Concision in Technical Translations from English into Italian

ATA Chronicle, October 2000

By Roberto Crivello

Regardless of translators’ technical writing skills, they cannot take one of the most important steps needed to streamline a prolix, poorly organized document: improving the basic structure of the original document.  In order to streamline, they must accomplish the difficult task of applying general principles of economy (i.e., deletion of meaningless words, deletion of doubled words, avoidance of redundancy, etc.  For an excellent discussion of this subject, see [1].) in technical contexts by slogging through a document, identifying and rectifying the problems in each sentence, and cutting down the wordage wherever possible.  Only through such endeavors can one assure the highest level of clarity for the intended reader.  In this article, I show how to apply general principles of concision in translating technical materials from English into Italian.  (Note: Although the scope of this article is limited to English and Italian, many of the suggestions may also be useful for translators of other languages.)

As you most likely know, in order to achieve the objective of concision, you need an excellent background in technical English and Italian in your field of specialization (especially for the most technical problems of wordage), as well as the highest level of fluency in Italian.  Often times, however, your chief asset lies in the ability to apply principles of logic.  The following examples may help you a bit in knowing how to proceed.  I use italics to highlight the terms under discussion.

Redundant modifiers
This is the basic principle: if the opposite of a modifier creates an illogical or absurd sentence, then the original modifier is not needed.
A few examples:

“Check for proper operation of the device.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Verificare il corretto funzionamento del dispositivo.” Since you would never direct someone to verify that the operation of a piece of equipment be improper, write instead “Verificare il funzionamento del dispositivo.”

– “Verify that the system is properly installed.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Verificare che il sistema sia installato correttamente.” See above.  Simply write “Verificare l’installazione del sistema.”

– “For support call your local authorized dealer.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Per richiedere assistenza rivolgersi al più vicino rivenditore autorizzato.” Look it up in the dictionary: a dealer is an authorized person/organization, thus dealer implies authorized.  You can, therefore, delete autorizzato.

– “Lock the seal in position.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Bloccare la guarnizione in posizione.” If the writer does not specify a particular position or a particular way to lock the seal, the last two words say nothing.  In such cases, you can delete in posizione.

Watch for every occurrence of words like any, specific, particular, current.  Two examples:

– “The value entered for a particular parameter is not acceptable” ( from a troubleshooting section).  Wordage-reproducing translation: “Il valore immesso per un particolare (or specifico) parametro non è accettabile.” Try deleting particolare (or specifico) and reread the sentence; the meaning has not changed.

– In software translation, you may find countless occurrences of current.  Consider this sentence: “Save the current setup using the Save button in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.” Before writing “Salvare la corrente configurazione mediante …,” ask yourself if the software gives the user the possibility of saving another setup (temporarily stored in an appropriate memory location) without displaying it.  Most likely the answer is no, so in the majority of cases you should delete current.

Repetitions in consecutive sentences
It is a very important stylistic rule of written Italian to avoid repetitions of words in consecutive sentences in informative writing (I am thus excluding repetitions which have a rhetorical purpose).  English technical documents are full of such repetitions.  The following examples may help you to avoid reproducing them:

– Opening lines of a section of a technical marketing brochure:
Hand-held welding gun
This hand-held welding gun is compact, with ergonomic controls…”
Wordage-reproducing translation:
Torcia portatile
          Questa torcia portatile è compatta, dotata di comandi ergonomici…”
Rewrite as follows:
Torcia portatile
          È compatta, dotata di comandi ergonomici…”

– Typical sentence from software documentation:
Search Window
          The search window is used to find…”
Wordage-reproducing translation:
Finestra di ricerca
          La finestra di ricerca viene utilizzata per trovare…”
Rewrite as follows:
“Finestra di ricerca
          Serve a trovare…”

– Typical procedure description:
Printing the document
          To print the document, proceed as follows:
          1.  <First step>
2.  <Second step> …

The whole second line says nothing.  If you work with a translation memory system, you probably cannot delete a single line completely, but at least you can delete the most redundant part (that is, Per stampare il documento):
          Stampa del documento
          Seguire queste istruzioni:
1.  <First step>
2.  <Second step> …

Unnecessary explanations or inflated instructions

First, a non-technical example (English and translation taken from a translator’s online newsgroup):

– “Requests may be made by telephone, mail or fax and will be processed on a first-come/first-served basis.” This statement was translated as “Le richieste possono essere effettuate per telefono, posta o via fax e saranno evase in ordine di arrivo.” Besides merely duplicating the prolix structure of the English sentence, the translation adds further weight with its choice of bureaucratic, user-unfriendly terms (effettuate, evase).  Read the sentence carefully; it simply says “Le prenotazioni possono essere fatte per telefono, posta o fax.”

Next, a few technical examples:

The preamplifier circuitry increases the level of the signal before the signal is fed to the mixer circuit.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “La circuiteria del preamplificatore aumenta il livello del segnale prima che questo sia inviato al circuito del mixer.”

First of all, circuitry means nothing more than circuiti, but even circuiti is superfluous, because a (pre)amplifier (electric, as is obvious in this case) is made of circuits.  Secondly, by definition an amplifier increases the magnitude of an applied signal, thus you do not need aumenta il livello del segnale.  Thirdly, is fed to …  means è applicato…, but in this case you can make the sentence even shorter by using inserire, which means to establish a functional connection.  The restructured, leaner sentence reads All’ingresso del miscelatore è inserito un preamplificatore and contains only seven words in place of the eighteen-word English sentence.

– Description of the control buttons of a piece of medical diagnostic equipment consisting of a detector ring that rotates while scanning a patient’s body: “This button rotates the equipment clockwise or counterclockwise about [sic] the equipment’s axis of rotation.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Questo pulsante fa ruotare l’apparecchiatura in senso orario o antiorario intorno al suo asse di rotazione.” The translation merely replicates the truism that a body rotates about its own axis of rotation, without giving any useful information.  A reader-friendly rewriting would say, “Questo pulsante fa ruotare…  intorno al paziente.”

– Description of the compressor section of a gas turbine: “Air is drawn into the compressor through the air inlet and is compressed.” Wordage-reproducing translation: “L’aria viene aspirata nel compressore attraverso la presa d’aria e viene compressa.” In such a short sentence the translation replicates two truisms: obviously air is compressed in a compressor and, obviously, air is drawn inside through an air inlet.  By deleting half of the sentence (the italicized part), you can add immensely to its clarity.

The prolixity problem in the above English sentences results from the writer’s inadequate knowledge of the subject treated.  When we write about material that we are trying to learn, we articulate much more than what a knowledgeable reader needs, that is, we belabor the obvious.

– The ubiquitous to access (in Italian accedere), creates elongated, bureaucratic-style sentences.  Consider these instructions: “Open the cover panel to access the adjusting screw.  Turn the adjusting screw clockwise to decrease the speed of…” Wordage-reproducing translation: “Aprire il pannello di copertura per accedere alla vite di regolazione.  Girare la vite in senso orario per ridurre la velocità…”.  (The repetition of “vite” in the second sentence typically occurs when one blindly uses a translation memory system, translating segment after segment without looking at the whole paragraph.) Try this instead: “Aprire il pannello di copertura della vite di regolazione, quindi girarla…”.

– The following example illustrates how very simple instructions can be needlessly complicated by the writer: “Line up key to holes in the device and push key in.” Rather than translating “Allineare la chiave ai fori del dispositivo e spingerla in dentro“, just write “Inserire la chiave nel dispositivo,” thus giving the reader the same instruction in a simpler manner.

Note that the prolixity of much technical writing is inherent in its genesis.  When writers who lack the necessary technical background and writing skills try to describe technical concepts that could be illustrated in straightforward ways, through simple pictures or equations, they often end up using several unneeded words or long, convoluted sentences.  Since in translation you must use words and cannot replace writing with pictures or equations, you need to think hard about streamlining the original sentence in order to produce a clear, concise translation.  This process is not easy and may be very time-consuming, especially in the beginning, but the reward is great: offering your readers leaner materials.

In today’s times, when we are all overwhelmed by a myriad of messages obscuring the truth—useful information buried in a cloud of (sometimes unintentional) prolixity—we have much to gain from century-old words on concise writing.  In 1919, William Strunk Jr.  wrote an extraordinary sixty-three word essay entitled Omit needless words.  His Rule 17 most elegantly conveys the value and beauty of concision: “Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.” [2]

[1] Williams, J.  M.  Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.  4th ed., Harper Collins College Publishers 1994
[2] Strunk, W.  Jr.; White, E.B.  The Elements of Style.  3rd ed., Allyn & Bacon 1979