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.


  1. The importance of a technical translation being accurate and efficient should not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.

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  3. Technical translation covers the translation of many kinds of specialized texts and requires a high level of subject knowledge.Technical translation requires a solid knowledge base of technological skills. Thanks for sharing the steps which make technical translation success.


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