Natasha Drake, September 30, 2021
Translating science writing: tips and tricks
Einova’s expert multilingual copywriters talk about the challenges and rewards of translating science and technology writing. At the end, read their 7 useful tips for translating scientific writing and learn how you can translate complex concepts from one language into another with ease.
Why is science writing translation important?
Who needs translations? Well, researchers, for one. A scientist’s discovery in Italy can be shared almost instantaneously with her colleagues in Long Beach, Amsterdam, Dubai, or Shenzhen... but only if the scientists have a common language, or the work is translated well.
We live in a richly interconnected world, one where our individual identities can span other cultures, languages, economies, climates, and world public health. We all benefit from the sharing of (translated) knowledge across international barriers. Multilingualism helps to “[build] inclusive knowledge societies and [mobilize] political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development,” as the United Nations succinctly expressed.
Why a tech company cares about translations
As a company, Einova recognizes the crucial role of multilingualism in improving the world through science. We’re dedicated to creating smarter, more energy-efficient technologies that we think will revolutionize how the world converts power.
In fact, my French-speaking colleague and fellow copywriter/translator Irene Jacca might even say it’s our raison d’etre.
The two of us make up Einova’s copywriting and translation team. In addition to creating marketing material, Irene and I write articles (in Italian/French and English, respectively) that distill scientific, technical, and engineering concepts into clear and readable prose intended for a general audience. We then translate each other’s texts. And yes, that includes this very article, which is being published simultaneously in French and Italian.
To celebrate International Translation Day this September 30th, I talked with Irene about the challenges and rewards of the work.
Interview with a translator and science copywriter
Irene, you translate your own content from Italian to French, as well as translate my content from English. What particular translating challenges do you face, working between these three languages?
Irene: English is the official, universal language for technology. Translating that vocabulary in other languages is already a challenge! But mostly, this is about the structure of the sentences.
For example, in English, you can write the phrase “wireless fast-charging Qi-compatible charger.” It’s rich in information yet compact, consisting of a few compound adjectives followed by a noun. In Italian, you just can’t create phrases like that. You would need to add prepositions, articles, relative clauses and other bulky stuff, probably ending up with something like caricatore wireless con fast charge compatibile con i dispositivi Qi. This makes the sentence way less appealing!
French is even worse, since — we all know — everything has to be translated! So that a very short pc in Italian becomes a really long ordinateur portable…!
Do you have a favorite “false friend” — a word that looks similar to a word in your native language, but actually has a very different meaning? Mine right now is gadget. In English a gadget is a synonym for a small electronic device. In Italian, however, it means swag or merchandise.
Irene: I didn't know about gadget! For French-to-Italian false friends, a big classic is finalement. It really looks like the Italian adverb finalmente, which means at long last in English, but its actual Italian translation is infine, which stands for finally in English — I know, it’s easy to get, well, lost in translation!
Anyway, the truth is that I often surprise myself by using some kind of Frenchism in a completely inappropriate way: bilingualism can be so profoundly tricky!
What makes translating science writing different from other kinds of translation?
Irene: First of all, topics can be tough. Most of the time we have to study the content before translating it in another language. As a writer, I need more than just my memories of high school science classes! Also, writing has to be very clear and precise, but still understandable for a large audience. So I would say it’s a delicate balance between technical accuracy and readability. I experienced this particular issue when writing our forthcoming Glossary, which explores power electronics terminology — and that’s why our wonderful engineers came to help!
Do you enjoy consuming translated content (books, websites, movies, etc.) personally?
Irene: My approach is very different depending on the language and on the type of content. I watch all kinds of movies and TV series in their original language with subtitles, because I think the voice intonation is absolutely important to appreciate the actors' expressive talent. The same happens in literature, where the choice of vocabulary is crucial, especially in poetry.
But to be completely honest, sometimes I just want to chill out and enjoy my comfort-zone, and there’s nothing better than consuming well-translated contents for that!
7 tips for translating science writing
Research the topic beforehand. As Irene mentioned, it’s an especially important step if you are not a subject matter expert. Read articles from scientific or trade magazines. Notice the kind of vocabulary that other writers use when discussing the topic — it sometimes will be quite different from what you thought the word in the target language was.
Read the entire text first, then begin working on the level of paragraphs. What do you want the reader to take away? Often in science or informational writing, you can translate each sentence in a paragraph more-or-less directly, with no loss in comprehensibility. But that isn’t always the best choice. Sometimes it makes more sense to create new content that contains the same information. This process is called transcreation and it can sometimes produce better, clearer texts than if you translated word for word.
Adapt the syntax to the language. Readability means different things in different languages. Short sentences are easier to read in English, so I often split longer sentences from Irene’s Italian texts into two or sometimes even three shorter sentences in English. However, in the original Italian, the longer sentence is perfectly readable.
Machine translation tools can be helpful, but use them carefully. Nothing substitutes for a careful close reading of the text in its entirety. Google Translate, DeepL, or Reverso can be a useful way of displaying possibilities for direct translations of individual sentences. However, be very careful. As much as the AI behind these tools has advanced, they still can produce clunky and hard-to-understand prose. Use carefully and with discretion.
Be careful about translating acronyms and organizations. The French acronym for DNA is ADN. The European Union isn't the EU in Italy — it’s l’Unione europea, and it can be abbreviated as either l’UE or l’Ue, with the second letter in lower case.
Double-check date and time formats. The International Translation Day is September 30th 2021 in the United States (month-day-year). Many other countries present dates as day-month-year instead. Similarly, it’s 5:00 PM somewhere... except where it’s 17:00, actually. Take a moment to make sure that you’re presenting dates and times in the format that’s most familiar to your audience.
Ask an expert to check your work. When you’ve finished, ask someone with both subject matter expertise and knowledge of the target language to read your translation. At Einova, I’ll ask one of our engineers to read my finished work to ensure there are no mistakes or unintended ambiguities.