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The ultimate guide to technical translation

The ultimate guide to technical translation
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Ensuring top-quality technical document translation is essential in today’s international market, but it’s easier said than done. Fields like science, engineering and manufacturing require absolute precision in language, highlighting the need for impeccable accuracy in technical translation. Without a grasp of the specific subject, even seasoned translators can falter.


So how can you guarantee that your technical documents are translated to meet high standards? A solid understanding of the technical translation process and knowing what to look for are crucial steps. Our all-inclusive guide aims to equip you with a deep understanding of technical translation as a whole. This will help you identify when you’ll require these services and what challenges you might encounter, ensuring your translations are up to the mark.

What is technical translation?

Compared to other kinds of translation work, technical translation is in a league of its own. Whether it’s science, software, engineering, detailed medical information, this isn’t just about getting special terms right.

A skilled technical document translator should:

1. Possess a thorough grasp of the complex subject at hand, and ideally, have working industry experience.
2. Be familiar with the industry/company-specific terminology and jargon.
3. Know the target culture inside and out, so the translation comes across as totally natural.

When is technical translation necessary?

If your original text has tricky or specialized words and ideas, you’ll probably need a language expert who’s a pro at technical translation.

Here are some kinds of texts that often need this specialized translation:

Patent Translation

Translating patents is a tough job that needs someone who not only knows the lingo but also understands the legal and practical sides of things. Whether it’s medical, chemical, mechanical, or pharmaceutical, the translator needs to get the context, whether it’s a claim, a description, or something for a legal case.

User Manual Translation

User guides and manuals are other common texts that need technical translation. Just like with patents, the translator needs to really know the subject and ideally have some industry experience. They also need to know how to write manuals in a way that’s sensitive to different cultures. An article by the American Translators Association says manuals should be totally unbiased, which takes special skills to pull off in another language. Your go-to language partner should be able to make a glossary to keep terms consistent.

Software strings

Another type of technical translation involves converting software strings for user interfaces into other languages and adapting them for local cultures. Even though the user interface might look straightforward, the translator has to understand how to deal with text strings that a computer program will interpret. They also have to be clued in on the specific terms and standards that these software strings need in the target language. Making software, apps, and e-learning programs fit for different locales requires specialized technical skills.

Health and Safety Documents

Health and safety language has its own set of unique terms, and getting them wrong in translation could be risky for the end user—a situation everyone wants to avoid, especially since your employees are the company’s most important resource.

For successful translation of health and safety materials, you’ll need a super proficient translator, well-versed in the specific vocabulary related to health and safety. They must be capable of conveying the information in an accessible manner for the intended readers. Opting for a reputable translation agency guarantees that an experienced and skilled translator will handle your documents.

Other areas of consideration

The scope of technical translation is extensive and encompasses various types of content. Besides the areas we’ve already touched on, technical translation also comes into play in these additional areas:

  • Academic articles and journals
  • Promotional brochures
  • Feasibility assessments
  • Internal company messages
  • Articles on manufacturing and engineering
  • Marketing collateral
  • Safety data sheets
  • Patent documents and applications
  • Product labels, packaging, and catalogues
  • Product feature lists
  • Compliance documents
  • Manuals for service, maintenance, and policies
  • Site evaluations
  • Software text elements
  • Technical studies and reports
  • Educational textbooks
  • Training guides
  • User and operation guides
  • Website localization

The Mechanics of Technical Translation

Technical translation is intricate by nature and involves specific processes and terminology. Here’s a breakdown of what some of these terms mean:

Terminology Database or Glossary

Uniformity is crucial in technical translation, and a terminology database serves as a valuable resource for ensuring consistency in language. Also known as a terminology bank, lexicon, glossary or term collection.

This database includes translations and critical terms commonly used within a particular technical field. It’s a tool that removes ambiguity and ensures continuity, and shortens the time needed for translation, reducing costs in the process.

The database can also include added information like context, definition, and parts of speech to help the translator, particularly for words with multiple meanings.

Translation Memory (TM)

Utilizing a translation memory is another vital step in the technical document translation workflow. This tool constructs a database of phrases that have been previously translated either in the current document or in previous documents and can be reused for future projects.

Screenshot of Translation Memory in a CAT tool
Screenshot of Translation Memory in a CAT tool

Imagine you’re launching a revised product in Europe or Asia. If much of the new product resembles the old one, you can use translation memory to reuse pre-approved translations, saving time and maintaining consistency. This is particularly useful when multiple translators work on the same project, possibly years apart.

But initially, a translation memory won’t offer time or cost benefits for entirely new technical documents. However, it will improve consistency by reusing identical phrases.

Using Machine or AI translation

Modern machine translation engines and AI use refined algorithms and models for more accurate translations. While only suitable for some projects, they can be beneficial when used alongside human translators.

Such engines rely on extensive bilingual databases that include industry-specific terms, existing translation databases, and even advanced algorithms that can fully translate documents for informational purposes. However, if machine translation is employed, it should always be rigorously reviewed by a specialized technical translator.

Top-notch language service providers can guide clients on when to use machine-assisted and human translation. Some documents are too important to rely solely on machines. In contrast, others are suitable for machine-assisted translation, which can be more cost-effective.

How to prepare for technical translation

When it comes to technical translation, a little more preparation is often required in comparison to other types of translation. This is mostly due to the level of technical and specialist knowledge that will be needed in order to translate the document effectively.

We’ve outlined some of the key areas for you to consider before working with a translation services provider:

  • Be specific about your target markets and your readers. This will allow your agency to identify any linguistic or cultural nuances in advance.
  • Make sure your documents are finalised. Last-minute edits, once the translation process has started, can cause delays and confusion, so sign it off before the process begins to save yourself some hassle.
  • Identify a suitable file format. Ask your translation services agency which file formats they support, and agree on a platform that works best for both of you.
  • Ask your translation partner to create a glossary that covers your specific technical terminology. Getting a head start on your translation glossary will help streamline the translation process.
  • Prepare your text for design changes. Throughout the translation process, the copy will undoubtedly expand or contract, so make sure you allow white space. For more information on how to prepare for design changes, head over to our blog.

Get these things right, and you immediately benefit from better, faster and cheaper results from your translation services provider!


Much like any type of translation, there are challenges that may come your way. Hopefully, you’ll be well equipped to deal with those challenges having read this guide!

So what exactly are the challenges that come with technical translation, and how can they be overcome?


Scientific and technical industries have an endlessly growing list of terminology. The extensive list of vocabulary is made all the more challenging by the concern that it may have a different name in different parts of the world, so it can be difficult to keep on top of specific terminology.

To mitigate any challenges with terminology, make sure that your translation agency matches translators with in-depth working knowledge of the subject matter; not all do! This means that the translator will have first-hand knowledge, meaning they will have a full understanding of the terminology which is normally used and will be best placed to use it correctly. They will also be able to identify any incorrect terminology throughout the translation process, which is equally important.

Style and format

Depending on the target audience, the style and format of the document may have to be reworked. An experienced linguist will understand how the source text will have to be reimagined for global markets and will be able to incorporate these changes throughout the translation process.

The format of the document must also be followed exactly to ensure the meaning isn’t – apologies for the cliché line – lost in translation! When translating an instructive technical manual, the instructions must be accurate and with the correct context – especially if it’s for assembling a tricky product.

Translating from one language into another can result in language expansion and, in some languages, contraction. If a manual were translated from English into Italian, it would need to be considered that Italian text would be about 30% longer when translated. This can alter the layout and number of pages, which can cause issues if not addressed before translation begins.

Linguistic form

Looking even deeper into technical translation, the linguistic form of the language must be understood. Elements such as tone, syntax, manner of questions posed, and the context of use need to be understood by the translator to avoid any miscommunication within the translation.

Cultural awareness also needs to be considered, as differences between cultures could mean that the text needs to be translated in a certain way. For example, cultural differences could include varying concepts of politeness and perceptions of various stereotypes. Such features tend to reflect on the text level, and any literal translation may sound strange – or even offensive – to the target culture.

Choosing the right translation partner

Finding the right translation agency is paramount to ensuring that your technical translation hits the mark. You need to be sure that your translation partner has the experience, knowledge and capability to translate your content to the standard that you need. Working with the wrong agency could be detrimental to the quality of your translation, so it’s important that you work with an agency that’s right for you! 

Have a look at our blog for a deeper insight into finding the right translation partner.

The cost of technical translation

Technical translation often costs more than standard translation and can take a little longer. Due to the amount of work required to ensure the translation is accurate and of good quality. Generally, the more specialised and technical the subject, the more you should allow in your budget and time frame.

These two factors will depend on the level of scientific or technical knowledge required, the number of specialised translators available in the required language and the demand for those translators. There are a limited number of translators in each specific field, so the pool is smaller, and the prices, therefore increase.

Think of it like this; the cost of translating an instruction manual for an inkjet printer from English into German should cost less than translating a patent into Japanese. This is because patent translation is highly specialised and requires good knowledge of both the subject matter and the art of writing patents according to strict legal and practical requirements. So, there are fewer translators with this kind of level of expertise around. Similarly, there are fewer Japanese translators available than German – although demand for Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, for example, are on the rise. To secure all three requirements in one individual is a specialised requirement.

You can learn more about costs by heading over to our guide to translation pricing

Contact Brightlines today

For a free quote or to find out more about our translation services, get in touch with us today. We’ve been well-established in the industry for over 20 years and have a pool of over 4,000 experienced and reliable translators to choose from. Whatever you’ve got in mind, we’ve got the experience and capability to help you out.