Consistency, More Than Meets The Eye

Every translator knows, or learns soon, that consistency is of paramount importance. And not just in translation, but in any kind of technical document. I remember reading a revealing comment on this regard by Don Bush in his well-regarded column “The Friendly Editor” on Intercom, the magazine of the Society of Technical Communication. (Unfortunately the column has ended, after several years. It had always good insights into technical communication writing.) At a conference, Bush recounted, a technical writer had stated that it was preferably to have a consistent error in a document rather that having an inconsistency only half of the time for the same error. And we can guess the reasoning behind such preference.

To achieve the goal of consistency, often a client provides you with a glossary, and you must follow it carefully. Or if there isn’t any glossary, it’s generally good advice to make sure each term is translated consistently. But it’s worth to keep in mind that there are two levels of consistency: At the first level, you check that every term is labeled consistently – but this could not be enough, and it could lead you to outright errors. At the second, higher level, you make sure every object or concept is labeled consistently. Only this second level allows you to achieve the optimum result we should always strive for, that is, maximum clarity for the readers of our translations.

Translators who deal with technical texts know how often in the same document you can have the terms unit, device, and equipment all referring to the same apparatus, for example what in the document is called a power supply unit. But chances are that the target document will reflect this inconsistency – in Italian, unità, dispositivo, and apparecchio (or more likely, apparecchiatura) as well as unità di alimentazione. If the text deals also with computer components, like an [hard disk] drive, that is, a unità [disco rigido], you can imagine how easily the reader could be confused. In cases like this it’s preferable to choose from the beginning the most appropriate term: alimentatore (no need to write unità di alimentazione) and use it consistently, alternating it with no more than another term (dispositivo or apparecchio, it doesn’t matter) if you really can’t stand the repetition, and making sure to never create confusion.

(When I say “if you really can’t stand the repetition” I have in mind mainly Italian, a language which really dislikes repetitions, but I know that other Western languages – French, for example – also try often to achieve variatio, a Latin term used in Italian which means variation of terms or sentences in a short context to avoid monotony. But in technical texts, usually variatio is secondary. I will explore this subject in more details in another column.)

I am looking right now at a glossary I was given for the translation of material on earth-moving machines. Searching for injector I find, for example, electronic unit injector, fuel injector, unit injector, and unit injector bore translated, respectively, with iniettore unitario elettronico, iniettore combustibile, iniettore unitario, and alesaggio dell’iniettore pompante. Would you believe it’s always the same component? Imagine how much more effective for the reader if you were calling it with its proper name, that is, elettroiniettore (initially in the document to be translated it’s better to use the complete term) and then simply iniettore once it’s made clear to the reader that the fuel injection system uses an electronic control unit.

A word which can make you trip on consistency is also the ubiquitous assembly, which often doesn’t need to be translated when it follows the name of a component. For example, a cylinder head assembly and a cylinder head are really the same component of an engine, a testata. (Thus you don’t need to write gruppo testata.)

Or imagine a text on hydraulic components where you read both flow and flow rate. Don’t assume right away that two different terms are always needed; study the document and determine where really is meant flusso (the movement in a continuous stream of a fluid) and where is meant portata (the volume of fluid through a section per unit time). The writer could have disregarded, or could not be aware of, this important difference, and used the two terms interchangeably.

Thus, remember that working at the first level of consistency might not be enough to produce a flawless translation. Always analyze in depth the document to translate to ascertain if you need to work at the second, optimal level of consistency.



  1. Roberto, I have been preaching for decades what you so efficiently expressed above. Would you mind if I placed your article (with proper credit, of course) on our website under “Information for Translators”? Thanks in advance for your permission to do so, Doris

    • Roberto Crivello

      Hi Doris,

      Sure you are welcome to post my article with proper credit. Glad you like it.



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