Translation of Technical Terms – Part 1

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Translation of Technical Terms


This article consists of two parts. Part 1 – For industry outsiders, we give a breakdown of the issues involved with the translation of technical terms. Part 2 – For translators, we give a breakdown of some of the strategies available to translators when translating technical terms.


Part 1 – For translation buyers


Abstract: The translation of technical terms is one of the key parts of the translation process. However, it is often overlooked, and requires great skill to be performed correctly. Clients can help translators greatly by implementing simple measures to handle terminology, and should ensure the translators have the right skills. Soft skills such as understanding of the relevant translation theories and hard skills such as utilization of the most appropriate software are essential.




Surprisingly, the translation of technical terms is one of the most time-consuming parts of the translation process. A translator spends most of their time creating and using lists of terminology and a variety of creative methods to find the best terms, in fact, studies have shown that typical translators working on technical documents can spend as much as 60 % of their time researching terminology.


Our definition of a technical term, for the purposes of this article, is a term which:

  1. Has a specific meaning understood to people knowledgeable about the field
  2. Involves the theory of or application of practical science and technology


While we are defining our terms, it’s worth noting the difference between a term and a word. A term such as “left wing” used in politics is made up from two separate words. So while terms are often one word, there are also cases where terms can be made of several words, combined by some grammatical rules which we will not talk about in this paper. It is also possible that a word can include more than one term.


Technical terms have several features which tend to make them easier than for terms used in creative texts. For one, technical terms are generally used in a standard way, with reference to broadly understood specifications. This is not true of creative works where writers are often encouraged to create new terms to evoke certain emotions. In short, this means that often there is an agreed definition of the technical term in the source language and, if we are lucky, one for the equivalent term in the target language, so it’s just a matter of matching. However, as we will see, things are rarely as simple as we would hope.

Translation as a distressed buy

Translation as a distressed buy

Word Equivalence


Roman Jakobson, one of the most important translation theorists wrote extensively about the subject of word equivalence. This is a subject which we need to understand in order to learn more about the translation of technical terms. One of the examples he provided which is frequently cited is the English term cheese. While the Spanish equivalent “quesa” is broadly equivalent, cottage cheese is a type of cheese in English, covered by the more general term cheese. In Spanish, cottage cheese is not covered by the term quesa. A small difference unless for example you are writing about a cottage cheese processing company, in which case the Spanish name may have to be changed significantly (you can imagine the sentence “the company makes all kinds of cheeses and cottage cheeses”, which could be required for the English “the company makes all kinds of cheeses”)..


The cheese / cottage cheese example shows how technical terms which are almost equivalent are not necessarily identical in the two languages. In the cheese example, if the document concerned did talk about cottage cheese it would create great confusion for the reader and a good translator would have to come up with another solution to translate the term cheese into Spanish. We will look at some of those solutions later.


Jakboson goes on to say that instead of looking at the equivalent term in the target language, we should instead look to convey the equivalent message. So instead of substituting cheese for quesa we would understand that cottage cheese is a type of cheese and therefore we would need to translate into Spanish as something like “cheese and cottage cheese” or similar. Of course, if we know that the company produces only Red Leicester cheese and never works with cottage cheese, the translator could safely replace cheese with quesa in the Spanish.


So now we know that we need to find the equivalent for the meaning conveyed by the technical term, rather than the equivalent for the technical term itself, we can hopefully start to see why a correct translation of a term in one context may be wrong in another context (cheese when you are talking about cheddar or cottage cheese), why it is difficult to talk about right and wrong translations of technical terms, and why makes more sense to say appropriate or inappropriate for the purpose instead.


The difference between “wrong” and “inappropriate for the purpose” is crucial, both for quality control, translation and complaint resolution. It leads very naturally to the question of whether the translator could have reasonably known that the “purpose” for which the term was to be used. Sticking with our cheese example, a complaint that “the translator used the word quesa even though it does not include cottage cheese” would only be helpful if the translator had been informed that the client was working with cottage cheese, otherwise the “error” is one of miscommunication rather than mis-translation.


Now that we understand some of the key issues, and that it’s rarely as simple as “matching” the technical term in the source and target language, we can start to look at the most common methods used for terminology. We can think about what this means to the translation buyer or end user of the translation.


Terminology Solutions


Glossaries solve many of the problems with terminology research. A glossary can be as simple as a spreadsheet, or complex enough to require specialist software. The idea behind a glossary is simple, there’s no need to translate the same technical term more than once. The first time we do the necessary research and figure out the meaning of the word should also be the last time. Having a good glossary allows the translation team and end user to ensure consistency across projects while minimizing the time spent on the translation. Less time usually means lower costs so it’s great for the end user too.


Before we get too excited though, we need to understand that the above limitations apply equally well to glossaries. A technical term many have a certain meaning in one context, but another all together in other contexts. The glossary, therefore cannot totally replace the skill of a good translator. In an ideal situation, the translator will use the glossary as a tool and decide whether the term in the glossary is appropriate in each particular case.


Sometimes a term in the glossary will not be used at all. This is not necessarily incorrect. For example, a document might make reference several times to “cranes”. This might be perfectly acceptable in one language, but repetition is generally not appreciated in other languages (such as in English), so the translator might replace the term with “that construction equipment”, “the equipment” or similar, a purely stylistic choice to prevent the same word appearing throughout a paragraph. In this case, the same “meaning behind the technical term” is evoked but the actually technical term in the glossary might not be used.


On the other hand, terms could be introduced when they were not in the source text. In the above example, imagine you were translating in the other direction, and all the general “the equipment” references felt oblique, a skilled translator might chose to make explicit what is implicit in the source text, and use the word “crane”.


Glossaries are only useful if they are kept up to date. Document control can become complex, especially for larger projects, with multiple linguists. If an incorrect term is introduced into the glossary (here I don’t mean a term which wasn’t suitable for that context, but an actual mistake, like a typo), they can be very hard to remove and will spread rapidly, so regular reviews are also necessary. Glossary maintenance, when done properly can be very time consuming and difficult.


Many translation agencies employ terminologists or terminology researchers, who will go through the terms before the translation begins and research and introduce these into the glossary. This division of labour can be very useful for the right project, but can be very expensive and unhelpful on other projects. Again, it is important that the translator and client agree on the best approach to terminology. Something translation buyers should be aware of.




More so than virtually any aspect of the translation process, feedback from the end user is extremely important for the terminology process. The client will generally have access to information the translator has no access to. This means that only the client’s feedback from individual jobs can improve the quality of terminology in the future. Too often, clients or buyers put blame on individual translators when the failure lies in communication, or a lack of helpful feedback.


Even with an excellent translator, with a good understanding of the context, for all the theoretical reasons we have set out above, inappropriate terms can always creep into texts. For this reason, it is advisable for clients to have careful review mechanisms in place, so that they can spot and rectify these, updating the necessary glossaries in so doing. This will go some way to ensuring that the same mistakes do not happen again. Another benefit of a healthy glossary is that it can present a picture of the subject to any new translators, who can look at what kind of feedback has been provided, and why, in order to inform future decisions regarding terminology.


If we imagine a spectrum, with a full-time in house translator working as part of the client’s operations on the one end, and at the other end a freelance translator who has never met the client and only ever sees the source texts, good terminology will need the environment to be as close to the former case as reasonably possible. In most cases, there is no reason a freelance translator cannot be informed about the culture of the company, or be kept in the loop regarding new developments. The actual source text in and of itself is unlikely to provide sufficient context to the translators. A key stage in the translation process is the establishment of a good working relationship between the translators and customers.


Key Points for Translation Buyers


The translation of technical terminology requires not just the translation process, but further additional tasks. Good communication with translators will ensure that the various tasks are allocated rationally. Glossaries of some kind are essential for terminology management, and regular feedback to translators forms a key stage of the process.


Comparing the tasks associated with a good translation with those used for technical terminology. We can see that terminology requires two additional steps:

  • Terminology should be carefully researched and stored in some kind of glossary.
  • Glossaries need to be updated regularly and new terms added as required.

These stages are best done in conjunction with the end client, but at the very least need to be allocated appropriately. For smaller or irregular translation projects, the glossary could be as simple as an email containing some points, for more regular or larger projects, glossaries will grow and become more complex.