Demystifying technical translation

Technology is best when it brings people together.” Matt Mullenweg – “And so does technical translation.” AOT

People communicate for all types of reasons around the world: selling, educating, sharing, inspiring… And translation is one of the keys to this communication. It breaks the language barriers to let communication flow between continents and cultures.

But we often forget that communication is also what makes our world work.  

Take your phone. Would you intuitively know how to use it if you didn’t have a few instructions in your mother tongue to navigate all its functionalities? Well probably someone on the other side of the world has the same phone as you. And learned how to use it with instructions in their own language.

But it’s just a tiny part of the global machine that is our world. That’s why technical communication is crucial. And so is technical translation. Let’s demystify what technical translation is. So we can understand better its importance.

What is technical translation?

We could divide the translation field into four general types of translation: Literary, Professional, Technical and Administrative. Today, we’re going to focus on technical translation, because it’s at the foundation of our everyday life.

As a brief definition, technical translation is the translation from one source language into a target language of materials dealing with technical subject domains.

The aim of technical translation

A technical text could be described as an informational text that explains the step for how to do something. You may think that it’s a vague explanation.

It’s because the word “technical” encompasses a variety of materials ranging from user manuals to engineering prototype technical sheets. And the audience can be anyone, from consumers to engineers working on a new aircraft.

The goal is to deliver in a target language highly specialized technical information from a source language. Using the proper terminology in this target language so the user can use the information translated. Sometimes, it also aims to make technical jargon accessible to a larger public.

The features of technical translation

Technical translation has its own specific character.

It must provide the most accurate description of technical or technological processes, with specific terms related to the subject. The engineer from Argentina must understand the function of the part coming from Indonesia. In some situations, it can be a question of life or death.

Plus, it shall do it in observance of an appropriate presentation format. If you prepare a technical tender, it must comply with the criteria stipulated in the RFP. Same for a patent.

It can also be characterized by a formulaic and repetitive nature. Consistency in the terminology is key. A TV is a TV from the first to the last page of the manual. And if you look at all the user manuals you have at home, you’ll see that they have about the same table of contents.

The difference between scientific and technical translations

Scientific and technical materials involve highly specialized vocabulary, so the line between both fields is not always easy to see.

Broadly, we could say that a scientific text is read to gain knowledge in an area. While a technical text is read to understand how to complete a task or a process.

In other words, scientific resources are more focused on theoretical and informative matters. Their translation requires a slightly different set of translation skills and follows some different features.

But ultimately, they are related. Technical translation will focus on materials applying scientific data. In that sense, technical translation is more about practical matters.

What needs technical translation?

The array of technical documents that require translation follows the cradle-to-grave cycle of all the products and services you can think about, and beyond. So, to keep it digest, we regrouped them into categories to give you an overview.

Technical tenders, proposals, and contracts

The goal of technical tenders is to present a process or a product to win a bid. Imagine a new train request for your city transit. The translation will need to transcribe the technical details from the source into the target language with the specific terminology used in the target country. A mistranslation of the size of the wheels could make a company lose a deal if the client thinks the train won’t fit on the rails.

Proposals and contracts are part of the legal field. But, when they involve technical information, the translation must be highly accurate, as these documents are legally binding to companies.

Research and Development

It takes research and development to innovate. And to progress, the findings and the processes need to be translated to be shared across countries. Therefore, the translation has to be highly accurate and specific to ensure all parties are moving in the same direction. It’s often when scientific data will cross technical data.

Patents, trademarks, and copyright files

This category can fall into the legal field too. But the aim is to get legal protection for technical processes or recipes. A poor translation could be used against the exclusivity of the patent owner. So not only a precise terminology shall be used. But the translation shall comply with the targeted country’s legal standards and adapt to the regulatory specificities.

Operating manuals and blueprints

From buildings to hi-tech software, at every level and in each industry, we need instructions and plans to proceed correctly with the construction or the operation of materials. How could a builder start to build a high rise without the plans of an architect? And how could the architect draw those plans without mastering the drawing software? But that is also true for the conveyor belt of a factory or your wash machine at home.

It’s also worth noting that the user/operating manual translation is sometimes a legal requirement. You may want to check the legislation of your target country if you’re exporting products or equipment.

Safety manuals and datasheets

Safety is key and, in many countries, the number 1 criterion to get approval for importation. The car industry is a great example. Most countries have their own rules. Auto constructors must comply with them if they want to sell their cars on these markets. So not only do cars undergo some verification tests, but the manuals must be translated into the country’s official language.

Material Safety Data Sheets are another perfect example. Chemical products are dangerous, and users need to be aware of the risks involved with their handling and application. A tiny error in translation could make a risk lower than it is or change the first aid measures and have consequences on the life of someone.

Spec sheets and technical reports

This category can also include infographics or drawings. These materials are related to the technical description of products, parts, or equipment.

Spec sheets could be compared as a product description, piece per piece, and help an engineer to know if they have all the parts for a machine to work. Technical reports help keep track of activities and improve processes.

And we didn’t talk about training materials… But you already have a good idea of what falls under technical translation. Let’s dive now into the last part: who are the engineers of technical translation?

Who does technical translation?

The crucial question! To understand better the specific skill set required for technical translation, we must speak about the source of their work: technical writers.

Technical writers

Behind most of the documentation we reviewed above, you can find technical writers. They research and create information. Their goal is to convey technical information in a way that their audience can understand and apply to do a specific task or operate special equipment.

Of course, engineers, scientists and other professionals will revise, edit, or guide. But a major part of the content is almost always written by a technical writer. They will need to adapt the “jargon” based on the audience of the text: engineer peers, board of directors, end-users, etc.

An excellent technical text must meet the following: clarity, accuracy, comprehensiveness, accessibility, conciseness, professional appearance, and correctness.

So, writing skills are not enough. You need to have a true interest in the field of expertise, master the mode of communication and have in-depth knowledge of the industry for which you’re writing.

Technical translators

Simply put, if you merge a technical writer with a professional translator, you get a technical translator.

They translate on a more technical scale than other translators: they require the same skills as technical writers and as translators.

They specialized in a technical field from a previous background or because of a personal passion. We can call them masters of the working language. But they also need rigour and concentration because technical translation is repetitive and conventional as we saw before.

The terminology is constantly evolving. So, translators must always educate themselves with specialized books, create glossaries of their area of expertise, and research online techniques. A deep curiosity for their technical field is necessary.

And as for all translators, punctuality and concern for the client guide their work.


We could write a whole article on methodology. So, to keep it short, here are the main steps followed by technical translators:

  1. Analysis: Most of the time, the tone is neutral in technical translation. But translators still need to evaluate the context, the targeted audience, and the degree of complexity to know how to prepare their translation and the research they need to do.
  2. Comprehension: As we saw, technical translation can sometimes be a question of life or death. So, even if all translators must comprehend the text they are translating, technical translation requires an extra level of cautiousness. Their translation cannot be approximative.
  3. Translation: Back up with researched and potential questions to the clients, the translator will progress through the text using glossary and terminology, if available. If not, they may create them as they go.
  4. Revision: The technical translators will revise their work to ensure consistency and accuracy, but external revisions are highly recommended. A mistranslation could potentially harm someone.


Translators may use different techniques to convey the source information into the target language. The ATA mentions four in one of their articles:

  1. Literal: Literal translations are generally loyal to the source text.
  2. Calque: In some languages, a close copy of the terminology works to import specific terms in the target language. They basically create a new word by translating parts of the source word.
  3. Borrowing: Sometimes, specialized terms may not have an equivalent yet in the target language. In those cases, the translator may borrow the source word. It’s a trend that we can see in the IT field, for example.
  4. Equivalence: With this technique, the translators step away from the source but capture the original meaning in its translation, so they stay loyal to the audience’s perception.

Why is it important to hire a technical translator?

We could say that you do not hire a painter to do a sculpture unless they are qualified. But beyond the fact that technical translation is an art, most documents that require technical translation could have devastating consequences on your organization or business.

Expertise & Understanding of the matter

Technical translators have the translation expertise needed. But they specialize in their field of expertise too. Hiring a professional that has an in-depth comprehension of your industry will ensure they understand the context of your material and the audience you want to reach.

Precise terminology & Correct meaning

Technical translators are masters of their field’s terminology. And they will be familiar with the regional context and potential regulatory differences.

Launching a new product on a foreign market has a cost. Such as applying for a patent. Or making the brakes for a train. Whatever your industry is and the technical document that requires translation, your company or you have already invested money. So, you want your project to work wherever you deploy it around the world.

But for that, your audience needs to understand exactly the process or the how-to. The precision of the terminology and the correctness of the meaning are therefore crucial to your success.

Your reputation

Last, but not least, your reputation!

Imagine that you have created this amazing tool that will save time for thousands of people. You rightfully want to protect your exclusivity. But if the translation of your patent request is incomplete or incorrect, you may lose this exclusivity in court.

Another hypothesis would be a “harmful translation”. If an operating manual contains an error in the lockout procedures translation, someone could get hurt with your machine while cleaning it.

That is why it is essential to hire a technical translation service to translate any technical material. At whichever stage you are in the supply chain. And to ensure your peace of mind, technical translators are specialized professionals. They will convey your technical information from the source language into the target language with accuracy and conciseness. One step further toward your success!

Why hire AOT

AOT has a long experience with technical translation, and we have a team of specialized professional translators. We work in a variety of industries and translate into over 140 languages. We like to create a relationship with every single one of our clients to serve you better. Contact us to learn more.

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Natacha Bordier