As a technical translator, I am often faced with tight deadlines which force me to make a conscious choice about how I invest my time translating. Should I put more effort into linguistic quality or subject matter expertise? Needless to say, both of them matter.
Translation as a human process
Linguistic quality is important for the readability of the text, but without subject-specific terms there is no amount of linguistic embellishment that will help you get your point across. At the end of the day, it is important for the target audience to understand the text in the same intention with which the source text was written. It is the translator’s job to achieve just that.
First of all, one must keep in mind that creating translations is a human process… and so is reading them! As such, human translations will always be the product of decisions taken by the translator, and they will always be read with a certain level of subjective criticism.
The role of language culture
To achieve a high-quality translation, you will need a translator with a mix of good linguistic skills and a sufficient level of subject matter expertise, along with a definition of “quality” for the given content, subject matter and other client-specific criteria. The translator’s job is not only to translate the content from the source to the target language while adhering to the client’s quality expectations, but also to interpret the inherent nuances of the language which have their origins in the culture, habits, and the social situation of the country in which the language is spoken. In other words, translation not only requires comprehensive language skills, but also an overall understanding of the source and target language culture.
Linguistic quality vs subject matter expertise
In technical translations, knowledge of the subject matter plays a significant role. For example, tachiage in Japanese could mean anything from to stand up, boot, launch or to start up. If the client is an automobile manufacturer it would be more accurate to say start of production. To give another example, koujou shisaku means factory prototype. However, a subject matter expert would likely translate it as engineering trial. It is important to recognize that factory prototype is not incorrect; it is just that in this case engineering trial is a better fit.
Once the expected quality requirements have been defined and the individual technical terms are appropriately translated and validated in a terminology management system, the technical terms should be put together in sentences which are readable and can be understood easily. This is where the linguistic ability comes to the fore. The translator’s command over both the source and the target language helps him/her present the text in a manner satisfactory to the target readers without any omissions or additions and without deviating from the meaning and tone of the original while respecting the constraints of the target language and format.
Although I’m not a German translator myself, my colleagues tell me that when you translate from German – famous for inventing new, lengthy compound nouns like Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaft (insurance company providing legal protection) or the more humorous Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsmütze (the hat of the Danube steamship company captain) – a more literal translation or paraphrase of the compound noun is often the best resort to ensure that as much as possible of the original meaning is retained.
Linguistic skills and subject matter expertise should not only go hand in hand but cannot be imagined one without the other. While in technical translations priority should be given to subject matter expertise rather than aesthetics of the language, a translator often cannot convey the exact meaning if he or she does not have the linguistic skills to complement that level of expertise, no matter the translator’s strategy.
And as we say in India: Happy Translating!
Is your terminology in need of a spring-clean? Then read what my colleague Andreas Ljungström has to say about it – you won't regret it!