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Translating Technical Communication

Originally published in Intercom, June 2011

Unlike most of you, I don't actually write any original text. Instead, I transform the words of your European colleagues into English. I joined STC when I wrote software documentation before I started over a decade ago to translate such documentation from German. Before becoming a tech writer, I managed computer systems and trained users. That computer management career was actually launched by my language skills: a Swiss bank wanted someone to handle their network and talk to programmers back at headquarters in Zurich.

Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations llcI am originally from Austria, but the business German in both countries is quite similar. My work now frequently involves translating Swiss programming specifications, whitepapers, etc. From Germany come a variety of technical documents, but more and more text is about alternative energy -- wind and solar power, for the most part. And then there is the odd Austrian contract a client asks me to translate because "you're from there, so you know their bureaucracy."

Occasionally, I find out after I have accepted a job that a document about, say, energy is, in fact, a marketing brochure selling solar panels, rather than the installation guide or whitepaper I had been expecting. So then I take a crash course in marketing speak for the energy industry. Here, of course, the Internet is invaluable. Perusing a few U.S. solar panel manufacturers' websites gives me a feel for how these products are advertised in the states. This, in turn, allows me to transfer the German text into copy that will speak to U.S. audiences.

The Internet is also a great terminology resource. Contrary to what some people think, even translators use dictionaries -- as well as glossaries, thesauri, and other reference tools. These include sites such as Wikipedia, where I can learn about a technical concept with which I may be unfamiliar, and frequently even find that concept explained in both languages. That provides a great way to check how specific terminology in one language is rendered in the other language.

Software that saves each sentence I translate in both languages and shows me similar sentences I have translated in the past -- a so-called computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool -- not only speeds up my work, but also helps to ensure more consistent wording. However, CAT tools rely on built-in grammar rules to determine when a sentence is similar to something I have translated before. They are only useful if terminology and sentence structure are consistent within the source text. If in the source text the same instruction is phrased three different ways in three different locations, the CAT tool won't know that the user is supposed to perform the same action each time. Chances are, if the text is more than a few paragraphs long, I won't remember that -- or where -- that instruction occurred previously in the text, so I won't be able to make the text more consistent, either.

Since my company, reliable translations llc, is a one-person enterprise, I am also its chief cook and bottle washer. In addition to translating, I negotiate individual jobs, invoice clients, pay bills, and market my services. Working in a home office can be lonely at times, but I keep in touch with both translator and technical communication colleagues at local meetings and international conferences, as well as through my blog, On Language and Translation (http://reliable-translations.blogspot.com/), and by writing for both STC and ATA (American Translators Association) publications.

Most of my clients are agencies that work with many freelancers in a variety of languages and can therefore handle projects that need to be translated into multiple languages. Having such an intermediary, however, means that I usually can't contact the writer of the original text, let alone any subject-matter experts. I also don't generally have access to the product being documented and sometimes do not even receive the drawings or screen shots to which the text refers. So if the source text is ambiguous, I may not be able to render it the way the writer intended.

On the other hand, clearly written text about an interesting topic is a joy to translate. Working on documents in different technical areas also means I frequently learn something new about, say, how exactly wind turbines work or how software drives an assembly line. The work is always new and interesting, plus there's no commute or dress code.