In a previous post, I visited lightly on the concept of multiple meanings in a word. In Alice in Wonderland the March Hare gently tells Alice “you should say what you mean”. Many misunderstandings between two people are usually attributed to poor communication. We hear talk about communication skills, but analyzing the reason of the poor communication is a rare sight indeed. Then, we tend to go with logic in our assumption and call someone a “poor communicator” or someone who does not get it. The main problem is that we are using the same words for different meanings.
A customer calls and requests my services as a translator, claiming that the text in question is “non technical”, perhaps in an attempt at getting a competitive (ie, bargain basement cheap) rate. I deal with technical texts on a daily basis but, what do I mean by technical? And here’s the rub, the misunderstanding. If you ask people on the street what a technical document means, they’ll probably associate it with technology, computers or rocket science. That meaning scratches the surface, because technical has at least 6 different meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. A user’s guide to a wristwatch is a technical document because it has some specialized language in it, even though most people would have no trouble understanding it. An IRS publication intended for the general public is also a technical document because it has plain-English words dressed in narrow meanings (tax law). So, it all depends on the situation and the purpose of the document.
To put the argument to rest for now, let’s just say that nontechnical documents mean documents intended for the public in plain English, with no arcane words or obscure meanings.
I recently finished a software verification project for a customer. This involved working on site for 17 days in the Bay Area in Northern California. The software in question is medical in the sense that it involves a powerful microscope and a workhorse of a workstation running Windows XP (64 bits) and 12 GB of RAM. The system is intended for histopathologists and pathologists at clinics and hospitals. They use the microscope to place dozens of slides with specimens inside and then analyze, magnify, create reports and share findings in a network by using this elegant and powerful software.
Now, pathology is just one specialization in medicine, and a specialist would call this program pathology software. For reasons of simplicity, most translation companies would refer to it as medical software. To find and place translators for such a project, they look for medical translators or software translators. Do you start to see the problem here? Many medical translators may have never worked with pathology-related documents, but they have experience with the general language of medicine besides the specialized medical language of their field or domain, for example, radiology, biology, epidemiology or oncology. Now, most translators and translation agencies would consider software translation as any content that uses software-related words, such as RAM, CPU, networking, data packets, wafer, chip fab and hard drive. But there are dozens of subspecialties within the software domain. This point was driven to me a few days ago while I was testing a particular feature in this pathology software with a Belarus-born electrical engineer. I asked him his opinion about NAS (network attached storage) hard drives, and his face drew a blank.
In short, many experts in translating software may have translated specialized medical software with varying degrees of expertise. It is up to the translation company to decide if the combination of experiences is suitable for the project at hand. The selection does not have to be a gamble, though. I am a firm advocate of stating expectations at the beginning of the work relationship to avoid misunderstandings in the end. I am glad my customer saw the whole of my expertise and decided that the mix of experience in and knowledge of software and medical texts struck the right balance for the benefit of their client in Northern California.