We have all, at one time or another, seen a text that made us either laugh or cry. Although often an innocent mistake, these texts look very unprofessional. In the worst case scenario, they can have dangerous consequences. For example, a crucial instruction in a mistranslated technical manual can result in the incorrect installation of a machine by a customer. The consequences? Unnecessary damage, wear and tear or a reduction in product quality.
Unclear, vague or ambiguous source texts are a thorn in the flesh of technical translators; they obscure the core of a message, which can then lead to the misinterpretation of the source text. As a result, the context of the translated article may deviate from the source text, leading to the technical translator unintentionally putting the reader on the wrong, and perhaps even dangerous, track. The consequences of a incorrectly inserted full stop or comma in the proportions of explosive substances would be unimaginable!
With over 15 years’ experience as a technical translator, I have seen almost every kind of mistake. From comic to unprofessional, and from dangerous to illogical. The latter sometimes occurs when a word has several meanings in both the source and the target languages. A common mistake is when words are translated literally. The word “aandrijftrommel” in Dutch is usually not a “drive drum” but a “drive pulley”, depending on the technical application.
Weakly versus weekly
I recently came across this incorrect translation in a Material Safety Data Sheet: Nonionic; may undergo a weekly cationic reaction in some circumstances. Even the spell checker will not pick up the mistake (weekly), as this is a recognised word. Here, the English word “weakly” had been confused with “weekly”. It would seem bizarre for a chemical substance to react weekly!
Technical and industry-specific
The strangest technical translations can result from such errors. Especially when a technical translator is not aware of the sector-specific meanings, or where the narrative context is not known. Moreover, there is a risk that such misinterpreted technical translations will blindly be copied into other languages, whereas it is vitally important that the meaning conveyed by a text is the same in every language.
Technical translations are so much more than merely translating a text. First of all, the source text must be clear. Then, it is essential that a technical translator is thoroughly familiar with the manufacturer, the product and the operational functioning of the machine. Technical jargon can only be accurately translated by working in close cooperation with the client. And by referring to industry-specific technical glossaries. This is why a good technical translator always asks questions about the source text. As a professional, I’m suspicious of any technical translator who doesn’t ask any questions!
If you would like advice on the translation of your documents, or if you have a technical document for translation, please don’t hesitate to contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us on 020-7055182.