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Understanding the differences between General Translation and Technical Translation

Vincent Devisme

Vincent Devisme

Published on 23 October 2023 • 3 mins. to read

Translators are often seen as generalists, but in reality there are many areas of specialisation in translation. These include general translation and technical translation. This article explores the specific skills and knowledge required for these two types of translation.

General translation: a versatile and adaptable approach

General translation refers to the translation of non-specialised texts, i.e. documents covering a wide range of subjects such as current affairs, culture, politics or the humanities. As we shall see, generalist translators need to be highly adaptable and intellectually curious in order to tackle all these varied subjects.

Skills required for generalist translators

To be effective in this field, a generalist translator must have a solid command of the source and target languages, as well as an excellent understanding of the associated cultures. Knowledge of idioms, common expressions and stylistic subtleties is also essential if the original message is to be rendered with nuance and precision. Finally, a sound general knowledge greatly facilitates the work of the generalist translator, who must regularly read and research to understand the context of a text.

Technical translation: cutting-edge, sector-specific expertise

Technical translation, on the other hand, involves transcribing documents specialising in a specific field, such as patents, technical manuals, safety data sheets or scientific reports. In this case, the translator must have specific, in-depth skills to understand the subject correctly and render the technical language accurately.

Skills required for technical translators

As well as having a perfect command of the source and target languages, technical translators must also have training or proven professional experience in the sector concerned. This will enable them to understand the terms and concepts related to the technical field and guarantee a coherent and accurate translation. In addition, good knowledge of the standards and regulations in force is essential for tackling certain sensitive issues, such as those relating to health, safety and the environment.

The ability to use specific terminology research and project management tools is also a major asset for technical translators, who often have to work with experts in the sector to validate their lexical choices and ensure that they are relevant.

Complementary approaches to meet different needs

Although there are significant differences between general and technical translation, the two fields are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, some translation projects may require a combination of skills to address both general and technical aspects. For example, an economic analysis report on a company in the pharmaceutical sector will require the translator to understand financial jargon as well as being familiar with terms relating to the pharmaceutical industry.

Choosing the right translator profile for your project

To guarantee the quality of a translation, it is essential to select a professional whose skills match the specific needs of the text to be translated. So if you need a tourist brochure translated, call on a generalist translator who will be able to capture the light, attractive tone of the original document. On the other hand, if your project involves the translation of a user manual for medical equipment, you should choose a translator specialising in this technical field, who will be able to bring rigour and precision to your text.

Conclusion: choosing the right translator for the right context

Ultimately, whether for general or technical translation, it is above all the translator’s skills and knowledge that will make the difference. So it’s important to be clear about your expectations and to choose the right professional. But this diversity also reflects the richness and complexity of the translation profession, where each assignment represents a new challenge.

A few examples of general and technical translation projects

To illustrate the distinctions between these two types of translation, the following non-exhaustive list shows examples of projects corresponding to each one:

  • General translation: press articles, blogs, websites, novels, essays, non-specialised legal texts, commercial correspondence, video scripts, etc.
  • Technical translation: technical data sheets, user manuals, product sheets, scientific reports, annual reports, patents, quality procedures, standards, sector-specific practical guides, etc.

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