Interview English

Luisa Carrada conducted this interview in September 1999 for her web site Il mestiere di scrivere (The Craft of Writing). The interview was abridged and edited for brevity and clarity.Translating technical documents from English into Italian

Technical translation is a job for specialists. And yet, we who write in the business world find ourselves doing translations that could be defined as “technical,” whether it is a product description, a booklet, etc. What are some basic guidelines to keep in mind? This is the subject of my on line interview with Roberto Crivello, a free-lance technical translator who has translated nearly every possible type of technical document over the years, from simple instruction booklets to technical web pages to complex machinery and equipment manuals.

When we speak of technical translation, we think of highly specialized things: manuals, the operation of equipment, machinery, and so on. So, first of all, what constitutes a “technical translation?”

Product manuals certainly represent the majority of technical translations, but product brochures, company newsletters, reports, feasibility studies, commercial letters, slide presentations, and many other types of documents, paper or not, can require “technical translations.” I think, though, that we are dealing with a technical translation when most of the concepts, terms and expressions in the document are technical, or when the document is tied to other technical matters, as would occur, for instance, in a marketing document for a high-tech product, or on the web site of a machinery manufacturer.

Before continuing any further, could you clarify exactly what you mean by “technical expressions”?

I will give a simple example from some instructions on troubleshooting an engine. If you write start breaking the engine down to fix this bug, you are using a colloquial expression. If, on the other hand, you write to correct this structural defect, the first step is to disassemble the engine, you are using a technical expression.

What are the main tools of a technical translator? It certainly is not enough to sit down at a computer with a good English-Italian dictionary. What kind of background work is necessary?

It should be obvious, but often is not, that one must have a thorough understanding of written English and a thorough comprehension of the technical concepts in the original document. Otherwise, one produces literal translations that either have no meaning or that contain redundancies and thus become frustrating or amusing for knowledgeable readers.
Two examples. The first comes from the field of electricity: people often translate the term current flow word for word, without realizing that this is incorrect. By definition, the current is the rate of flow of electrical charges, so flow of current means literally flow of the flow of charge. One should write either current or flow of charge. The second example is mechanical: in references to the clutch of a vehicle, one can come across the term torsion springs. Even in an automotive dictionary, I have seen this mistranslated as molle di torsione, which means literally springs of torsion. The correct term for this kind of flexible coupling is molle parastrappi. Someone who does not know technical English very well or does not know how a clutch works (or both) could be easily mislead by the “reasonable” sound of the false cognate.

It seems to me that this all comes down to one piece of advice: do not translate literally! Could you cite from your experience any major blunders that resulted from literal translations?

I came across a funny example while editing the translation of a stereo equipment manual. The sentence The equipment is fused against shorts was translated as The equipment is melted versus shorts. The author misused the verb to fuse to say that the circuits were protected against shorts by means of one or more fuses. Then, the translator failed to go beyond the written word to arrive at the true meaning of the sentence.
More serious than this case are the terrible blunders that translators can make if they forget that the verb to replace means not only to substitute, but also to put back. Thus, they could write in step 2 of a procedure that a specific component must be removed and, in step 11, that it must be substituted, when really it should be put back where it belongs.

Returning to the question of background work

One must try to obtain as much reference material on the subject as possible, starting of course with a good general dictionary and, if possible, various English-Italian technical dictionaries compiled by specialists. On my web site, there is a list of useful books and dictionaries for technical translators. The resources available today on the Internet should be added to this list. With search engines, one can find sites relevant to technical translation, for example, the sites of manufacturers or distributors. Reading such sites allows translators to familiarize themselves with characteristics of products or services, to obtain terminology, and to determine the appropriate register for a specific field. However, to apply this last method effectively the translator must possess a sound understanding of the concepts.

Could you offer a few basic suggestions?

I will try. Let me start by pointing out that offering general advice is not enough. We need practical examples, or we end up presenting useless truisms, such as “use the appropriate register” or “avoid false cognates.” So I will illustrate each suggestion with examples. Other examples can be found in the articles on my web site.

Basic guidelines and examples

Use the appropriate register.
That is, always keep in mind who your reader is. If you are addressing an engineer or a technician, you must use technical terms and expressions. When addressing a reader who is not trained in the subject of the document, you should employ less specialized terms and expressions that adequately communicate the necessary information without seeming too casual. For example, in translating procedures related to positioning and connecting cables, which require various and complex operations (i.e., the routing of cables through conduits, either underground or on the surface), it is appropriate to use the word posa, which is the exact equivalent of routing and is used in the context of technical operations. But the word posa would sound awkward in instructions for a consumer setting up a computer, who needs simply to place the cables so that no one will trip on them.

Avoid bureaucratic language in technical translations.
Many people believe, consciously or not, that big words give a document prestige and precision. In addition to this, Italians who haven’t learned to write clearly tend to use nominalizations in their writing, that is, they use too many abstract nouns, relegating the verb to secondary status. The following type of translation arises from such tendencies: To start the machine, proceed as follows is translated, in bureaucratese, as Follow carefully the procedure shown below to effectuate the starting of the machine.
What matters is the clarity of the information communicated. If difficult or complicated words or expressions do not add anything to the information, the translator should not use them.

Avoid false cognates.
That is, avoid incorrect translations due to false analogies between English and Italian. A good English-Italian dictionary can often help one to avoid using relatively simple false cognates. For example, the Italian triviale does not translate trivial, but vulgar. To catch false cognates in technical terms or expressions, I recommend the following method: every time you write a word or expression that seems to be a literal rendering of the English, check both a monolingual English dictionary or manual and an Italian one for all possible connotations of the word or expression. For example, the term versus often accompanies charts (A versus B, where A and B are two physical quantities; e.g., power versus rpm for an engine). Versus is often mistranslated as a synonym of against, causing funny renderings in Italian. Consulting English-only engineering manuals would reveal that versus is used interchangeably with as a function of. Therefore, the correct Italian translation is in funzione di, which you can verify in Italian manuals.

So you suggest always double-checking in dictionaries?

Sometimes it is enough to think before translating and to ask oneself, “What does this mean? How do I say it in Italian?” But other times some technical competence is necessary. For example, to keep track is often translated as tenere traccia, a loan translation that sounds vaguely like to hold the track, but that is not an Italian expression. Instead, if the phrase is to keep track of the developments, then the correct Italian translation is to keep informed. If the phrase is to keep track of the temperature, then the appropriate translation is to monitor the temperature.
The key is to be careful. Loan words are constantly being adopted, and translators end up using them automatically, even outside the fields into which they were imported. An example of this type of error is the verb supportare, a false cognate of to support that is used even outside the field of software, despite the fact that it means only to bear or hold up (a load, mass, structure, etc.). We often find A supports B, when the phrase should instead say A operates with B, or A permits the use of B, or a number of other options.

How does one become a technical translator? And, more specifically, what steps did you take to become one?

There are many possible routes to take. The “normal” way is to study at an Italian school of translation and interpretation, and then enter the market. In the area of technical translation, however, the problem with these schools is that they do not offer technical training, so people who have degrees in translating often lack a thorough understanding of technical subjects, which is one of the main requisites for producing accurate technical translations. Technical training can be acquired through courses in engineering, for example.
Another fairly common scenario is that of Italians who live in the English-speaking countries, for personal or professional reasons, and begin to practice this profession because they know both English and Italian very well. In any case, experience is essential. Those who have no technical training make serious blunders in the beginning. By reading good translations, one learns bit by bit.
In my case, after working in Italy as an electronic engineer in research and development, I moved to the US and worked for several years as a researcher for the microwave laboratory of the University of Utah’s electrical engineering institute. Later, I met a technical translator and decided that I would like to do technical translations. Thanks to my technical background, entering the market was fairly simple. And that is how I discovered my professional calling: technical communication, which takes the form of translating technical English into Italian.

One last question. You work as a free-lance translator in the United States. What role does the Internet play in your work? I am referring less to the endless modes of documentation, or the wide range of uses for e-mail, than to the possibilities for marketing your skills and services. Does your site give you effective exposure and help you to find new contacts and clients?

As far as the Internet is concerned, the translating profession, like many others, is still developing. Potential clients do look for translators on the Internet, but not exclusively. They also look at lists of translators, place ads asking for rÈsumÈs to expand their databases of translators, or ask translators they trust to suggest other translators. The less direct marketing strategy of professional referrals by colleagues depends on being recognized and respected by other translators, but it is very important in this field.
For a couple of years now, I have noticed a gradual increase in the number of potential clients who find me by searching for specialized translators on the web. Having a web site is even more important in the second phase of contact with potential clients, when you invite them to visit your web site for further information. That is your chance to exhibit a superior level of professionalism. Within perhaps two or three years, what happened with e-mail will happen with web sites: everyone will need one, and the ability to present a hypertext brochure to clients will be essential.


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