Posted by: patenttranslator | July 20, 2013

Technical Translation Is Not Just About Translating Manuals


It is a sad fact that the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, an almost-monthly journal for translators, continues to greatly underwhelm me just about every time I fish it out from my mailbox.

There were two long articles in the current issue that I thought might contain something useful for a freelance patent translator, which is what I have been for the last 26 years. One of them, by Mathilde Fontenet, a Swiss translator and reviser of French who has been working for the Translation Service of the European Organization for Nuclear Research Translation Service since 1991, is about technical translation. It has a catchy name “The Technical Translator: The Sherlock Holmes of Translation”, as it is attempting to shed much needed light on the complicated and somewhat ephemeral issues involving technical translation.

The other one by Arianna Aguilar, a “master-certified” court interpreter for the State of North Carolina, is titled “Taking Advantage of the Cloud”.  I plan to elucidate this tricky new technological development with my own thoughts on who is taking advantage of whom in a next post.

I tried to read the article about technical translation carefully because after all, technical translation, c’est mon métier. Mathilde Fontenet is a good writer, especially if her first language is French. She could also be a good motivational speaker or writer, rather than just a mere translator and translation teacher as she likes to say uplifting and inspiring sentences like “The greatest prerequisite for technical translation is the ability to manage uncertainty”. This is very true, but then again, this is also the greatest prerequisite for politicians, assassins for hire, casino gamblers, bookkeepers, zookeepers and beekeepers, and just about every other professions, is it not?

In my opinion, the biggest problem with her article is that she does not seem to realize that she is really commenting only on an infinitesimal subcategory of technical translation, and not on the actual subject of technical translation which is larger by orders of magnitude. There are many different categories of technical translation. A translator can spend a whole lifetime translating and revising updated operation manuals published by CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), but that does not means that these manuals represent the entire field of “technical translation”.

Had she prefaced her article by saying something like “this is what I think about technical translation, and in particular technical translation here at CERN”, this post would never have been written.

The problem is, she seems to be talking about technical translation in general, and technical translation happens to be a very broad field. As far as I can tell, translators who mostly translate patents and never translate any manuals whatsoever are also technical translators. That would be me, for instance. Translators who mostly translate articles from technical journals are also technical translators. That would be also me. Which is why I think that her advice to technical translators is, unfortunately, basically only useful to a translator who happens to be translating operation manuals, preferably for CERN, ideally to French.

Let me cite another short passage illustrating Fontenet’s quite narrow and restrictive field of vision:

“A notion quite foreign to technical texts is that of authorship. If properly written, technical texts do not contain any sign of the author or trace of subjectivity.”

Does she even know that patent applications, which are highly technical texts, list the author(s) on the title page, as well as the editor (which would be the patent agent or patent lawyer), and that articles published in technical journals are never published anonymously either?

Each of these fields of technical translation probably represents a larger slice of the entire technical translation market pizza than translation of manuals. Authorship is crucial to any patent application, and any translator would tell you that the DNA of the author of the text in a foreign language to be translated is finely woven as well as haphazardly scattered into the text of a patent application or technical article. You have to be blind not to see it.

Or let me quote another overly simplistic interpretation of what technical translation is supposedly about from the article in the ATA Chronicle:

”Technical texts aim to convey information in a completely objective manner in order to help the reader perform a predefined task.”

Well, some technical text do that, and it would be so nice if there were more of them. But she does not say that this should be ideally the case. She authoritatively postulates that this is so.

It is not. Unfortunately for technical translators, many technical texts slyly but very distinctly aim to achieve, at least partially, the exact opposite of conveying information as objectively and clearly as possible. Especially in patent applications, the aim is often to craft the wording of a very broad claim covering all bases for all possible future applications for a new method, technique, gadget or gizmo, while disclosing as little real, new information as possible, because such information disclosure would naturally tend to narrow down the scope of the patent’s claims. In other words, ambiguity and obfuscation can be a very valuable currency for patent agents who write new patent applications if they can get away with it. And many can do just that very well. These are probably the ones who are paid the best.

That is why, for instance, Japanese patent agents are so enamored of handy Japanese grammatical shenanigans so popular in the fascinating language called “patentese”, like the word もの (“mono”, which could mean a thing, a person, an item, or just about anything else), or the word 装置 (“sohchi”, which is a word meaning device, apparatus, equipment, installation, and quite a few other things), while German patent agents love words like “Anlage” (equipment, structure, construction, unit, system, and a number of other possible translations), and the French ones use “le dispositif” (device, system, apparatus, means, arrangement, etc.) as much as possible instead of saying what they really mean, etc.

When I started reading the article, I was hoping that there would be some practical information for novice translators who are eager to learn more about the wonderful world of technical translation. But unfortunately, I did not find much practical advice for translators in it. The examples of stylistically poor translations that I did find in there were interesting, but this is hopefully something that is taught at most colleges where new translators are being educated. At least this used to be the case when I was a young novice translator eager to learn the craft.

Certainly, some of the paragraphs in the article are quite interesting, but mostly in an abstract kind of way. But I think that they would be much more suitable for an introductory college class about subtleties of different styles in writing and translating, rather than for the ATA Chronicle which bills itself as “The Voice of Interpreters and Translators”, and not really as “The Voice of First-Year Foreign Language Students”.

I believe that throwing around word like “parataxis” under the heading “Elusive Micro-Relationships Between Words” is not going to help our talented, young colleagues much either. In case you did not know that, according to Meriam-Webster “parataxis” means “the placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives”. Many languages use this handy techniques much more than French which tends to be somewhat “verbose”, for lack of a better term, not just English.

If you are a technical translator who did not know this word, now that you know what this word means, in case you never studied Old Greek, (which you should have), or never learned this word in college, (which you absolutely should have), are you a better technical translator now?



  1. […] It is a sad fact that the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle continues to greatly underwhelm me just about every time I fish it out from my mailbox. There were two long articles in th…  […]


    • Hello,
      I have just discovered your comments about my article. Maybe this is a definition issue. As you describe your activity, I would consider that patents are indeed very intricate technical texts, but that there are other dimensions to them, such as an incentive function (because they have a commercial aim as well).
      I wrote at the beginning of the article that “The texts referred to here will include operating instructions, specifications, maintenance and safety procedures and descriptions of material.” I am sorry that the title was promising more.
      And sorry for the “parataxis”: I was so proud to have learnt this term that I wanted everybody to know I had reached that level of excellence.
      Mathilde Fontanet


  2. Parataxis, huh? I thought I’ve been a technical translator for over a decade, over three decades if you count doing it to support my research, and I’ve never heard the word. Maybe someone will teach it to me as I retrain to be a post-editing hamster. That reminds me of the time someone asked how I could possibly be a translator if I could not offer a good definition of “register”. I told them all I do is right a text that I feel is appropriate for the intended audience and don’t worry about what I call that.

    Not to be forgotten in the range of “technical translation” is all the work surrounding technical marketing. Very little of that is “objective”, but it can be a lovely technical dog and pony show which has to avoid ticking off readers from a variety of backgrounds. But I can understand wanting to hide authorship for those texts….


  3. Good to hear from you again, Kevin.

    I hope you haven’t forgotten that you still owe me a guest post, or at least that my invitation is still standing.

    It could be about what it is like to be a German-American (is that right?) translator living in Portugal (that should be interesting), or anything else.

    Technical translation is indeed an incredibly broad subject.

    I once translated a long report for Project Hope by a Japanese ethnographer who lived among poor women in a remote village in Indonesia to find out what would be the best and cheapest way to prevent their deaths as they were frequently dying during childbirth.

    In her opinion, the most efficient and least expensive method was to replace bamboo knives that the midwives used to cut the umbilical cord with knives made of steel which can be easily sterilized.

    I hope they found the money to buy those knives.

    That too was technical translation.


  4. No, Steve, I haven’t forgotten at all, though I’ve been considering for so long that it must seem like it. And you know what the topic will be… I can’t resist planting an article about TEnTs on a known skeptic.

    Bamboo knives? My God. Well, as you know there is so much scope to “technical” that I find it hard not to question the mental capacity of Linguistic Sausage Producers (aka LSPs) who post projects on PrAdZ mentioning something like “5,000 words of technical text, name your price and make it your best”. As tempting as it is to offer my “best” price of €5 per word, I can’t do so with a clear conscience not knowing the format and if that might be 5,000 words of a subject like midwifery, about which I know nothing. Give me something normal like actuarial calculations to insure nuclear power plants against major disasters (yes, I really did that one, and I saw figures higher than I see for most First World national debts).


  5. […] It is a sad fact that the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, an almost-monthly journal for translators, continues to greatly underwhelm me just about every time I fish it out from my mailbox.  […]


  6. […] It is a sad fact that the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, an almost-monthly journal for translators, continues to greatly underwhelm me just about every time I fish it out from my…  […]


  7. Really it is a nice blog; I would like to tell you that you have given me much knowledge about it.


  8. […] programme for 2014 (Greek included) Ten steps to make your technical translation projects a success Technical Translation Is Not Just About Translating Manuals The EN 15038 Standard for Translation Services made clear Is Translation Intellectual Property Or A […]


  9. Hi, Great blog. The problem of technical manual translation have little to do with grammar and syntax differences between languages. And professional translation service should be experienced in both technical writing as well as translating formal technical terms.
    Thanks for your information.


  10. Technical translation services are offered by many companies world-wide, but very few technical languages organization provides translation services of top quality.


  11. […] Some translators concentrate on patent translation, which involves not only subject matter expertise, but also the art of writing patents, which is governed by legal and practical requirements. A freelance patent translator described one of the special demands of patent translation: […]


  12. Unfortunately I learned this lesson the hard way. I had hired a individual for technical document translation and did not check his work. After finishing and paying for the service I started to receive complaints about the quality of work. I finally hired a third party to check and correct the work that was done sloppily. The company I hired was EliteTransLingo and they were professional and surprisingly cost effective.


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