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Why Subject-Matter Expertise Leads to Better Outcomes in Translation

Translation, at its core, is a means of transmitting knowledge and facilitating communication. When dealing with complex or technical subject matter, it is especially critical that all the details are conveyed properly. Misunderstandings can lead to embarrassment, or even worse, have financial implications. It can be challenging to ensure that even the most specialized topics are conveyed accurately, across languages.

A translator must preserve the original tone and intent of a message, while taking into account any cultural and regional differences between the source and target languages. The translated text must be both accurate and effective. To take on this challenge, translators must, of course, be skilled in the languages they work in. But that’s not enough. Translators should also have in-depth knowledge about the subject being translated. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that subject-matter expertise is the backbone of good translation.

subject-matter expertise is critical for technical document translation

No matter how educated, practiced, and well-read someone is, they don’t know everything about everything. While someone might spend years attaining a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, they probably couldn’t contribute much to an architectural concept presentation. It is equally unrealistic to expect that someone who translates a patent for a medical device would translate an aviation safety manual with the same competency. Specialized topics should always be translated by a subject-matter expert—someone who knows a particular field inside and out.

This applies to a range of materials:

  • Financial, legal, medical, or pharmaceutical materials
  • Documents that provide instructions for the proper usage of equipment or electronics
  • Science, history, or art museum exhibition didactics
  • Documentation used to describe critical, complex, or specialized procedures
  • Materials that use terminology not understood by the public at large
  • Translation for industries subject to strict regulation

translating technical terminology and specialized vocabulary

Technical terminology and specialized vocabulary can be tricky, even to someone who is a native speaker of a particular language. Individual words do not always map word-for-word into another language, so linguists must recognize how a term is defined in order to express it in another language. They must fully grasp the big picture. Linguists must also understand the minutiae in order to get the details right.

Consider, for example, a book on the subject of photography. A layperson is unlikely to be familiar with the language of photography, where one might encounter terms like bokeh, panning, or chromatic aberration. In this context, familiar words can take on different meanings. For example, the word “noise” does not refer to a loud sound. Here, it would likely refer to the type of distortion visible at high ISO or slow shutter speeds. In the context of photography, “prime” likely has nothing to do with two-day delivery, but describes a small, fast lens with a fixed focal length.

Consider the acronyms that could be used in such a text, like IS (image stabilization), HDR (high dynamic range), or FPS (frames per second). A translator with a background in photography will understand the meaning of such abbreviations as well as the appropriate way to communicate the terms—perhaps also by acronym—in the target language.

clarity and efficiency

Words can be ambiguous. Some do not have an equivalent in another language and others can have a variety of different meanings. A word that may be innocuous in one language could be distasteful in another. This potential for different interpretations makes it so important that a translator is a specialist in the subject they are translating.

As an added bonus, subject-matter experts keep the process running smoothly. Every time a translator has to ask a question about a term or research the meaning of an abbreviation, it slows down the process. Translators who have an in-depth understanding of the subject matter spend less time asking questions or researching the meaning of unknown terminology. Simply put, the work gets done more efficiently, and the final product is delivered faster and with greater accuracy.

why native speakers make the best translators

Subject-matter expertise is not the only factor that contributes to translation quality.  A translator must understand how to address specific audiences. An expression that is perfectly acceptable in one language might be ill-perceived in the target language. This is why it is important that a translator be a native speaker of the target language (the language they are translating into). A native speaker, especially one still living in the area they are translating for, is best suited to identify and handle any cultural adaptation that may be required.

Someone who grew up speaking a specific language typically has a stronger grasp on context, flow, and syntax than someone who learns the language later in life. A native speaker better perceives subtle nuance and stylistic differences. This foundation helps a translator craft text that flows naturally in the target language.

In addition to being native speakers of the target language, translators must also have impeccable skills in the source language. This dual-language fluency ensures they completely comprehend any potential subtlety, nuance, ambiguities, or humor in the original text.

additional measures that ensure high quality

Working with seasoned translators who are subject-matter experts and native speakers leads to the best possible outcomes. In fact, it’s the foundation of high-quality translation. But even the best linguists must be supported by the right processes and technology. At Eriksen, we have a tried-and true process in place to scrutinize quality every step of the way. After a text is translated by a qualified linguist, it is edited by a second, equally qualified linguist. Then, a final round of quality assurance confirms that the work meets all specifications.

Terminology management and client review are additional factors that lead to consistent translation that conveys the intent of the source text.

  • A glossary, also called a terminology database, term base, or lexicon, is a valuable resource for a translation team. It is a compilation of a company’s key terminology that helps translators use words or phrases consistently each time they appear throughout a body of text or across multiple documents.
  • Many companies opt to perform a client review, which entails having an in-house reviewer check the translated, edited materials. This step provides a final quality control measure and helps ensure the brand is communicated effectively.

getting the job done right

For a company to present itself as an authority in a particular subject matter, it must convey that knowledge fluently across languages. If technical terminology is not used properly, or text does not flow naturally, it will undermine a company’s credibility. You can learn more about the consequences of translation mistakes in our article Risks of Bad Translation.

Subject-matter expertise reduces the risk of errors. It enables more efficient translations with shorter turnaround times. Select a translation agency that couples qualified linguists with tried-and-true processes—putting the right components in place to achieve the best possible results.

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