Sunday, 18 May 2014

How does a translator get geekier?

Geekier? Is that a word? Geek, geeky, geekier, geekiest, most geekiest... It’s important to speak the lingo for technical translations.

Traditionally, linguists follow arts and humanities. This can leave a gap in technical understanding. At the recent BP14 translation conference in Budapest, a translator asked how to develop their technical knowledge. 

 As I get geekier by the day, I outline below tips to make that transition.

1. Work experience outside translation
Gain work experience outside the translation world and academia. Build up knowledge of other industries and technical terminology - e.g. I learnt a lot about glass technology and pharmaceuticals at Saint-Gobain. My induction training included factory visits to see the production lines, cleanrooms, etc. 

2. Contract work with engineers and other techies
Taking on a short-term contract job in a technical field can also help develop technical knowledge - e.g. I once worked on a helpline between engineers and hospital laboratory staff at Olympus Diagnostic Systems.

3. Attend trade fairs
A trade fair is a great place to ask questions about new technologies and trends. The range of seminars can be very informative. You can pick up useful literature too. Once you are on the organiser’s mailing list, you are often invited to more niche events.

4. Get hands on with products
It is much easier to translate product information if you have actually seen and used the product. A tractor manufacturer once sent me on a product familiarisation course. The client met all expenses for a whole week, as he placed great value on having informed staff at his marketing agency. 

It is a pity that translation is often an afterthought. Product familiarisation courses are rarely offered to translators. You can always ask. The client may welcome such an initiative. Alternatively, go and see the products in stores or showrooms locally.

5. Be your own IT Helpdesk
As a freelancer, you have to become your own IT helpdesk. Develop your own website. Learn by trial and error. You soon appreciate the ingredients for good online technical instructions, videos and helplines.

6. Read, read, read
I make a point of reading material in my specialist areas almost on a daily basis. I often find breaking tech news on my Twitter feed. I then follow such leads to websites and technical papers. 

7. Study a technical subject
I took the deliberate step to develop my technical translation skills by studying an MSc in technical translation at Imperial College London (now at UCL). It is a great pity that there are not more of such courses.

Of course, you could also take a diploma or even another degree in a technical subject too. A local car maintenance evening class might prove useful for automotive translations. There is also an increasing range of online technical courses and webinars available.

8. Friends and family
Don’t neglect the value of chatting with friends working in technical fields. I am lucky to have scientists and engineers in my immediate family. My tech-mad teenagers are good at keeping me up-to-date with the latest social media trends and apps. 

9. Ask questions
Stay curious. Professional translators are not afraid to ask questions. Experienced translators often highlight unclear or inaccurate text with their questions. Technical knowledge can be a curse when targeting customers or research funding. A technical translator/writer can develop into an indispensable sounding board and project partner.

10. Get familiar with Star Trek and Star Wars
I am only half jesting here. These days when you mention translation to a geek, their first words are about Google Translate. So have your lightsaber at the ready. Explain why the universal translator will never replace heroic, human translators.

Beam Scotty back down to earth. 

Do you have any additional tips for increasing technical skills?

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