Beyond the Dictionary – An Italian Perspective on Technical Translation

ATA Chronicle, February 1997.

By Roberto Crivello and Floriana Bivona-Lockner

This article will address some of the factors which can lead to inaccuracies in technical translations, and will indicate some of the solutions to this problem. It will try to show how ambiguous source-language documents containing inappropriate terminology, jargon or new/unexpected terminology make it hard for many translators to correctly translate technical material. It is often not sufficient to review one or more dictionaries. Rather, a thorough knowledge of the subject is required, and for this you need to consult numerous specialized documents (manuals, catalogs, trade journals, etc.), in the target language only.

The following examples are drawn from actual projects for technical documentation. No further context beyond that provided here was given. Unless otherwise indicated, “technical dictionaries” here indicates either McGraw-Hill Zanichelli, Marolli (Hoepli-Le Monnier), or Denti (Hoepli)—the three most commonly used technical dictionaries for Italian.

1) For hydraulic components seals, the word leak is often found. Almost always we see it translated as perdita, because this is what the technical dictionaries give. However, a leak can be of two types: it is perdita when it is of considerable size (due to wear or damage), so that large amounts of fluid are lost; and trafilamento when it is unavoidable and very small (i.e., a few thousandths of the rated flow), as between the body and the stem of a valve. The term trafilamento does not even appear in all monolingual Italian dictionaries. It is neither in Zanichelli nor in Gabrielli, but you find it in Devoto-Oli.

2) For electrical equipment, the acronym UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is often seen. Marolli gives non interrompibile for uninterruptible.

McGraw-Hill gives sistema di trasmissione di potenza affidabile for UPS. However, the correct translation of UPS is gruppo di continuità (as given in the Microsoft Computer Dictionary—Dizionario dei termini di informatica). An interesting point here is that this term is found in McGraw-Hill, but for no-break power, a term rarely seen in technical documentation.

3) For modems, you may have a description like this: “The Auto-retrain determines whether or not the modem automatically monitors the line quality and requests a retrain when necessary.” We have not found an appropriate Italian translation/definition for training in any of several computer dictionaries/on-line resources. For example, the Microsoft Computer Dictionary does not help; in the on-line Microsoft glossaries (available at, we find the message “A problem occurred while training” = “Si è verificato un problema durante la connessione.” which may give a clue. What exactly does training mean? To correctly initialize the synchronization circuits used to reconstruct the transmitted signal, the receiving modem computes the intersymbol interference for a known data sequence output by its equalizer. That is, retraining is ritrasmissione della sequenza di sincronizzazione.

4) In the medical field, the term lead is frequently used. If you look it p in a medical dictionary (Gould Chiampo, Lucchesi, Taber, Dompé, USES, to name a few) you find derivazione. But if the text is about pacemakers and not ECGs the correct translation is elettrocatetere (or just catetere). To correctly translate this term you have to consult current medical journals in the field of cardiac pacing.

5) For carburetors, you may find the term choke used to indicate the cold start device (choke opening/closing). For choke Marolli has valvola dell’aria and Denti has tubo Venturi, while McGraw-Hill has diffusore for choke valve. All three translations are inappropriate. Also, both McGraw-Hill and Marolli translate choking with chiudere l’aria al carburatore, which is only a basic description of what happens in a plain carburetor when the cold start device is actuated (either manually or automatically). However, the cold start device can be a complex device (actually, a true auxiliary carburetor); in technical documentation, you need to use the appropriate terms. The correct Italian noun for the cold start device is starter, choke opening/closing is isinserimento/inserimento dello starter, and choke valve is valvola/farfalla di strozzamento.

6) Often the manual of an electrical device will contain a sentence like: “To power the equipment, connect the power cord to the power receptacle [to the port] on the back of the equipment” (sometimes with no figures to help the translator). Every dictionary will tell you that presa equals receptacle, and of course you know that port is porta. But in this case, you want to use neither presa nor porta. The connector referred to here is a plug (spina), and the author should have used that term. Why? Because every connector for a device which draws high voltage current must, for safety reasons, be a male connector. Check this out on the back of your computer or radio equipment.

7) For ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and SONET (Synchronous Optical Network) technologies, two growing bodies of standards for handling digital traffic in today’s communications facilities, you may find a sentence like this: “In these networks, jitter and wander are the root causes of many payload error problems.” The technical/computer dictionaries do not include wander, and they give tremolio for jitter. Neither the definition nor the translation of jitter are appropriate in this case. In communications systems, both jitter and wander indicate undesirable phase modulations of the digital signal (leave them as they are in the Italian). What about payload? The dictionaries do not give a meaning for this context; you find only its original meaning: the part of a cargo producing revenue (carico utile). In our case, the cargo consists of bits: A data packet contains start/end flags, a frame control, a destination/source address, CRC bits and a payload, which contains both the upper layer communication protocol bytes and the applications data. In the end payload is campo informativo (contenente dati informativi).

8) For the calibration procedure of an electronic device we could have a sentence like: “To make an accurate measurement, it is preferable to use a precision resistance source connected to a constant current source.” In a technical dictionary you find sorgente/generatore di corrente costante for constant current source, but nothing for resistance source, so you could be mislead into translating it with sorgente/generatore di resistenza. However, this term is unacceptable, because a resistance is not something that you generate through a device, like current or tension; the author should have used precision resistor (or similar appropriate phrasing), which translates as resistore di precisione or resistenza nota.

9) In a vehicle manual the writer could instruct the technician to replace a drive [driven] clutch whenever it fails because is worn-out. You do not find these terms in a technical dictionary, but you do find several occurrences of drive [driven] <component name> = <nome di un organo> conduttore [condotto]. Would it make sense to translate this as “sostituire la frizione conduttrice [condotta]?” You get a clue from Marolli, which has driven disk = disco condotto, but to bridge the gap between what the writer says and what he/she means, you need to be aware that a clutch is a coupling mechanism which basically consists of a driven assembly (clutch disk = disco condotto), and a drive member (pressure plate). If the author does not want to explain the procedure in more detail, he/she should make the sentence clear by writing something like this: “In case of clutch problems, check the clutch disk and the pressure plate. Replace as needed.” This sentence would not mislead the translator. For this last point we also checked the Elsevier’s Dictionary of Automobile Engineering, and we found pressure plate translated with disco di pressione dell’innesto; and clutch disk torsion spring with molla di torsione (their correct names are piatto spingidisco and molla parastrappi).

With these examples we have tried to show that the problem we outlined is twofold. First, we have technical dictionaries that cannot always help translators who do not have an adequate knowledge of the subject that they are writing about (sometimes without realizing it). Second, we have technical writers who write inaccurate and ambiguous source language documents.

For the first problem, we suggest that translators who want to tackle technical fields and lack a technical background read relevant manuals, catalogs, trade journals and other publications in their target language, to gain a better understanding of the subject matter. Follow this general rule: When dictionaries fail, you can usually find the solution in relevant references compiled in the target language only. The more you have, the better.

For the second, we will again belabor the point of “client education.” Whenever possible, both translators and translation bureaus should make an effort to make clients understand the importance of clear source documents, and of the use of the standard terminology approved by organizations like SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) or IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). This can only benefit everyone in the translation business.

The following are some of the resources used to find the solutions described:

Biolchini, Manuale del meccanico collaudatore, Hoepli 1996
Biondo – Sacchi, Manuale di elettronica e telecomunicazioni, Hoepli 1996
bticino – Manuale di collaudo degli impianti elettrici, Maggioli 1993
Cardiostimolazione, (medical journal), Edizioni Luigi Pozzi, Roma
Clarke, Manuale dell’auto, Mondadori 1992
Manuale dell’ingegnere meccanico, Hoepli 1994
Manuale di reti di telecomunicazioni e trasmissione dati, Calderini 1990
Speich – Bucciarelli, Nuovo corso di oleodinamica, Tecniche Nuove 1993