In Compliance

Thirty years ago, someone made a translation mistake. Since then, Kuwait has been incorrectly implementing items into its construction projects … all due to an error in translating technical terms from English to Arabic. The cost? Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on unnecessary construction work.

I read the above news story and wondered, “what caused this error?” and, more importantly, “how did no one discover it for more than 30 years?!?”

We often discuss translation “Quality,” and overall quality is extremely important. However, I think translation “Accuracy” and the use of “Subject Matter Experts” are key to preventing costly mistakes like this one. Accuracy is, of course, one major component of quality. Accuracy is the difference between “flower” and “flour.” Subject matter experts are the ones who understand, in context, whether we’re writing about gardening or baking.

In the translation business, especially when it comes to technical translations, it is vital to review the content with an individual or team who is very familiar with it and its subject matter. This helps ensure that the translation is correct from the linguistic point of view, as well as sending correct message to the target audience considering the country, terms used, units used, etc. The reviewer should be especially vigilant on the below items when checking the translation of a technical document:

  • Units: The document describes how to mix a special type of concrete for a construction project: 2 gallons of water per 10 bags of mix. It needs to be translated from English to Spanish, specifically for an audience in Mexico, where they use the metric system. To truly get the message across, the translator may need to translate the phrase “2 gallons” in to 7.57 liters, converting the unit of measurement so that the workers can get the mix right.
  • Terminology: Words can have several different meanings, depending on context. Take the word “run” in English. includes 396 separate definitions for the word “run.” This sentence technically makes perfect sense in English: While I ran on the treadmill this morning, my doctor tried to run tests to see why I was running a fever, but his equipment had stopped running so he had to run out and get new batteries.  We can even make up our own words or meanings for words that we use only within our business or industry.  I remember working with a client in the tree cutting business on a safety handbook for employees. While discussing translation style, preferred terminology, etc., the client explained that they had some terms only they used that would not make any sense to someone outside the company. I worked with the client to develop a definition of the term, which we then translated to help its Spanish-speaking employees understand the unique lingo. In technical translations, it’s important that the right meaning of each term be conveyed, not just a literal translation.
  • Technical Instructions: when it comes to instructions to build something, create a chemical component, fix or maintain a tool, etc., it is important to have clear instructions. Consider whether there is a difference between twisting something and rotating it. A subject matter expert (either on staff with the client or from inside the industry) can spot the difference and make sure that the “End User” will understand and receive the correct instruction.

At Vocalink Global, we understand the importance of accuracy in technical translations. Our translation services are designed to pair the right subject matter expert linguist with each project so you can rest assured your instructions for setting up an greenhouse discusses the placement of different types flowers, while the optimal bread recipe for your industrial bakery includes flour.

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