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Time to throw away your dictionaries?

One of the great myths of technical translation is that it is all about specialised terminology. It isn’t that surprising really because it is one of the first things that strikes most people when they look at a technical text. But is it really such a problem? Peter Newmark once said that terminology accounts for a mere 5-10% of a typical technical text. I recently spoke to a senior translator from the World Intellectual Property Organization who said that their analyses of patent abstracts showed a 50% terminology content but I would say that, given the specialised and highly specific function of these texts, this is probably the exception rather than the rule.

But anyway, assuming that Newmark’s estimate is true and even taking into account the myriad types of texts where the proportion of terminology may vary slightly, you have to ask the question: So what? What’s the big deal with terminology?

Traditionally in translation circles researchers have only been interested in terminology but unless you’re actually a terminologist, to reduce technical translation down to the level of a purely terminological issue is downright blinkered and misses the point completely. This approach also had the rather unfortunate effect of supporting Friedrich Schleiermacher’s horrible claim way back in 1813 that technical translation is a mechanical activity that anyone with a grasp of two languages can do. I know that as a philosopher it was his job to spout all kinds of insane nonsense on everything from the meaning of life to how many sheets of toilet paper you should use for a number 2, but I’d still like to bludgeon him about the head with a couple of soggy dictionaries for saying that. Oh, if I only had a time machine…

If you ask any experienced technical translator they’ll tell you that, more often than not, it’s not individual terms that cause most problems, but the way those terms fit into sentences that cause the problems. To tell the truth, depending on the subject area and the language pair you are working with, specialised terminology is sometimes (though not always) the easiest part of a text to translate. In other words it’s the things in a text that aren’t terminology-related that pose the greatest challenges; it’s not the cargo but the ship that needs attention. Things like register, style, set phrases, references to laws or sometimes whether certain information is appropriate for the target audience or whether the way in which information is sequenced in instructions, for example, makes sense. Sometimes you just don’t know what it is the original author is trying to say. That’s what causes us problems and that’s what we should be concerned about instead of getting undergarments in a bunch about specialised terminology. It doesn’t matter how good our cargo of precious specialised terms is, if we’re going to load them onto a leaky old rust bucket which will probably sink before it leaves the harbour, we’re wasting our time. This isn’t to say that getting specialised terminology right is not important. It simply means that we need to put it in perspective; we shouldn’t devote too much time to it and risk neglecting other areas which are equally or even more important.

There are, however, two real issues at play here. The first is the tendency of people to become fixated on the specialised terminology in a text – perfectly understandable to a certain extent, particularly in the case of trainee translators or if you are less familiar with the subject area. When training to become a translator it is sometimes easy to become obsessed with finding the best specialised dictionaries because those specialised terms are so damn scary.

This leads on to the second point which is where should people go to find terminology.  Accepted wisdom would tell us to look in a dictionary but many people would disagree for the simple fact that dictionaries, like computers, become obsolete the second they are made. With technology, for example, evolving so quickly new terms are emerging while others fall out of use and even with the latest production methods, traditional dictionaries cannot be manufactured quickly enough to stay completely up-to-date. The result is that dictionaries will contain words which are never used while omitting new terms which are used frequently. What’s more, you can never be really sure which of the possible words suggested by a dictionary is the right one. In the absence of detailed contextual information, using a dictionary can sometimes be a lottery and I often have a sinking feeling after using one. My students sometimes looked at me in disbelief when I told them to forget about dictionaries, that they are just a last resort – finding reliable parallel texts which contain the terms is always more useful because you get the translation as well as the collocation and other stylistic information to boot. Soon enough though, most people realise on their own that their efforts are best spent on finding parallel texts instead of searching for the ultimate specialised dictionary.

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