Get your documents checked before getting them translated

By Nicolas Gambardella

In some domains, the most challenging part of language translation (in a broad sense) is the translation itself (in a narrow sense), i.e., converting the words from one language to the other while accurately conveying the meaning and the tone of the original document. In the scientific and technical domains, this is not always the case. It is not unfrequent that most of the time I spend on a text is, in fact, devoted to understanding the source in English. 

The main reason is that many of those documents are not written by domain specialists proficient in the good William’s language (Shakespeare, not The Conqueror). Most people working in highly technical domains, such as biomedical and pharmaceutical, have been reading, writing, and speaking English for many years. They have produced research publications, technical reports, grant applications, and lectures for international audiences. Communicating with others in English has never been a problem. When times come to write a brochure, a presentation for HCPs or patients, or a website, they naturally assume their usual English level is sufficient. Rather than spending time speaking with a professional writer, who would struggle to understand the technical subtleties and cost money, isn’t it quicker to do the job yourself? After all, who knows better than yourself what you want to say?

I think this is true. The initial raw material should come from the horse’s mouth. However, we should all be acutely aware that being able to converse with our colleagues is rarely sufficient when producing patient- or consumer-ready documents. During a conversation, half the meaning is conveyed through body language, visual support, and implicit shared knowledge. Your English colleague knows what you truly mean when you use those dozens of anglicised French words (replace by your own native language). They might even find that charming. Much less charming will it be for a potential client or your poor translator. The former might be put off by what could be perceived as a lack of professionalism. The latter might mistranslate your document, with potentially dire consequences.

I recently finished reviewing a medical marketing brochure for a foreign company. Many sentences were grammatically incorrect, to the point of becoming meaningless. Most sentences were convoluted, too long, repetitive. The paragraphs were heavy and hard to read. A significant amount of words were slightly off, definitely not what a native English marketing brochure would have used (or any native text for that matter). Finally, the formatting was completely inconsistent (e.g., usage of capitals or abbreviations). 

I do not think this brochure reflected well on an otherwise excellent company. I believe that if the foreign person who wrote the English text had taken the time to reverse-translate it with a tool like DeepL, they would have been horrified to see that the result was not at all what they intended. I hope the French translation will alleviate some of the issues. I also provided a complimentary list of suggestions for the English version, as I often do when translating such documents.

We should always ask someone else to edit and proofread our texts. If possible, this should be someone with no in-depth knowledge of the subject. Ideally, the pipeline would comprise several verification layers, possibly combined in fewer individuals or, on the contrary, repeated with several people:

  • Verification of the technical content. Are you even using the correct English words?
  • Marketing and localisation. The US is not the UK. Patients are not HCPs. HCPs are not researchers.
  • Proofreading. Itself with three subcategories: language correctness (grammar, punctuation, and spelling); elegance and fluidity; terminology and visual consistency throughout the document(s).

Now, to finish on a lighter note, some language-specific advice for scientists:

Starting, of course, by the Frenchs. My dear fellow countrymen, the fact that English and French share the same sentence structure does not mean you can replace the words one by one and keep the French term if you do not know the English equivalent.

It would be best if Italians gave a subject to all verbs, who feel lonely otherwise.

As bothersome as it seems, Russians must use articles in front of nouns, at least from time to time.

Chinese should realise that spelling in Latin is as essential as the correct stroke in Hànzì. Vowels are not interchangeable.

While the pursuit of accuracy is laudable, German writing in English should seek to limit the number of words in their sentence to double digits.

To finish, I would love to hear all your comments, corrections, and criticisms regarding this post.