When a company wants to expand internationally, it will need to translate the documentation of its products, such as user guides, manuals, technical specifications, or maintenance manuals.

Delivering the manuals for a washing machine, for example, in English, to a Latin American customer who only speaks Spanish, will cause him a great deal of discomfort, not to mention that it could even put him/her in danger.

Technical translation is usually applied in engineering, automotive, electronics, mining, telecommunications, metallurgy, construction, heavy machinery, industrial equipment, hardware, software, and various other sectors. In technical translation, language and terminology are specific to the subject matter in question, and they are not very usual in common speech.

An error in a technical translation can not only lead to a completely different understanding of the text but can even be dangerous for the user. This is the main reason why we only work with specialists with practical experience working in the sector to which a document to be translated belongs.

For example, to translate a power plant installation manual, which we translated for a European supplier, to be installed in Latin America, we worked with an electrical engineer with experience in power plants.

To translate the AWS (American Welding Society) welding standards, we worked with a mechanical engineer with practical experience in welding work.

As the last example, to translate the structural steel standards for construction that we did for the European Union, we worked with a civil engineer with a master’s degree in Structures.

We know that this is not the typical approach of a translation agency, which employs professional translators for any subject matter. However, as engineers, we have seen such a large number of incorrect translations that motivated us to take on this work. On the occasions when we could not understand the text translated from English to Spanish, we did the “reverse” translation. In other words, we translated the text that had been translated into Spanish, literally into English and, bingo!

As an example, in a Maintenance Manual of one of the largest heavy machinery manufacturers in the world, we saw that they talked about a llave de extremo de caja. This simply doesn’t make any sense in Spanish. It means, literally, a wrench that works on the end of a box. When we did the back translation, we knew that they were referring to a box end wrench, that translates as llave de boca in Spanish. Obviously, the translator had no technical training in engineering or related fields.

On another occasion, in an electrical equipment manual, translated from English to Spanish, we noticed that they spoke of a relevo, although the complete phrase did not make any sense. By back-translating, we understood that the translator referred to a relé, which is an electrical/electronic device intended to control a given circuit. The “problem” was that both relevo and relé translate in English as relay. However, relevo translates as relay, in a different context, as in relay race. In this example, it can be seen that the translator, with no technical training, simply chose the meaning that seemed most appropriate in a dictionary.

And so on, we could go on endlessly citing examples.

If the translator does not have a deep knowledge of a technical subject, he/she will not understand the language and terminology, and it is very likely that he/she will make mistakes that could cause, from a bad image in a client to a danger of injury or death for the user.

Without a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, the translator’s task can become impossible.  Having a good technical dictionary is not enough if you do not know the subject well.

We would also like to mention the time we translated the back-end of the portal of a major American bank. The back-end is the part of a website that you don’t see, but which runs the part that the customer sees.

The client told us that they were worried, because they had already sent samples to 8 agencies to evaluate the quality of the translation, and the output had been terrible. No translated sample could be run.  All of them had runtime errors. To make a long story short, we translated the sample and to the client’s delight, it worked!

When we saw the sample, we understood immediately where professional translators without technical backgrounds were failing, The sample text contained conditional commands. That is, part of the translation depended on a certain variable that could take different values. Consequently, different translations had to be considered for each possible value.

Naturally, we understood this because we know about programming. In addition, professional translators, who knew nothing about programming, damaged the syntax of the code. There are some programming languages syntaxes in which if you add a space, a comma, or a period, the syntax is damaged and the code does not work.

Currently, the bank’s website works very well, and for any updates, the bank contacts us.

Something similar happens when it comes to translating software or its help manuals. It is advisable to understand programming to translate them because, sometimes, help manuals have code embedded within the text, which must not be tampered with in order to function properly.

Same with e-learning courses. That is, the text might share space with programming codes.

In addition, we also translate Autocad technical drawings, which usually include many acronyms that will be difficult for a non-technical translator to decipher.

For all of the above reasons, and to avoid headaches or customer complaints, we suggest that all technical translations be handled by translators with technical training in the same field to which the document or file to be translated belongs.

If you want to see some examples of really bad technical translations taken from the real world, visit the following post: Mistakes in technical translations