Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to Translate Engineering Material and Live to Tell the Tale



A review of Don Jacobson’s presentation at the ATA 53rd Annual Conference about Translating for the Design and Construction Professions in Israel, reviewed by Ami Argaman, a Hebrew-English translator.

Ten minutes before this session began, I found Don Jacobson standing alone in the lecture room. By the time he started, two others had joined me, and later a third sneaked in. However, Don did not appear fazed by the poor turnout: he was there to share his experiences and knowledge, and so he did, regardless of the size of the audience.

Jacobson, who was born, raised and educated in the United States, but has been living for many years in Israel, explained to us that large construction and design projects in Israel often require the cooperation and partnership of companies, builders, investors and designers from various countries. Hence, the materials involved – proposals, RFBs, bids, plans, etc., – need to be rendered in several languages. He is mainly involved in translating from Hebrew into English.

The presentation began with a historical background of Israel and its language, followed by descriptions of its topography, demography, politics and economy. The types of construction were delineated, and the needs for each one of them analyzed.  

Several projects were described, analyzed and discussed:

-          The newly completed light-rail system in Jerusalem
-          The ongoing construction of a rapid railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
-          The ongoing construction of the Cross-Israel Highway 6 expressway
-          The Carmel Mountain tunnels that bypass the City of Haifa
-          The still-planned light-rail system in Tel Aviv.

There was extensive discussion of the difficulties and challenges involved in rendering the complex concepts, the engineering papers and proposals, some of which are language-specific and culturally based, and some also poorly written to begin with, so have to be interpreted as well. As three of us were also Hebrew linguists, albeit not experts in this particular field, the session turned quite interactive, with the audience actively participating in deliberating about the translational issues and evaluating Jacobson’s solutions.

One fascinating example featured the original Hebrew design idea, which read [my literal translation – aa]: “The gallery that is deployed on the ground floor constitutes a cultural front in the direction of the city and a grass theater in the direction of the plaza that the structure creates.” This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever in English. Following a lively discussion, Jacobson presented his interpretive solution: “The art gallery, which covers the entire ground floor, together with the grassy amphitheater facing the plaza created by the structure, will act as a cultural magnet oriented toward the city.” Impressive!

As the small audience was fully engaged, the session ended with an extensive segment of questions, which Jacobson answered and explained, thus expanding the boundaries of presentation. We left the room feeling that it was educational, informative, language-challenging and at times even entertaining.


Ami Argaman, who was born and raised in Israel but has lived most of his adult life in the U.S., has been a professional Hebrew-English translator for the last 20 years. For the last 10 years, he has been serving as a language specialist and a Hebrew speaking-proficiency master tester for the U.S. Federal Government.

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