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What is technical translation and who is an SME translator?

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

When it comes to translation, not only do translators have to face linguistic challenges, but also acquire a deep understanding of the document that goes beyond its linguistic dimension. In combination with excellent language skills, translators are expected to have command of the subject area, which will vary based on the type of text translated.

Have you ever heard of SME translators? SME stands for Subject Matter Expert and, as the name suggests, it refers to the translator’s knowledge of the material being translated. When selecting a professional translator, you should really consider their subject matter expertise, besides their native-level fluency and current cultural understanding of both the source and target language, of course.

When do you need a technical translator?

Some projects may be handled by translators with no subject matter expertise, while others definitely need a specialized translator; this is particularly true for several types of industries, like legal, healthcare, IT etc.

Ask an Expert cube on a man's hand

All professional translators, like us at Launch in Translation, are experts in the translation industry. However, translating very specific content requires very specific expertise in that subject matter (and this is where each one of us is different).

Generally, we refer to translations of this kind as “technical translations”, performed by a technical translator who understands the subject matter and its specialized terms in both the source and target languages. Common technical texts may include scientific articles, software strings, legal documents etc. Texts of this kind are mainly characterized by the use of technical terminology, which is of paramount importance to guarantee consistency.

SMEs translators have an in-depth knowledge that general translators don’t have.

Glasses on a dictionary

Unfortunately, it takes more than grabbing a technical dictionary for a translator to become a specialized translator. In fact, translating technical texts necessarily requires an above-average understanding of the topic. Regardless of their ability to speak and write in a specific language, general translators won’t have the knowledge and expertise needed to be familiar with the terminology and jargon being used in a specific translation field, as well as every dynamics concerning that niche. Consequently, technical translation is often more expensive compared to general translations and usually requires more time for delivery.

Isn’t accuracy vital in all industries?

Translation accuracy should be the top priority whether the translation is general or technical. However, technical translations often have additional implications and needs, such as being compliant with local and international standards (e.g. patents or safety instructions). When accuracy isn’t met, your business may be at risk.

Doctor writing a report

A bad translation may have very severe repercussions, such as giving the wrong treatment to a hospital patient. In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was taken to a hospital in a coma. His family, who spoke Spanish, informed that he could be “intoxicado”, assuming he had eaten something that caused him food poisoning. However, the interpreter used the word “intoxicated”, leading the doctor to a diagnosis of a drug overdose. Long story short, Ramirez ended up quadriplegic (you can read the full story here).

Other drastic consequences may include marketing material that offends the target culture, a patent may be rejected, or an accident (and we want to avoid all this).

When it comes to technical translation, there is nothing as important as accuracy. Taking the time to evaluate and choose the most appropriate professional translator for your project will definitely help you prevent errors and damages to your business.

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