Tower of Babel
Thirty-six nationalities were represented by the 200 translators present at this two-day conference held in Lisbon on 28-29 May 2010. That alone made it a stimulating environment for any member of the T&I community, even before we consider the technical sessions. English was the language of almost all of the sessions, but the hallways and meeting areas exhibited great diversity. Conversations were sometimes held in several languages at once, it seemed. Many English dialects were represented, from both southern and northern hemispheres. There were people from many European countries and from most of the Portuguese speaking countries. There was also a delegation from China.
TradulÍnguas is developing a reputation for putting on excellent conferences. Organizers João Roque Dias and Lina Gameiro had been very responsive and well-organized in the run up to the event, and it ran very smoothly, so they and their team are to be congratulated. It is worth mentioning that the coffee breaks, on-campus lunches, and conference dinner improved the overall experience in giving us a flavor of Portugal. Delicious ‘pastéis’, Portuguese pastries, were served during the breaks, and a lively, (dare I say loud, perhaps even boisterous as the evening wore on!) conference dinner was held at a location within easy walking distance of our hotels. I would highly recommend future TradulÍnguas events.
So what did I learn?
I had chosen to attend because of the specialized technical content, and combined it with a visit to my parents in the UK. I am a highly-specialized technical translator, and I crave good training in the area. It is not easy to find such training, even if you are willing to travel. Medical translation, legal translation, even financial translation, are commonly catered for. Technical translation is not often the focus of conferences. Since this one sold out and had a waiting list, it suggests to me that there is a market for other similar events.
I arrived with decisions to make, as the program was two-track apart from keynote speakers. We had good choices available, as each time slot had a session on a technical subject, then there were other options on building your business and terminology management, for example, for those who wanted a more general program. There were sessions that were of direct relevance to my work, and several that were not directly relevant but left me with a sense of satisfaction afterwards. I felt ‘well-fed’ intellectually after the two days.
My conference began with a member of the in-house translation department at CERN in Geneva, Mathilde Fontanet, speaking on the common difficulties of translating technical English. Oh, those noun pairs! As well as the huge value to the obvious ‘out of English’ audience, there was a lot of food for thought for those of us who work into English.
UN translator Prof. Marie-Josée de Saint Robert gave an excellent session on how terminology must be defined within the UN, in her case for work into French. It was an eye-opener to see how decisions must be made. I think it is best explained by an example, which I hope I relate faithfully. In one area of automotive technology (as I recall the context was anti-lock brakes) manufacturers were using a variety of phrases to describe a new technological concept in English. The equivalent French phrase had to be defined for a new standard, and a study was made of the French phrases in common use. It was then important to consider whether those phrases were used exclusively by one auto-maker. Selecting that phrase would not do! So not only was the meaning of the terms important, but the accepted phrasing in the industry and the degree to which a phrase was accepted by only a part of the industry, before selecting an ‘official’ French translation.
I was looking forward to a session on translation for technical journalism, as it is an area in which I wish to develop my skills. This is difficult work, as the translator must have both the technical skill set and be able to write excellent marketing copy. Presenter Steve Dyson met my expectations and may be the only translator I have ever met who is more narrowly specialized than me! His narrow area is translation of naval defense related subject matter for that industry’s professionals, and his discussion of the issues involved in marketing technical subject matter was the highlight of the conference for me. His technique is emulation, and he immerses himself in that industry’s publications to build up his expertise.
A Belgian professor from University of Mons, Viviane Grisez, gave us a great session on how French scientists usually write English papers, giving insight into what to look out for in the area of revising English texts written by non-native speakers, which is a reasonably large field for scientific translators like me. Major areas of consideration were modal verbs and tense use, then other smaller issues that we all recognize were mentioned, such as hyphenation, or the difference between ‘make’ and ‘do’, and the dreaded ‘realize’.
There were a number of sessions on specific technical areas including high speed rail, bearings, my own session on the chemical industry, and a very popular session on translating manuals. There were also a number of more general sessions on tools, terminology and building a business. Renato Beninatto gave a lively presentation on the state of the translation industry and how old we all were – literally, but more importantly figuratively, in how we think about the business and they way it may change in the near future. The conference ended with sessions from the head of the Portuguese team at the European Commission, and the last Q&A was a lively one that scratched the surface of the current ferocious debate on the potential reform of the Portuguese language.
And back to work
This was a stimulating, well-run conference where I met many interesting people. It left me enthusiastic about my chosen niche in the profession, and eager to return to work. There was even an added bonus! When I returned home and looked at the CD-Rom I saw it was chock-full of solid reference material in addition to the presentations. This was a superb professional development event.

The author is an ATA-certified French to English translator working in chemistry and its industrial applications and IP. She is the current Acting-Administrator of the Science and Technology Division.

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Two things happened recently. First, I had cause to translate a job on textiles, and second, I edited a job on cherry-pickers— you know those truck mounted mobile platforms which maintenance crews use to work at height.
The two jobs could not be more different, but in a strange way they were related.
Early on in the textile job, I realized that my technical dictionary resources had next to nothing on textiles. This is not surprising since most dictionaries are at least 10 years out of date and the majority of them anywhere from 20 to 50 years out of date. I was way out beyond the dictionary.
Fortunately, I had a reference source bequeathed to me by a friend, and after slogging through the 20 or so pages on modern textile manufacturing, I was a little more confident. I still had to do a large amount of terminology research, but I felt on firmer ground.
As an object lesson, if not a real eye-opener, I thought it would be interesting to share with you the subjects covered in the various chapters of this book on Industrial Chemical Processes. They are: Water Treatment and Environmental Protection; Energy, Fuels, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration; Carbon Based Chemical Products; Combustible Gases; Industrial Gases; Industrial Coal; Ceramics Industry; Portland Cement, Calcium and Magnesium Compounds; Sodium Chloride and other Sodium Compounds; Chlorine and Alkalis Industry: Soda Ash, Caustic Soda and Chlorine; Electrolytic Industries; Electrothermal Industries; Phosphorus Industries; Potassium Industries; Nitrogen Industries; Sulfur and Sulfuric acid; Hydrochloric Acid and Miscellaneous Inorganic Compounds; Nuclear Industries; Explosives, Toxic Chemical Agents and Propellants; Photographic Products Industries; Paint and Pigments Industries; Food and Co-Products Industries; Agricultural Chemicals Industries; Perfumes, Fragrances and Food Additives; Oil, Fats and Waxes, Soaps and Detergents;
Sugar and Amide Industries; Fermentation Industries; Chemical Derivatives from Wood;
Pulp and Paper Industries; Plastics Industries; Synthetic Fiber and Films Industries; Rubber Industries; Petroleum Refining; Petrochemicals; Intermediates, Dyes and their applications; Pharmaceutical Industries.
This yields a total of thirty-eight sub-specialties within the general field of Industrial Chemical Processing. Most merit whole books to themselves, rather than one meager chapter. Some smart readers will note that the list is not exhaustive.
So the question remains, how is a technical translator supposed to represent him/herself when confronted with such material? They may have in-depth experience in a handful of fields and possibly passing experience in a handful more, but certainly not in the whole gamut. Yet that is what the client wants – in depth experience in such and such an industry.
What is a translator to do? One translator told me quite candidly that one technical translation is much like the next – it is all junk. Could it be that this particular translator did not understand the material and simply plugged in the terminology without thinking, like a cookie dough recipe?
At the same time you can be brutally honest and say that you have never translated this kind of material, but that you have translated lots of similar material. After all, a great deal of industrial processing equipment is similar from one specialization to another. You might stand a chance of landing the job over someone less qualified than you are. However, you are going invest a lot of time in terminology research, and remember, nobody is perfect.
Then there are also the supremely over-confident translators, the ones who claim that they do not need a dictionary to translate. I find such statements extremely hard to digest without a ton of salt.

So we come to the editing of the cherry-picker translation. I happen to know the job required Trados. Now I am not a big fan of Trados and make no secret of the fact. I think it encourages mindless translation by translators who should not be venturing into the swamp in the first place. After all, what can go wrong? You have a TM for all your terminology needs. And hopefully the TM has been vetted by the client. Or has it? Is the client competent to determine the correct terminology? I have seen awful gaffes.
Or has the TM ever been edited? Has the terminology been created by some equally bold and audacious translator who has made a stab at the unknown terms? Because let’s face it, anyone following in their footsteps through the bog is certainly not going to change the TM unless they are absolutely certain it is wrong, and maybe not even then. A lot of clients get really upset if you change the TM and are happy to remain blissfully ignorant and allow the errors to propagate from translation to translation.
I have known some translation agencies that simply dump every translation in a given language pair, irrespective of the subject material, into a giant TM, so large it will not fit onto the average PC. Now is that a recipe for disaster, or what?
But by far the biggest problem with something like Trados is that it fragments the context of the translation into segments where the translator loses sight of its relationship of one phrase to the context as a whole. It is not just a case of fitting a square peg into a round hole, but finding the precise shape and size of the peg that fits the hole.
I myself have done it more than once. “Okay that fits – send it on its way.” Upon closer inspection of the surrounding text, it demands a different translation.
I have already talked about being beyond dictionaries with many technical translations. “First come – first plugged,” simply does not work. Often the term you are looking for may be the last in a long list, and you have to know in what subject context it is used. Otherwise you might commit the faux-pas of using terminology from a completely different industry.
This demands something which was sorely lacking in the cherry-picker translation – the human thought process.
I have on occasion preached that good technical translation uses a “connect the dots approach.” Truly, I prefer the more colorful description “the thigh bone connects to the knee bone- the knee bone connects to the shin bone- the shin bone connects to the ankle bone.”. If you do not know what you are translating or have only a vague clue, then you might need a diagram to help you out. It would not be the first time I have scrambled through a pictorial dictionary.
Thus Trados gives you the dots but very little connectivity. And if someone has translated one of the dots incorrectly, it can throw you for a loop.
In another example of the fragmentation effect, I was asked, as it so often the case, to translate first the graphics to a fairly complicated translation so the DTP people could do their magic. But after the translation was finished I had to go back and change the translation of the graphics. I did not make any friends.
I am not trying to be overly critical. We all have to learn, and you cannot gain the experience without translating the material. But when the translation comes out disjointed and does not make sense, and it is up to the editor to rescue it; then it is clear that the translator has put the minimum of thought into it and deserves a reprimand.
The whole point is that translation, and especially technical translation requires thought. No matter how experienced you are, or how many dictionaries you have, you are going to come across a translation where you are beyond the dictionary and will be thrown back on your own resources. That is our unending quest, to provide just the right terminology by falling back on the well of our experience.
Translation unencumbered by the human thought process is not translation, but instead, junk.

For pure chemistry, the author uses a McGraw Hill Chemical dictionary and a Penguin Dictionary, which he prefers. John Rock is an ATA certified Portuguese into English translator who works in a wide variety of fields, including oil and gas, geology, applied and natural sciences and patents.

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On 7:28 AM

Here is the very first post for the new ATA Science and Technology Division blog. It's a short one, just to get us started. The team who asked ATA to approve this division thought that a blog would be more valuable to division members than a twice-yearly newsletter. Stephanie Strobel volunteered to be the blog editor, so all suggested submissions should be sent to her at sds at strobelengineering dot com. We want to encourage all division members to submit posts. Long, article types will be approved by ATA before posting. Short ones like this just get reviewed by Stephanie. We hope for both articles and short pieces that will be of interest to translators who work both into and out of English, and in a wide variety of technical fields.

The Science and Technology Division has about 100 members already. We look forward to hearing from you. Please add a comment to tell us what you would like to see here.

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