoothly and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Steps to Take Before the Actual Translation

1. Plan Ahead for Technical Translation

Investing a few hours of your time in the preparation of the technical translation project will pay off greatly. To avoid stress and headaches down the road, resist the urge to assign your text to the first company or translator who pops up in a search engine. Instead, start by analyzing the materials you need to have translated. The text to be translated should be in a fully editable file format (not PDF), preferably before final layout, as the length of text varies among languages. To anticipate questions about your material, pull together some background information such as existing glossaries, descriptions/pictures of your company’s products, or previous technical translation that you can provide as reference materials. Although time pressure is sometimes unavoidable, it is in everyone’s best interest to allow sufficient time for the translation process so the final materials can be carefully reviewed before they are released.

2. Define the Target Audience

Where exactly will your text be read and by whom? Will your company’s widgets be sold in Latin America or Spain, in mainland China or Taiwan? Is your document an assembly instruction for consumers or an occupational safety leaflet for employees in another country? Precise instructions on the target audience and reading level of your document can greatly influence the final quality of the translation. If your budget is tight, consider reducing the amount of text you need. For example, complex technical descriptions can be replaced with graphics and you may be able to streamline some material in preparation for the defined target audience.

3. Define the Purpose of the Text

Related to the definition of the target audience, it is also important to clarify what the translated text is supposed to accomplish for your company. Is the text associated with your company’s brand or international sales? Will it be read often and critically? Will it be printed or read online? If you are trying to sell or persuade (and want to avoid making your company’s foreign presence an Internet joke (such as in this story from the BBC), fluent style will matter greatly. Information about the nature and purpose of your text provides valuable cues to the translators you work with.

With your finalized text on hand and answers to the questions above, you now are in a much better position to find a qualified translator.

The Actual Technical Translation Phase

4. Find a Qualified Translator

Knowing two languages is not enough to be a good translator. Qualified translators, such as those listed in the searchable ATA Directory of Translation and Interpreting Services typically specialize in their fields (engineering, patents, law etc.), continuously update their knowledge, and are skilled writers. Most professional translators work into their native language. Prepare a short summary of your technical translation project, which should include the language combination, approximate number of words, technical field, and time frame. The more information you provide about your project, the more useful responses you will receive. If your technical field is quite specific, ask about a translator’s past experience with similar material. Many translators have samples of their past work available to document their skills. If you decide to work with a translation company that provides an all-in-one service package, insist on seeing the qualifications of the person who will actually do the work and request references or samples.

What about Machine Translation (MT)?

Machine translation has improved greatly over the past years and many free Internet services are now able to translate simple sentences with some accuracy. However, the intellectual property of your company probably cannot be described in sentences taken from a kids book, but has taken years to develop and fine-tune. When we consider that a seemingly simple word such as “cable” has eleven different meanings in one German technical dictionary, it becomes obvious that the transfer of complex technical concepts requires specialized knowledge and the ability to make precise distinctions of meaning. Is MT useful for your technical translation project? The short answer is, no.

5. Selection Criteria for Technical Translation

Not unlike technical writing, technical translation is complex work that requires skill and experience. Accordingly, it has a price tag that must be budgeted for and an unusually low price quote should be a red flag. Qualities to look for in a technical translator include proven experience, references (don’t hesitate to request and follow up on them), knowledge of your industry, responsiveness, careful business correspondence, and genuine interest in your project.

6. What Certifications to Look For and What They Mean

Certified translators (CT) have passed an exam of their translation skills in one or more language combination and are subject to rigorous continuing education requirements. While that does not necessarily mean that every CT is a perfect fit for your technical translation project, certification provides additional assurance that the work will be done professionally and to your specifications.

7. Take the Value of Specialization into Account

As mentioned earlier, many translators are highly specialized in their fields and would not consider accepting work in other fields. As the customer, you benefit from the expertise and accumulated reference resources of a translator who follows the latest developments in the field on a daily basis, has invested in the right dictionaries and professional tools, and knows where to find accurate terminology information. Translators who claim they can translate anything most likely are just starting out in the business and may be quite inexperienced.

8. Take the Time to Answer Questions

Good translators ask questions and you should expect to hear from your translator during the translation process. Remember that every answer, picture, or detail you can provide about your company’s products will make the final text in the other language more accurate and understandable to the target audience. If you are busy, refer the translator to engineers or IP specialists to make sure there are no misunderstandings about technical details, but follow up to make sure the questions were properly answered.

If your technical translation project is extensive and involves thousands of words, it may also be a good idea to ask for one file to be delivered in advance so that an educated native speaker and subject-matter expert in your company can assess and comment on the accurate use of terminology.

Working with the Translated Text

Here are some important factors to manage after the translator has returned the materials in the foreign language:

9. Proofreading

Most publications produced by your company are proofread repeatedly before publication, and translations should not be an exception. Have the final text proofread by an educated native speaker who knows your business (and, if possible, your target market) and then have the final layout proofread (again) by your translator. This approach helps eliminate small, but embarrassing errors associated with typesetting (for example, the Spanish word “año” means “year,” but the same word without the “ñ”–ano– refers to the rectum).

10. Edits and Modifications Down the Road

Make sure to keep all translations, reference materials, and glossaries filed together for follow-up technical translation projects. Although you will ideally establish a long-term working relationship with translators or translation companies who are familiar with your company’s products and strategies, it is helpful to organize the materials in a structure that is aligned with your work. If your preferred translators are not available, ask them for recommendations of qualified colleagues.

By following these ten basic steps, you will be able to get your technical translation job done right–the first time. If you have any further questions, ask the members of the American Translators Association.

Further Reading and Materials:
The website of the American Translators Association contains a wealth of information. Don’t miss the valuable recommendations in the ATA brochure Getting It Right.

Dorothee Racette is President of the American Translators Association. She is an ATA Certified English into German/German into English translator who specializes in medical and biomedical texts.

This article was previously published at TechWhirl.