English does not equal German and translation does not equal technical translation

Translating an English text into a German equivalent should always result in a text that reads itself like it was written in the German language originally. When talking about technical translations this becomes even more important. A false or incomplete translation, or a translation in an inappropriate style or format can lead to various serious problems starting with technical damage, legal problems and can affect the author’s or the company’s credibility immensely.

What should be the profile of a technical translator translating from English into German?

In the field of translation there are different opinions as to a technical translator’s profile. Apart from the linguistic and cultural skills critical for a translator in general in order to write well in the target language, additional qualities are required for technical translation. Contrary to the common idea of translation being transferring words from one language to another, no text can be translated without being fully understood. That means that it is essential for a technical translator to have a respective expertise on the subject matter, e.g. a professional technical background or at least a profound knowledge of the respective technical subject. Secondly, when starting his work on a technical text the translator should know how to make use of specific dictionaries along with reference material to guarantee a clear, precise and idiomatically correct outcome. Last but most importantly a good translator should only translate into his native language and here he should also be aware of regional differences. As regards to German that means that a translator working on a manual for a gym bike for example needs to be aware of the fact that this bike will be called “Fahrrad” in Germany, in Switzerland though, it would be called “Velo”.

What is the translator’s job when translating a technical text? Where are the limits?

Technical translation refers to the translation of texts produced by technical writers (manuals, user guides, etc.) and plays a key role in the translation industry as it makes for an estimated 90% of the worldwide translation output1. It is of great importance throughout all the major industry sectors to translate technical information and documentation into various languages so that it can be used worldwide accurately and effectively ensuring the compliance of laws, regulations and directives.

The job of a technical translator is to produce a text in the target language (here: German) that corresponds to the text produced by the technical writer in the source language (here: English) regarding content, terminology and text convention. Most importantly and already mentioned, this German technical translator needs to have a thorough understanding of the technical matter he is working on. It is for this reason that a technical translator will always be a proof reader of the source text as well, as he will recognise errors, inconsistencies or other issues in the specific, often complex technical information that he transforms into a German text without any omissions, lack of errors and complete clarity. Depending on the conditions he agreed on there is always the possibility to use this knowledge as a quality check for source text and therefore for the target text as well, though this depends on where the translator draws the line.

A specific issue for technical translations from English to German is that the technical information has to be adapted to the German market as regards to style and formats (numbers, dates, etc.).

Last but not least it is the translator’s responsibility to apply any predetermined or through reference material established terminology consistently.

What are the basic principles when translating a technical text from English into German?

  • Fully and completely understanding the source text and its technical information
  • Transforming the English source text to a German text completely, clearly with all the necessary information included and without any errors or omissions.
  • Adjusting the text to the German market by altering numbers, adapting formats, standards, inserting explanation of unknown industry standards etc.
  • Establishing or applying a consistent terminology e.g. by means of a translation memory program
  • If agreed, proofreading and if applicable correcting any errors in the source text as well as in the target text.

Which difficulties / problems may be encountered when translating a technical text from English into German?

A specific issue found in technical translations from English to German is that the technical information has to be adapted to the German market. That means that the translator’s job includes altering numbers, currencies, date formats as well as adapting information for local regulations, adhering to industry standards in German-speaking countries and ensuring that the style fits to a German audience.2 The difficulty a translator may have to face is that various standards, regulations etc. may not have an equivalent counterpart in the German-speaking market. Therefore he will have to make a decision on how to communicate the information to the German reader, whether he will create a translation or insert footnotes in order to explain the concept in detail.

Another problem a technical translator may encounter refers to the terminology. For each individual translation job he will depend on the information given to him by his client. There might already exist a terminology but if he is not provided with the necessary documentation he can only rely on his own research and previous experience in the field to establish a consistent terminology.

An essential standard that could be seen as a difficulty when translating a technical text from English into German is that any owner’s manual / user guide written in English generally addresses the reader in a much more personal manner than the equivalent document in German would. A German manual is overall more formal so that another style needs to be applied to the whole document. Any translator though, specialised in technical translation from English to German will have stumbled over this particular issue at some point in time.

This blog post has been contributed by Manuela, she is English to German principal translator at TranslationArtwork.com. If you need a professional translation service in any language, at TranslationArtwork.com your translations are in safe hands, believe me. As a translator you a welcome to easily subscribe for translation jobs here.

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1 Source: [Aspects of Technical Translations: 7Brands, 22.4.2012]
2 Source: [German Technical Translation: GPI, 22.4.2012]

12 thoughts on “English does not equal German and translation does not equal technical translation

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (May 21-27) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

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  3. hillsmcgraw, said:

    I don’t commonly add comments to any kind of content online, but this article deserves my attention. For what it’s worth, you’ve done a fantastic job of getting across your points.

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  5. Anna, said:

    The importance of a technical translation can indeed not be overstated. It really needs to be accurate and efficient. Especially now, in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.
    Even when marketing documents that at first glance might not appear too technical, may require a certain expertise in the field it deals with, as customers also grow more discerning and expect to be addressed on their own terms (i.e. their own language).

  6. Technical translation covers the translation of many kinds of specialized texts and requires a high level of subject knowledge and mastery of the relevant terminology and writing conventions.

  7. German English Translator, said:

    Nice blog post pointing out the need for specialized English to German translators. I would like to add that there is also a great demand for German to English translation by native English translators. We have translated millions of words in this language pair for telecom companies that are translating tender documents and handbooks, and also for medical and pharmaceutical companies. We have also developed workflows for human-edited machine translation which can be used in high-volume fast turnaround scenarios.

  8. This is extremely necessary, especially for government authorities and the like.

  9. Professional language expert translators, said:

    being a translator, i really like your article, you have discuss in details and i like that. its difficult to find articles on language but its pleasure to read such articles.

    Eid Kashan

  10. Brunner, said:

    Very good observations, especially on terminology. And the many differences between German German and Swiss German, they really are astonishing sometimes.

  11. David, said:

    It was great to know the benefits of Technical translation, I hope the chances of mistakes is negligible in Technical Translation. Focusing exclusively on the translation of technical, engineering and scientific documents where precision, accuracy and consistency are particularly important and notoriously hard to achieve and in my view Technical translation would work best in these cases.

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