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National languages and the acquisition of expertise in technical translation

André Senécal
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 2, 2010, page 17)

The first instrument of a people’s genius is its language.
Stendhal

Ideally, and in most cases, translators work into their mother tongue. Indeed, what better way to ensure the quality and idiomaticity of a translation than to employ a translator who will be working into his or her mother tongue? When translators work into their mother tongue, they are leveraging resources of re-expression that are deeply familiar to them, given their presumably flawless command of the language in which they communicate most naturally. Furthermore, when working into their mother tongue, professional translators who know their art well will be able to take even the finest nuances in the source language and re-express them in the target language.

Technical translation adds another element of difficulty to the translator’s work, in that the translator must acquire expertise in his or her subject field. In spite of what one sometimes sees in the labour market, this expertise requirement cannot be taken lightly. At stake is not only the technical accuracy of the translation but also whether the translation is idiomatic, that is, whether it reads as naturally and sounds as authentic as the source text. Thus, two conditions must be met to deliver a quality product in technical translation: an excellent command of the target language and the necessary field-specific expertise acquired in the target language.

In this article, the term "national language" will be used to mean any language other than English, and it will be assumed that the vast majority of technical translation is from English into national languages. We all know that English has become the lingua franca in the areas of science and technology. While some may lament this development, it is in the interest of all stakeholders, given that a common language facilitates global communications. So let us explore instead how technical concepts can be expressed with the same quality and accuracy in national languages as they are in English.

Documentation largely in English

It is clear that technical translators often acquire their expertise by reading documentation in English. This documentation is easily accessible because of the widespread use of English around the world, and technical translators working into French, Portuguese, German or Japanese often acquire much of their field-specific expertise from reference material written in the source language. One cannot fault them for doing so, given the great practicality of using the widely available technical documentation written in English, but this practice is less than ideal in that it clearly ignores the need to be able to re-express ideas idiomatically in the national languages. Technical translators should be using English-language documentation as a secondary source only, but in many cases they are forced to make it their primary source, given that specialized resource materials in the national languages are often in short supply compared with the host of resources published in English.

Industrialized countries produce and disseminate scientific and technical literature in their national language, whatever it happens to be. The question then is whether a researcher, engineer or technician is adequately proficient in his or her mother tongue to write idiomatically and whether he or she is sufficiently familiar with the appropriate terminology. The question is not academic to anyone who knows the enormous influence that English exerts on national languages when authors who are not writers or translators by trade produce scientific or technical literature in their national language. We cannot hold this against them, since they are paid to exercise their primary profession, not to act as writers or translators. They do not necessarily appreciate the importance of language quality when they write their papers in the national language, and they tend to borrow readily from English vocabulary and syntax, most often because they are unaware that their own language already has an idiomatic technical term to express a concept and because they do not attach the same importance to syntax as do language professionals. Regardless, those in the field understand one another. They understand one another because they are using a foreign language to "facilitate" understanding in the national language.

Challenges facing the technical translator

Finding quality technical documentation in the national language is a major hurdle for technical translators. Inexperienced translators are apt to slavishly follow any documentation they consult. Only extensive familiarity with the specialty, in-depth research, cross-checks with reliable sources, solid analytical skills, judgment and deductive reasoning, coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism, will see the translator through. All these are the stuff of experience. It is through experience that technical translators learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, when not to trust vocabulary in an otherwise reliable source and when to substitute an idiomatic turn of phrase for a construction peculiar to a language other than their own.

Part of this experience is acquired on the job, but that is not enough. Translators need to put in a significant amount of time outside of work to build up this experience. The necessary reading, research and study require additional motivation, especially after a hard day at work and meeting tight deadlines, at a moment when physical and mental fatigue call for a well-deserved, restorative break. While technical translators do need to take time to rest and recharge their batteries, they must still organize their time to include periods of personal development, which are essential for acquiring experience and honing techniques of re-expression based on an in-depth knowledge of scientific and technical concepts in the national language. Effective time management alone is not enough; success invariably demands nothing short of professional discipline.

To address scientific and technical concepts in national languages, a technical translator requires two things: an ability to absorb specialized concepts and an ability to discern which parts of scientific and technical discourse in specialized reference material are coherent, carefully written and idiomatic.

In principle, the technical translator must be able to understand the nature and action of specialized concepts; here, an interest in science and technology is a vital asset. Distinguishing between specific gravity and mass density, understanding the phenomenon of lift in the theory of flight, having an adequate basic knowledge of geology and being aware of pharmacological classifications are all examples of absorbing specialized concepts. Research and readings in scientific and technical documentation written in the national language allow the translator to identify the functional vocabulary and expressions proper to the specialty as well as imprecise terminology and constructions peculiar to a language other than the national language. In the latter case, this capacity for discernment underscores the need for perfect mastery of the rules and nuances of one’s own national language, a need that is sometimes overlooked.

Specialized resources in national languages

Encyclopedia articles provide information on specialized concepts in a very useful manner. Structured according to the funnel principle—that is, proceeding from general to specific—they enable technical translators to quickly familiarize themselves with such concepts. Linguistically, they reveal how the concepts are expressed. Entries are written meticulously, which justifies the status of encyclopedias as a reference. The technical translator can therefore rely on them.

The advantage of specialized journals is that they express concepts in living, current language, but the technical translator must still exercise judgment and consider to what extent a journal in any given specialty has been infiltrated by English terminology and constructions. In French, some specialties, such as construction, pharmacology and sailing, boast a very pure vocabulary, and the presence of English—other than through borrowing, which is a legitimate lexicalization process—is very sporadic. It should be noted that the wording used to express ideas in these fields tends to be equally pure, and technical translators can rely on it.

Specialized monographs in national languages are extensive references in which information is presented in context. They are usually written by experts. While they tend to be a more difficult read, in the vast majority of cases these monographs have been peer-reviewed, which offers an assurance of quality.

Dictionaries, glossaries, vocabularies and lexicons are of variable quality. Here, the technical translator’s experience plays a decisive role. Through regular contact with a given specialty, technical translators will have identified specific translation and terminology issues. It is therefore interesting to see how readily these issues are addressed by the various authors of these works. Many authors will politely ignore an issue, while others will propose solutions that, while not universal, are nonetheless original. Still others will propose "the solution" that has achieved currency but is not really satisfactory. One cannot adequately stress the importance of reading the usage notices, the forewords and the introductions of these works to understand the methodology that has been used, assuming such information has been provided.

Today the Internet allows users to quickly identify sources in national languages, wherever they happen to be on the planet. Think how far we have come from the days when the quality of information in a technical translation depended on a documentation centre’s budget or a list of contacts! The Internet also allows technical translators to perform cross-checks to validate a term or idiomatic expression. These cross-checks are often necessary, for the Internet contains the best and worst alike, and technical translators must exercise great caution, be wary of validation by number of hits, and look for tangible confirmation based on a deeper understanding of the concepts.

Continuous training through workshops, seminars and conventions is particularly useful if given by resource persons who are skilled in their specialty and have a strong command of the national language. The topics covered are current and involve practical issues relating to the profession. This training works best when it is given by a language professional specializing in a scientific or technical discipline. Such a trainer will be careful not only to convey specialized information but also to express this information correctly and idiomatically. The best of both worlds!

Affirmation of national languages

The affirmation of national languages in the areas of science and technology facilitates the training of researchers and technicians in their respective fields, because this training is primarily in their mother tongue. Knowledge is acquired more quickly and on a more solid foundation because learners are not required to interpret from a foreign language, namely, English. It is said that something is always lost in translation. Whether or not one agrees with this statement, the fact remains that greater risk is involved when one must first understand a foreign language before being able to understand the concepts being conveyed.

The affirming of national languages benefits language communities in that they are able to consult original documentation belonging to a body of knowledge that is seamlessly integrated with the unique characteristics of their language. In this process, some will also recognize an element of identity, perhaps unconsciously taken up, but nevertheless permeating the collective unconscious of the national community with the effect that the community can draw upon the full wealth of resources the English language has to offer in the knowledge sector without fear of assimilation. While English may have a greater role to play (for the moment?) in national languages where scientific and technical resources are lacking, it is hoped that these languages will develop the necessary resources in this area so that English can ultimately be reserved for international communications and does not exert undue influence on national languages.