Technical translations: challenges and possible solutions

Would you entrust the translation of your user’s manual for a medical device to a student or a fresh college graduate simply because it would be cheaper, knowing that based on that manual people who will be using the device might get hurt?

Knowing how to preserve the perfect balance between quality and cost is one of the great challenges of globalization, when there is an ever growing need to transpose content that has been initially created in a language…onto a market where a different language is spoken.


Companies need to make available technical content related to their products or services to a wider audience, which has increased the requirement for new services on the translation market: technical translations. It has been estimated that technical translations now account for some 90% of the world’s total translation output each year! (Jody Byrne, “Usability Strategies for Translating Technical Documentation”).

Launching a product on a new market has become a widely complex process that involves huge costs: collaborating with trustworthy suppliers with local expertise, adapting to the legislation of that particular country, which is not always an easy step and also creating content that is appropriate to the new consumers and their mentalities.

Then what are some of the challenges of this type of translation?

Well, a few of the most common issues are represented by:

  • technical knowledge: specialized documents imply a high level of subject knowledge as well as mastery of the relevant terminology and writing conventions;
  • dialect usage and style: it is a common misconception that style does not matter in technical translation. However, the limited space of the technical document requires the translator to express information in a way which is sufficiently clear, simple and concise, in order to allow the readers to understand the information completely and quickly in their mother tongue, but which nevertheless conveys all the necessary facts;
  • time limitations: technical documents are not rarely subjected to time constraints and tight deadlines, often related to release of new products or need to transmit information to readers in a quick manner;
  • legal considerations: errors in technical texts can result in damage to property, financial loss, injury or even loss of life; e.g.: mistranslations of medical texts or user’s manuals for heavy machinery, etc.  

Now, what can you do to eliminate some of these issues?

First of all, hire a professional language service provider specialized in technical translation or, even better, who has previously translated your specific type of terminology.

Make sure that such a company only employs the services of native translators who are chosen according to their relevant experience in the technical field of the text. Additionally, pay particular attention to terminology management, and ask for creation or update of your corporate glossaries. This will help you fully control the content that your company will use on the new market in case you decide to change your provider.
Now it is the time to forget about your budget. Ask your provider to review his work in order to ensure the quality you want. This step is essential if you want to use a proper and consistent terminology, to eliminate the formatting, orthographic, punctuation, style and grammatical errors, to convert units of measurement if the case, etc. Also, do not forget about the importance of using translation software when dealing with highly specialized texts.
CAT tools will help provide terminology consistency and re-use frequently translated phrases or concepts. They will also decrease the deadline for the translation of your documents.

Would all these additional measures increase the chances to have a quality localized product or service?

The answer is inevitably yes. In case your are not convinced, think about the consequences of a poor technical translation, which are far more damaging than the slightly higher production costs. The dangers of mistranslation in the technical area are not merely related to loss in company image, but they may also lead to unforeseen liabilities and a great risk of litigation. 

Such an example dates back to 1996 and involves two cases where a bread making machine on sale in Germany produced toxic fumes when used and placed numerous users at serious risk. The Regional Institute for Health and Safety in Düsseldorf investigated the matter and found that the instruction manual had been translated incorrectly and was to blame for the cases, as the translator somehow confused the word steam (Dampf) with smoke (Rauch). Naturally, the product’s manufacturer had to pay compensation to affected users as well as recall the product, all of which damaged the manufacturer’s reputation. 

As far as I am concerned, as a customer, I always look for products that have a label which is correctly translated in my mother tongue. Although I speak other languages as well and I could understand the characteristics, I like to see that the manufacturer respects me as a potential client and addresses me in my native language. Unfortunately, the speed that comes with globalization together with the need to pay attention to so many of the details described above when launching a product on a new market lead to a situation where many products lack these important features. To be honest, as a customer, this is not my problem, but as part of the translation industry, it sure is.