Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Beginning of Wisdom: Some practical aspects of technical translation

Nicholas Hartmann
It has been said that no one but the author reads a document as carefully as the translator does. What if that same detailed consideration were applied to a piece of business correspondence that a freelance translator might receive and read every day, for example an e-mail message from a regular customer? That analysis is taken here as an opportunity to discuss some of the attitudes and habits that technical translators should cultivate.
The message
The names in the “message” below are fictitious, but its content and tone are typical. “Stanislaus Tweek” is a composite of several of my regular patent-attorney customers, and “Huber & Meyer” stands for a German patent law firm that represents German companies and inventors, and must work through a U.S. attorney in order to apply for a U.S. patent. “Prior art” is that which is already “known” in the strictly patent-related sense, i.e. the universe of existing knowledge to which a patentable invention must constitute a novel addition. “Declaration” refers to a translator’s formal statement of accuracy, discussed in more detail below.
Dear Nick:
Confirming our conversation of earlier today, please find attached the German text of another Jos. Schmidt GmbH electronic motor control system patent from Huber & Meyer in Munich. Please prepare an English translation of this text and e-mail it to Herr Meyer for review no later than June 21. My thanks again for accommodating the short deadline.
I have enclosed two prior-art documents that are referenced in the specification, for whatever terminological assistance they may provide. Please note that we will require a Translator’s Declaration for this application.
Best regards,
Stanislaus Tweek
Tincker, Fiddel & Tweek, LLP
Intellectual Property Law
Dear Nick: ... Best regards, Stan
The forms of address in Mr. Tweek’s message are significant. He and I are on a first-name basis after working together for several years; we have met and we exchange Christmas cards. The relationship is cordial, even friendly, but still businesslike.
We can be friendly because we know what to expect from one another:
Although he can have someone else translate his patents more cheaply – and has done so when I have been unavailable – he still calls me first because he knows that I will give him a translation of the highest possible quality; deliver it on time; and be adaptable and flexible in terms of deadline, subject matter, consultation and review, and preferred style and terminology.
I in turn know that he will allow me the longest possible deadline consistent with his own time constraints; provide whatever terminology support he can; shield me from the complexities of the patent system and the whims of German attorneys; and pay my invoices promptly.
These mutual understandings are the foundation of how I define a “good customer.” This particular relationship goes further, however:
More relationships
e-mail it to Herr Meyer for review
Herr Meyer is the attorney at Huber & Meyer who actually writes the German applications that I translate. I am asked to send my translations to him so that he can make sure I am using the client’s preferred terminology and suggest other minor procedural adjustments. He and I have learned to adapt to one another’s idiosyncrasies and preferences, and to Mr. Tweek’s as well.
A few years ago, after disagreeing vigorously with some of Herr Meyer’s proposed changes that, in my opinion, went well beyond what the original German text actually said, I contacted Mr. Tweek and asked him to clarify the responsibilities, roles and obligations of the three parties involved. His response was, in part (emphasis mine):
You and I and Herr Meyer are all working for the ultimate client, Schmidt GmbH, and our primary responsibility is to exercise our professional judgment in such a way that Schmidt GmbH obtains US patents which will stand up in court.
You clearly cannot certify, as an accurate translation, wording which you believe introduces forbidden “new matter.” If an infringer did manage to invalidate a Schmidt patent on the basis of an inaccurate translation of the text, this could destroy protection of one or more products from competition. People could lose jobs.
We must therefore continue to exercise our respective professional judgments while maintaining a cooperative spirit, since we are all on the “Schmidt team” together.
Because I communicate directly both with Herr Meyer (who originates the texts and who in turn is acting on behalf of Schmidt GmbH, which is ultimately affected by the quality of my work) and with Mr. Tweek (whose reason for wanting the best possible translation is to maximize his success in obtaining US patents for Schmidt GmbH so he can retain them as a client), I am no longer simply a “service provider” but one of the participants in a cooperative endeavor. Each participant derives the same advantage from working together as effectively as possible: we retain our respective customers, earn their respect, and enhance our professional reputations.
I therefore function as part of an explicitly defined “team,” each member of which makes a specific contribution that is acknowledged and respected by the others. This requires that each team member not only possess the appropriate expertise, but also have the confidence to assert it. That in turn requires experience: my triangular relationship with Messrs. Tweek and Meyer is not one in which I could have functioned successfully at the very beginning of my translation career.
Please prepare an English translation of this text
The American Translators Association’s Code of Business Practices refers to a translator as a “bridge for ideas from one language to another and one culture to another...” A real bridge, however, is inorganic and immobile, a static, non-living structure. Translators are none of the above: we are alive and active. What we really do, as the Latin root of “translate” implies, is to act as carriers across bridges.
But what do we carry? Translators might seem to carry written words, as interpreters carry spoken words, but our ultimate purpose is always to convey what the words themselves are carrying: ideas, concepts, meanings, and thoughts.
Words and language, after all, are just containers: they are conventions and agreements among groups of people that certain noises (spoken language) and squiggles (written language) have certain meanings.
The translator must look at one set of squiggles, understand what they mean, and express that meaning as another set of squiggles. It might appear that the squiggles are the end product of translation (since words are often the unit by which we get paid). But the real product, the reason for making all the squiggles, is what they mean; and the quality of a translation is determined by how well the translator turns source symbols into meaning (= comprehension) and back into target symbols (= expression). The symbols are merely vehicles for moving meaning from the author’s mind through the translator’s to the reader’s.
Consider the Chinese ideogram . If you cannot read Chinese, it is indeed merely a squiggle. Even a transcription into the Roman alphabet (“shui”) of that ideogram’s pronunciation in Mandarin Chinese is meaningless without a knowledge of the spoken language.
With appropriate dictionaries we can accurately translate into English as “water”; and it might seem that our work is then finished. And so we are, if our work is performed only on the level of noises and squiggles. But water’s real existence goes far beyond the spoken and written conventions of different human languages; if we really want to understand water, we need to walk along a beach, turn on a faucet, or step in a puddle.
A true understanding of anything can therefore be gained only by direct experience of it – the sound and feel of water, how one gear meshes with another, the size of the Grand Canyon. True understanding then leads to correct internalization of the meaning of a source-language text, which can then can be expressed accurately in the target language.
This is why technical translators love factory tours: they are an opportunity to see real things and real processes that we would otherwise never directly experience.
Time management
My thanks again for accommodating the short deadline.
The older I get, the more keenly I realize that accurate, high-quality translation of complex technical material is an intellectually and physically demanding activity.
I have found that in the long run, it is better to turn down work and devote appropriate attention to what I have, than to produce less than the best possible quality just in order to generate more volume. The alternative is a vicious circle:
Too much work = fatigue = inattention = mistakes = poor quality = loss of reputation, customer confidence and repeat business = ... not enough work.
Time management therefore means not only meeting deadlines, but also understanding one’s limitations and capabilities and how they affect quality.
we will require a Translator’s Declaration
Here is the gist of the Translator’s Declaration (also called a Verification) that I use. My thanks go to Jan Clayberg and Olaf Bexhoeft for providing me, fifteen years ago, with a copy of their battle-tested Declaration that I have used successfully ever since:
I, Nicholas Hartmann, translator ... declare that I am well acquainted with the English and German languages and that the appended document is a true and faithful translation of:
[document reference]
All statements made herein are to my own knowledge true, and all statements made on information and belief are believed to be true; and further, these statements are made with the knowledge that willful false statements and the like so made are punishable by fine or imprisonment, or both, under Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code, and that such willful false statements may jeopardize the validity of the document.
The Translator’s Declaration is a formal statement that I have the knowledge and qualifications to do the job I have taken on, and that I take responsibility for what I have done. It is where the translator literally signs on the dotted line to verify accuracy.
There are implied penalties for negligence and incompetence: for example, “willful false statements may jeopardize the validity of the document,” thereby possibly invalidating the patent and once again causing people to lose their jobs.
But the Declaration’s choice of words is interesting: “well acquainted with” (not “an omniscient and unchallengeable expert in”); “to my own knowledge true”; “statements made on information and belief are believed to be true.”
The Declaration does not impose a requirement for perfection. It does, however, put into legal language the obligations that every translator should already feel: to acquire and maintain knowledge of both the languages and the subject matter of every translation; to apply that knowledge with unfailing care; and to do everything necessary to ensure accuracy. In other words, to act like a professional.
Subject knowledge
another Jos. Schmidt GmbH electronic motor control system patent
It is curious that in the Translator’s Declaration, I am not required to affirm that I know anything about the subject matter of my translation. While such knowledge is obviously mandatory, the manner in which technical translators acquire it seems to be very heterogeneous.
In my own case, for example, my three degrees in an obscure corner of the humanities might seem poor preparation for the translation of German electronics patents. But higher education does teach some useful habits of mind: research skills, intellectual rigor, the existence and function of specialized language, the fundamental importance of experimentation and the scientific method, and how to write clearly. I was also fortunate to have inherited from my father – a photojournalist and industrial photographer – his fascination with technology as an expression of human creativity, and to have accompanied him as he photographed production plants, laboratories, aircraft hangars, architectural monuments, machine parts, and much more.
Other technical translators have come to their careers through very different but similarly indirect routes, but I believe that the details of training and background are merely secondary. What all successful and contented technical translators share is not a particular course of study but certain fundamental personality traits: we are insatiably curious about the real world, both natural and man-made; our curiosity is wide-ranging, even all-encompassing; and we firmly believe there is no such thing as useless information.
The appeal and excitement of a life in technical translation are that it requires (and rewards) an omnivorous approach to knowledge: you drive hundreds of miles out of your way to look at a bridge, or take the long way round to whatever you need at the hardware store, or read owner’s manuals for things you don’t even own. What makes you a good technical translator is therefore not what you get taught while you’re in school, but how much you want to keep learning for the rest of your life.
Terminology, finally
for whatever terminological assistance they may provide
The title of this essay is taken from the Chinese saying
“The beginning of wisdom is to call a thing by its right name,”
and terminology is obviously an important aspect of technical translation. But how do we decide what the “right name” is?
Very often, it depends on what a lot of other right names are: in a particular industry or trade, within a particular document or set of documents, or even as preferred by a particular engineer or patent attorney.
For example, a recent project required me to translate three French patents relating to a firearm mechanism: all three dealt with much the same subject matter, and had to be consistent with one another and with a previous (mediocre) translation that had already been submitted to the Patent Office.
Those involved were the translator (me), another translator functioning as editor and as representative of the translation partnership that was my direct customer, the patent attorney who was their customer, and the engineers at the company applying for the patent. Because of the large number of interested parties and the need to conform to previously defined terminology, this one set of documents ended up tying all of us into some truly Gordian terminological knots.
Let’s start with the apparently simple concept of locking or immobilizing a movable part (French terms are in italics, English terms in boldface):
We begin with immobiliser, which we effortlessly translate as immobilize. Based on desserrer = unlock, we then rashly assume that serrer = lock. Wrong: bloquer = lock, because following exhaustive discussions between the attorney and the engineers, we were told that “none of the other options – jam, inhibit, block, trap, park, secure, freeze – seems to capture the idea here as well as ‘lock’.” So serrer = interlock.
On to verrouiller. Bolt seems obvious but that English word has a specific meaning in firearms; a better general term would be lock, but bloquer already occupies that terminological space. So we select clamp. A dispositif de verrouillage is then a clamping device; a douille de verrouillage should therefore be a clamping sleeve, but turns out in fact to be just a sleeve, because the same reference number is used in one of the documents for a plain old douille, whereas a lexically identical douille with a different reference number is actually a cartridge case.
The same problem occurs with axe du canon, which is the barrel axis, suggesting that every instance of axe is therefore an axis. Unfortunately some of them are physical elements rather than geometrical constructs and are therefore pins.
All these components move within something called a bâti, which the dictionary defines as a frame; but carcasse is already defined as “frame = the basic unit of a firearm that houses the firing and breech mechanisms and to which the barrel and stock are attached, aka receiver, although Client (12/20/04) says that frame is a superordinate term to receiver,” a road down which we will not travel.
Let’s move on to boîtier, which cannot be a frame and which we define as a housing. A boîtier de culasse is (thank God) a breech housing, so is culasse then breech? Sorry, it’s a bolt (remember verrouiller?), which according to the client is the same as a breech block, being “the part that closes on the end of the barrel opposite where the bullet exits.”
Our joy at finding that tête de culasse is in fact bolt head is tempered by the discovery that culasse mobile is a mobile breech, because “according to the client the bolt is the same as breech block, except that for culasse mobile Termium gives breech bolt or even breech block or, when no rotary motion is performed, closure is usually referred to as a breechblock,” another road down which we will not go.
All this is fired by a mécanisme de détente, which we render as trigger mechanism. The result is that for déclenchement we then cannot use the obvious triggering, and must instead use release. Although déclenchement et/ou arrêt is translated in the prior US filing (the paradigm to which we must conform) as triggering or blocking, by special dispensation we are allowed to call it release and/or stoppage. “Stoppage” sounds funny, but as soon as we consider “locking” or “blocking” as an alternative we are hit on the back of the head by three boomerangs labeled serrer, deserrer, and bloquer...
This went on for almost two months, through dozens of monolingual, multilingual, and pictorial dictionaries, downloaded PDF files containing parts lists for Finnish sporting rifles, e-mails, 40-minute telephone calls, a constantly expanding and mutating glossary, consultations with engineers, and so on. It came within eight hours of being a multi-year project.
The “right name” is therefore whatever is right in a particular applicable context. The next time I encounter any of these terms in French I may not be able to use the same English equivalents even if they do refer to firearms, because a different document may be affected by different antecedents, contexts, and preferences.
Summary and conclusions
What is therefore the real meaning that a technical translator should extract from a message like the one we have been discussing? What are the real instructions being given? What must the recipient understand in order to act on it appropriately?
I believe there are six fundamental things that all translators, especially those dealing with technical material, must understand:
a.                   The nature of translation and the translator: that spoken and written languages are merely symbols and sets of assumptions referring only indirectly to real things, and that the real things are what is important and must be comprehended.
b.                   The translator’s interaction with clients, editors, and ultimate customers: a translator, no matter where he or she is physically located, cannot ever work successfully in isolation.
c.                   Time management: knowing how much can be accomplished while maintaining high quality, which is the foundation of a long-term approach to a professional career.
d.                   How to acquire and refine subject expertise within one’s own psychological and emotional context: if you don’t know DNA from RNA but circuit diagrams are your favorite bedtime reading, then say No to the biomedical jobs and expand your knowledge of electrical engineering. Whatever you do, you must love it; otherwise translation is just a job, and there are easier jobs.
e.                   Our responsibilities to:
-        our customers, not only because they pay us but because we have accepted obligations with regard to delivery deadlines, accuracy, appropriateness, and quality;
-        our colleagues: we have a professional and moral obligation to help other translators learn and advance, to take pride in what we do, and to let the rest of the world know about it;
-        the public: the work we do affects our customers, and their customers, and eventually those customers’ employees and stockholders. Translators must be aware of being participants in society and in the national and world economy;
f.                    How to collect, manage, and evaluate terminology: the words we use must be appropriate and up-to-date and must reflect, whenever possible, direct contact with what lies behind the terminology. Once you have stood inside a waste incineration plant and experienced its smell and heat, or spun a roller bearing, or looked carefully at a suspension bridge, you can bring true understanding to your translations of texts on those subjects.
So perhaps “the beginning of wisdom is to call a thing by its right name,” but it is only the beginning.
#   #   #
Nicholas Hartmann has worked as an independent technical and scientific translator since 1984, serving customers in the United States and Europe. For more information, please visit

This essay was published, with very minor editorial emendations, in the April 2006 issue of the ATA Chronicle, the bimonthly magazine of the American Translators Association.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why You Should Participate in the School Outreach Program

By Molly Yurick
Re-posted from The Savvy Newcomer blog with permission from the author

As a new ATA member in 2015, I received my first edition of The Chronicle and was intrigued by the article about Jenny Stillo, the winner of the 2013–2014 School Outreach Contest. At the time, I was in my sixth year working for the Spanish Ministry of Education as a cultural ambassador, which involved visiting students of English in public schools across Spain. The combination of the chance to win a free registration to the conference in Miami and the opportunity to teach students about my passion and (at the time) part-time job was what inspired me to participate in the program.

My Preparation Process and Presentation

I started by checking out the resources provided on the School Outreach Program’s website ( to see the content of past participants’ presentations and how they made themselves stand out with their winning pictures.
I then decided to make my own presentation from scratch. I started by introducing what interpretation and translation are, who linguists work for (agencies, direct clients, the UN), and what they specialize in. I also touched on life-changing “translation fails,” for example a boy who tragically became a paraplegic due to the misinterpretation of a medical term and an international bank that lost millions. I ended the session with two interactive activities. (You can check out my presentation on the School Outreach website:

The first activity was based on a very real-life situation for these kids. Language students all over the world love to use Google Translate to do their homework, and I wanted to show them that they could do a better job than their computers could. I started by showing them a picture of a mistranslation, a sign that said “Exit Only” in English and “Éxito Aquí” in Spanish (“Success Here” in English) — they all laughed and wondered how anyone could ever translate so poorly. I then asked them if they thought Google Translate could do a better job… and the majority of them thought it could. I showed them that Google’s translation of “Exit Only” was “Única Salida” (“Only Exit” in English), and they decided that although it is not perfect, it worked better than the original translation. I followed this same process with a number of funny photos. The last step of this activity was asking them to come up with their own, correct translation for each less-than-perfect one. I have to say that they did a fabulous job. At first they made the common mistake of translating too literally, but they quickly got the hang of it. I think they were pleasantly surprised that they, 13-year-old English-language learners, could write better in English than the all-powerful Google.

The second activity was what brought about the winning photo. This class had a particularly large number of immigrant students from around the world and I had each of them translate “My name is…” into their native language on a colorful, comic-book-style speech bubble. In the photo you can see Russian, Arabic, French, Romanian, Spanish, Asturian (the local dialect), and English (that would be me). I had all the kids pose and hold their speech bubble up to their mouth, making for a happy and bright picture. The most rewarding part was that there were three students who didn’t know how to write in their mother tongue. That night, they asked their parents how to write out the sentence and were excited to show off their native languages in class the next day. One boy even brought in the entire Arabic alphabet copied by hand and spent the next school day writing all his friend’s names from right to left. Everyone was impressed, he was proud, and I was so happy to see it.

The culmination of it all happened right as I was walking out the door. One student came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and confessed: “Molly, I’m definitely going to think about becoming a translator.” Success!

Why participate in the School Outreach Program and Contest?

Let’s be honest: lots of kids dislike their language classes, and I think it’s because they think they’re useless. Kids don’t see or hear much about other languages in their daily lives, especially in America. Making an entertaining, interactive presentation where they can see the consequences of mistranslations, a possible career for their future, and the fun in it all, is extremely rewarding. Through this program, we can change the way they think about language and make them see that it isn’t just another subject in school — that language is a powerful tool that is becoming more and more important every day.

The other benefit to participating is monetary. If you win the photography contest, you get a free registration to next year’s conference! Not only that, but it really gets your name out there and you get to meet a lot of great people along the way. From my point of view, it’s all benefits. I even had the nice surprise of having my photo on the cover of The Chronicle.

Recycling my Presentation

I had such a great experience that I decided to repeat my presentation when I was home in Minnesota for a visit this winter. I talked with a classroom of adult ESL students in the Adult Academic Program in my local school district.

The experience was an absolute blast! The classroom was filled with immigrants and refugees from all over the world and they were so interactive and excited to have me there. They were mostly surprised to learn the difference between translation/interpreting and asked tons of questions (How much can you make? What if you make a big mistake? How can we study? Who can we work for?). At the end, I opened it up for discussion and many of the students told me stories about their bad experiences with interpreters. One man shared that he volunteered when he was at the doctor's office and could see there were Spanish-speaking patients waiting for their interpreter, who never showed up. He said he volunteered for five hours to help people communicate with their doctor.

Throughout the presentation, I encouraged all of them to continue with their English studies to work towards a career in interpreting. You should have seen their faces! I think that for many immigrants and refugees, a "real job" seems out of reach. They looked so entirely hopeful that they could make a career for themselves in this field while helping their fellow community members at the same time.

I encourage you to educate others about our great field by participating in the School Outreach Program. Whether you visit a classroom of children or adults, you will quickly see how rewarding the experience can be. If you’re interested in participating in the photography contest, you must submit a photo and description of your presentation by the deadline on July 18, 2016.

About the author: Molly Yurick is a Spanish to English translator specialized in the tourism, hospitality and airline industries. In the past she has worked as a medical interpreter in Minnesota and as a cultural ambassador for the Ministry of Education in Spain. She has a B.A. in Spanish and Global Studies and a Certificate in Medical Interpreting from the University of Minnesota. She is currently living in northern Spain. You can visit her website at: