Technical communication requires technical knowledge. Technical translation requires technical knowledge plus bilingual proficiency.
Translation serves a vital role for global commerce. Obviously, since companies do business across linguistic and national boundaries, communications, texts, and other materials must be translated in a process known as localization. Technical translation allows individuals and corporations to communicate technical information to an audience that speaks another language.
So what, exactly, is technical translation?
Technical translation (or, if you will, scientific and technical translation—the two terms have some distinction but can be considered synonymous for purposes of this article) is a specialized subfield of general translation. The easiest way to define it might be as follows: the translation of technical communication. Therefore, if we understand technical communication, we’re a small step from grasping technical translation.
What is technical communication?
In her book Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, p25, Jody Byrne harnesses the following quote by Mike Markel (Technical Communication, 2001):
Producing technical communication involves creating, designing, and transmitting technical information so that people can understand it easily and use it safely, effectively, and efficiently.
Cueing off Markel’s description, I offer the following definition: technical communication is a mode of information conveyance that is purposeful, domain-specific, esoteric and practical.
Technical communication is purposeful.
Technical communication seeks to communicate one thing, and one thing only. An instruction manual, for example, might communicate a number of diverse instructions across its pages, but they all constitute one integral purpose: to tell you how to use something. Additionally, if you break the manual down to its constituent units —illustrations, paragraphs, and even sentences— you will find that each unit conveys a message more particular than the whole manual.
Technical communication is domain-specific.
Following from the purposeful nature of technical communication, domain-specificity constitutes one of the defining features of the genre. Technical communication operates in a very narrow channel with regard to subject matter. That is, it concerns itself with a single specialization, and, indeed, a single sub-domain of that specialization. To illustrate: a polyurethane material safety data sheet will not list the ingredients of acetone, much less try to tell you how to operate a wet centerless grinder. An employee practices and procedures manual is not likely to discuss the options of the company’s 401k, much less report on the latest Alzheimer’s drug.
Technical communication is esoteric.
Understandable only to the initiated, technical communication can bewilder those unfamiliar with the insider knowledge of a given domain of specialization. Granted, some technical communications are less esoteric than others. Most of us get the gist of furniture assembly instructions, but only true experts comprehend a spreadsheet of disease vector data. That’s because the furniture instructions are intended for a wide audience. The spreadsheet, a narrow one. The smaller the intended audience, generally, the more esoteric the communication.
Technical communication is practical.
Technical communication always seeks to convey something useful or necessary for a given function, role or need.
Why technical translation needs a subject matter expert
The more specialized the subject matter, the more difficulty non-experts have understanding it. Even in their native language. Now, imagine trying to convey arcane specialist knowledge that you hardly understand, and doing so in a second language. Even if you have proficiency, well, good luck. Think of the technical translation as involving three languages rather than two. The translator must speak the source and target languages, but also the language of chemistry, the language of genetics, or the language of electrical engineering. Whatever the domain of the technical communication, its vocabulary, customs and conventions represent a virtual language in their own right.
Technical translation makes the economic world go round.
Technical communication and technical translation operate behind the scenes. Those of us not involved in localization tend not to consider the processes needed to always seeks to convey something useful or necessary for a given function, role or need. Without technical translation, the world as we know it would cease to exist. Science, technological advancement, manufacturing, and trade could not function. Or could only function within narrow national and linguistic arenas. In either case, humanity would suffer.
Turning to Jody Byrne again:
In today’s globalized economy, scientific and technical translation in many respects represents the backbone of international trade and the scientific endeavor which fuels it. Virtually every product sold or specialist service provided…will require the involvement of scientific and technical translators at some point in its lifecycle (Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, p.5).
No technical translation, no international technical communication. No international technical communication, no international commerce or international scientific collaboration. Without international trade and science, our world would be a stunted and backward version of its current self.
A majority of localization projects require technical translation
Byrne claims that scientific and technical translation makes up some 90% of translation projects today. The nature of modern manufacturing demands it. Consider, as Byrne points out, that every manufactured product of any technological sophistication whatsoever will involve some element of technical expertise. Consider, for example, that ubiquitous device, the smartphone. Legal, health and safety, mineralogy, metallurgy, chemistry, electrical engineering, electromagnetism…the list of specialist fields goes on. And that is for one product only.