Some thoughts on technical translation and plain language

Welcome to this new series of interviews with legal translators, lawyer-linguists and plain language advocates. The idea behind it is to have other voices in this blog and not just mine. My colleagues do amazing work and it’s great to share their views on legal translation and plain language.

Today I’m interviewing Selene Bovo. She’s an experienced medical translator and plain language advocate.

She’s going to describe the challenges of working in such a technical sector and the importance of plain technical translations.

Hi, Selene, welcome to this new series of interviews. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Thank you for inviting me. Well, I am an English to Spanish translator and I have been in the business for almost 8 years. I work mostly in the areas of healthcare and medicine.

That’s challenging and rewarding, especially because 1- new drugs are developed all the time so you must keep up to date and 2- you help people by giving them information they can use to get better.

Since you’ve been working in your sector for almost 8 years, can you tell me which are, in your opinion, the most important skills to translate technical language?

I can think of three important things that can help translators of technical texts:

First of all, good research and using reliable sources.

Second, paying attention to detail, especially to long sentences. They can be tricky and word order might be essential to convey the right meaning.

Third, specialization. We cannot know everything. And we cannot spend hours doing research on every single topic ─a clinical trial today, a car parts catalog tomorrow, and data security software the day after that. So we have to choose areas we like and feel comfortable with. When we are familiar with the topic, we can better grasp the meaning of the original text, and that will reflect in the quality of the translation.

Can you think of (and debunk) a myth of technical/medical translation?

I’ve heard that technical translation is just about finding the right terms. It’s true that you don’t need the same level of creativity as if translating literature or marketing texts, for example. But technical texts usually have long, complex sentences that you have to crack correctly in order to convey the right meaning in the translation.

I see. It does sound like solving a mathematical problem, but of course, accuracy plays an important part here since mistranslations may lead to a machine not working or someone nor recovering from an illness, right?

Now, speaking of complex texts, what’s the most difficult type of text you translate? What challenges does it present?

Package inserts, clinical studies and protocols. These are generally targeted to other doctors, and not to the general public. So they are filled with medical jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, and complex sentences.

Well, you’ve said the magic word: jargon. Let’s talk a bit about plain language in your field.

How would you define plain medical language?

Let’s see. Plain language is language that people can understand at first sight; it’s language you don’t need to read several times to make sure you understand. It’s language that makes information accessible to everyone.

Which are the benefits of plain medical language?

Knowledge is power. If you know something, you are better prepared to make good decisions. For example, in medicine, patient education is very important for prevention.

What’s your view on the role of medical translators related to plain language?

When we are in ‘translation mode’, we tend to use terms we wouldn’t use in other contexts. We may not notice that the source language is slipping into our translation. So it’s a good idea to take some time off after we finish the translation, then come back with a fresh mind and review the target text. That helps you spot any traces of foreign-sounding words and structures that make the translation harder to read.

We also have to make sure we don’t add difficulty to the text. And we should choose simple words and structures in our translations, unless we agreed to something different with our client.

There are many researchers and experts who appear to be willing to share their knowledge. They write articles and even books. But they are written in a wordy and complex style. Even if the reader is knowledgeable about the topic, it is sometimes hard to follow those writings. You have to read one sentence twice or more times to understand it. By the time you finish the sentence, you forgot how it started. There is no need to do that. It is great to be an expert on a certain topic, and it’s great to share your ideas. But I don’t think it’s necessary to use such a complex language. Being able to express difficult matters in simple language is an art and it does not show a lack of expertise or status. It is actually better.

As you can see, plain language can be (and should be!) used in technical translations, too. When you need to communicate with patients or non-experts, plain technical translations is the way to go.

Thanks, Selene, for sharing your thoughts on plain language.

If you want to know more about Selene, make sure you visit her LinkedIn account.

You can also follow me on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn or read my previous blog post on CPD for legal translators.

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