Of tomatoes, translators and the importance of context

Car flashing headlights
Sometimes technology doesn’t make life easy for translators. Sometimes translators don’t make life easy for themselves either. I was recently trying to explain to a fellow translator why I always insist on receiving the actual formatted source text before starting work, but I think he thought I was just being awkward and a little bit old fashioned. I mean seriously, who, in this day and age, needs to see what a text will look like when it’s printed? He didn’t say as much but I could detect this young hipster’s incredulity at my “old-world” approach.


Now it might well seem old-fashioned and a little pernickity, but the fact that the files to be translated were in XML format and translated using a TM tool meant that, without the formatted source text, the translator was effectively translating blind. The same applies to any text you translate using translation memory tools.

Example of text in XML

A typical text in XML format

When you’re dealing with a text like this, it’s all too easy to miss out on the kind of contextual information that would otherwise help you to make appropriate translation decisions. If you can’t tell whether a segment is a caption for an image, a chapter heading or even an ordinary paragraph sentence how do you know what’s the best way to translate it? If you see the word Garderobe in the text, but can’t see the photograph that goes with it of a sign on a wall with the same word, how do you know not to translate it? You need to know what came before the sentence, what comes after it and what is around it before you can properly understand and translate it.


I always thought it was obvious that the context of a sentence is important when translating but apparently not everyone shares this view. But how do you explain a fairly nebulous and intangible idea like context?

Car headlight controls
After a couple of rounds of emails, which didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere, I started thinking of how people communicate with each other by flashing their car headlights. This simple act of flicking a switch several times usually means “go ahead, you can pull out in front of me“. When the recipient of your good deed thanks you by flashing their hazard lights, you flash your headlights again to say “you’re welcome” – same sign, same interaction but slightly different context.
Other times you might flash your lights at someone who is driving too slowly, driving on the wrong side of the road, or at someone who cuts in front of you in fast-moving traffic and the meaning is similarly clear. Some people even warn other drivers about a speed camera by flashing their lights. The number and frequency of flashes may change but the same basic “utterance” has a number of different meanings depending on the context.


To complicate matters, this simple language (which has been likened in sophistication to the communication skills of insects) is also culture-dependent. In France, apparently, flashing your lights means “stay where you are, I am not letting you pull out in front of me“. But you can still understand what each flash means because, assuming you’re paying attention, you are aware of the context and what is happening around you.


Although it’s probably a silly example that has nothing to do with translation per se, it does sum up the idea of context. Pretty much anyone can translate a sentence, but not everyone can come up with the right translation at the right time. To paraphrase the late Miles Kington, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Let’s hope my translator friend figures it out too.


Workshop on Technical Translation

ITIA Technical Translation Workshop FlyerTo mark the official launch of my book Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, I will be giving a workshop on technical translation at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin on 20th October. This workshop is part of the Irish Translators’ & Interpreters’ Association’s continuing professional development series and will give participants a hands-on introduction to some of the key issues in technical translation.

Some of the topics which will be covered include:

  • What technical translation is and why it is so important;
  • Typical technical texts and their features;
  • Analysing texts and developing translation strategies;
  • Developing your writing skills;
  • Understanding your audience;
  • Common pitfalls and how to deal with them.

For details on how to register, visit the ITIA website.


::: Update :::
My PowerPoint presentation from this workshop is now available here.


Helping Learners Figure it out for Themselves

Image via www.gourmetmomonthego.comI’ve been working a lot lately on creating e-learning lessons based on branching scenarios. Where branching scenarios differ from traditional lessons is that they are less linear and they put learners in specific situations where they have to make decisions and then see the results of those decisions play out. In cases where we’re trying to change attitudes, approaches or develop learners’ skills (as opposed to just knowledge), branching scenarios help us move towards an interactive model where learners make the same types of decisions they’d make in a real-world environment.


As an instructional designer what you’re trying to do is move away from a one-way model of learning where you just supply information without any real learner interaction or engagement. I think most people have taken some sort of course where the biggest challenge was to stay awake long enough to click the “Next” button over and over and over again! Branched interactions come in useful when you’re trying to help people think about problems and make appropriate decisions. We’re not so concerned about specific, step-by-step procedures as we are on the principles that guide those decisions.
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A Translator’s Guide to Building a Website

I recently gave a talk to translation students at Dublin City University on how to set up and build your own website. For translators, having a website is pretty essential these days but many people think it’s a lot more complicated than it actually is. This presentation breaks the process into a number of fairly simple steps. I hope you find it useful.


Update: I gave a modified version of this talk at the
Irish Translators’ & Interpreters’ Association CPD session on starting out in the translation industry on 21 September 2013. You can download the presentation slides here.



Scientific & Technical Translation Explained

Cover of Scientific and Technical Translation Explained

Scientific and Technical Translation Explained

A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Beginners

Jody Byrne

ISBN: 978-1-905763-36-8 (pbk), 230 pages


From microbiology to nuclear physics and chemistry to software engineering, scientific and technical translation is a complex activity that involves communicating specialised information on a variety of subjects across multiple languages. It requires expert linguistic knowledge and writing skills combined with the ability to research and understand complex concepts and present them to a range of different audiences. Using a combination of interdisciplinary research, real-world examples drawn from professional practise and numerous learning activities, Scientific and Technical Translation Explained equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to get started in this exciting and challenging field.

The book explores the importance of scientific and technical translation and the environment within which it takes place. This includes an examination of its origins, history and the people, tools and processes involved in translating scientific and technical texts. You will learn that effective scientific and technical translation depends on a deep understanding of the people for whom these texts are designed and written. Building on this, the book provides an overview of the main features of scientific and technical discourse as well as the different types of documents which are produced.

A series of detailed case studies highlighting various translation challenges is used to introduce a range of strategies for dealing with them. Next, the book introduces some general translation approaches before outlining specific scenarios which translators may encounter as well as ways of avoiding potential problems. A variety of resources and exercises are included in the book to make your learning effective and enjoyable. You can also find a range of additional resources and activities on Facebook.
Scientific and Technical Translation Explained is available from Routledge Publishing.


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