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The Translation of Technical and Scientific Texts

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

The transmission and exchange of knowledge on an international scale has become a necessity due to the fast pace imposed by technological progress. In addition, standardisation and product legislation are increasingly being developed when those products cross borders, so manufacturers are forced to order the translation of many documents: patents, certificates, standards, instruction manuals, etc. With the globalisation of markets, multinational companies are increasing their power and capacity to influence, and are turning to translation as one of the basic pillars of their business strategy. It should not be forgotten that the large international groups have employees of different nationalities, work with suppliers from different countries, distribute their products throughout the world, and launch their advertising campaigns all over the planet.

All translations are specialised, as special knowledge always comes into play; for example, literary translations require extensive information about the author of the work, the period in which it is set, etc. In fact, the key that justifies the use of this denomination is that the type of text to which it refers is fundamentally characterised by the so-called "speciality languages": technical, scientific, legal, economic, administrative, etc. Their use in texts obliges the translator to acquire a series of skills in the corresponding subject area and to master the specific terminology: these are aspects in common that all specialised translations have.

Technical-scientific translation has almost always been considered as one area, both in research and in teaching. This is partly because the boundaries between science and technology are not always clear. Thus, there are objects of study that are approached from both scientific and technological disciplines at the same time; for example, the atom is studied from both physics and nuclear technology. On the other hand, some authors state that there are intermediate categories between science and technology, such as the applied sciences (medicine).

By definition, science is a body of theoretical knowledge and technique, that is, the application of this knowledge to industrial exploitation (technological sciences) or land use (agricultural sciences). The type of text used by scientists is primarily intended to disseminate knowledge (e.g. the research article), whereas technicians do not generally write to disseminate their applied knowledge because of the high level of commercial competence, but to comply with a number of legal requirements (patents, instruction manuals etc.) or to advertise their products (information brochures). The language of science is more universal than the language of technology, since there are more parallels between the source and target languages in science than in technology. In addition to the specific use, there are also differences of a textual nature. As well as this specificity of use, there are also textual differences. Thus, in scientific texts, argumentation and description prevail, while in technical texts description and description clearly dominate.

But subject matter is not the only factor that determines whether a text is specialised or not. There is a powerful reason for this: The same subject can give rise to specialized and non-specialized texts depending on the referential character it conveys, so that, when faced with functional intentions that alter the referential of each specialty (ironizing on a subject, trivializing it until it becomes a joke, metaphorizing a subject to allude to a different situation, etc.), texts with initially specialized subjects become non-specialized texts. In this way, the subject can only be a starting point, and other criteria must be used in relation to the communicative situation, the interlocutors and the textual function. What are the situations of use in which scientific texts are produced, on the one hand, and technical texts, on the other?

What differentiates a large part of scientific texts is that they are intended to widely disseminate the results of research among the community of specialists, for example, through articles, presentations at congresses, or conferences. This situation of use never occurs in the technical field.

Other communicative situations are shared with technical texts, because, like them, scientific texts can be used to transmit the body of knowledge specific to a discipline to training specialists (e.g. a manual on a particular field, whether scientific or technological) or, in some cases, to disseminate basic knowledge to the general public (an informative monograph, general press article, television documentary, all of them on scientific or technological subjects). But here ends the inventory of possibilities, while the scope of use of technical texts is much broader, and includes the production of texts to help organize the industrial processes (production plan, product development application, etc.), provide product user information (instruction manual, drug package insert), advertise products (technical announcements, etc.), and many more.

If we look at the professional practice of translation, we can see that in terms of market percentage, technical translation is ahead of scientific translation, as the demand generated by industry is much greater than that produced within research bodies. Technical translation from English, German and French into other languages is what gives rise to the greatest volume of translation activity in Europe, due to the hegemonic situation as industrial powers of the countries in which these three languages are spoken.

Of course, research articles are also written on technical fields, but here there is a divorce between the subject and the communicative field of use. The communicative situation in which such an article is produced is not technical, since it does not arise within the industry nor are technicians involved in its issue, nor is its purpose directly related to the practical application of theoretical knowledge. Therefore, a research article on air pollution control (environmental engineering and technology) is a scientific text, while a draft of measures for the rapid decontamination of the environment in a given geographical area (identical thematic field) is a technical text.

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