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Palexgroup - Scientific Translation: Everything you Need to Know

Milena Miyayeva

Linguistic Assistant Group Lead
4 February 2022

Scientific Translation: Everything you Need to Know

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Did you know that in 2019, the publisher of open-access scientific journals MDPI published over 100,000 scientific articles? With so many articles produced by a single publisher, it’s hard to imagine the avalanche of articles published in every existing scientific journal. Today, science is thriving everywhere, but what if it doesn’t speak the same language as you?

Here’s when scientific translation comes to the rescue, establishing a bridge between scientists and science enthusiasts all around the world. The engineers of this bridge are scientific translators and the bricks are the translation techniques and precise expertise of the translators. In this article we’ll introduce the world of scientific translation to you, and discuss the challenges and practices used by the experts. But before we start, let’s meet with the father branch of scientific translation—technical translation.


(click to show)
  1. What is Technical Translation?
  2. What is Scientific Translation?
  3. Scientific Translation Challenges
    1. Complex terminology
    2. Finding expertise
    3. Adapting style and format
  4. Scientific Translation Techniques
    1. Scientific Translation 101: Style
    2. Terminology 101: How to Get Your Terms Right
    3. Scientific Translator's Guide to Success
  5. Technical & Scientific Document Translation

What is Technical Translation?

You may ask, how are technical translations different from any other? Aren’t all translations the same—just take one language and convert it to another? Surely, in their core, all translations seem alike. But if you’d take a closer look at the subject, you would find a clear distinction between general and technical translations.

General translations deal with broad subjects that require little to no expertise from the translator. The examples of general texts are abundant: from a post you read on Facebook to a news article on BBC. These materials are simple and easy to follow for any reader, and anyone with a decent knowledge of two languages can translate them.

Technical translations are different. This kind of translation tackles technical texts, such as assembly and user manuals, software strings, financial documents, patents, health and safety documents. Such texts are written by experts to educate or instruct the reader. Here’s where they intertwine with scientific texts, focused on sharing scholarly knowledge with a narrow audience.

Technical translations are challenging. The language of technical documents is rich with professional terminology and jargon, often incomprehensible to the public. To deliver a high-quality result, technical translators have to combine their mastery in two languages and expertise in their chosen field. They should be ready to translate technical terms and adapt the material for the target audience.

This is all you need to know before we focus on scientific translation alone. If you want to look further into technical translations, we recommend our extensive guide. Now, let’s move on.

What is Scientific Translation?

Scientific translation is a sub-branch of technical translation. While technical translation has more broad applications, scientific translation focuses on scholarly materials, including journal articles, academic theses, research papers, science webinars, etc. Here are fields of study that often require translation:

  • Medicine and pharmacology: clinical trials, legal documents, research results.
  • Life sciences: papers on biology, astronomy, zoology, chemistry, geology, physics;
  • Social science: papers on anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, economics;
  • Mathematics.
In scientific translation, professionals have to be proficient in the specific field of study. Besides, they must be skilled in both source and target languages, be resourceful and be able to adapt to changing styles of scientific materials.

Scientific Translation Challenges

The essence of scientific texts is in detailed analysis and well-founded explanation of a scientific problem (especially in articles describing research results, hypotheses, theories, etc.). The goal of the translator is to precisely interpret the scientific data and convey the material to the reader in a manner similar, if not identical, to the original style. This condition branches into several challenges that experts face on a daily basis. Take a look at the most common issues that the translators must solve.

Complex terminology

It’s never easy to translate domain-specific terms and jargon, but in scientific translation, this problem sprouts even more nuances and challenges. Scientists often introduce new terms in their research papers, and for the translator, it is quite a challenging task to choose a correct way to adapt the new word to the target language. To solve this problem, a specialist requires both experience and expertise.

Finding expertise

Scientific translation is a very demanding task. A scientific translator has to be:

  • Fluent in the source language;
  • Fluent in the target language;
  • Well-educated in translation techniques;
  • An expert in the chosen field of study.

The expertise of professional translators in the field is enormous. Becoming an expert in scientific translation is a challenge within itself.

Adapting style and format

Scientific texts often follow the form of a monologue. The author introduces a problem, a discussion, and a possible solution to the problem. The language is strict and monotonous, the structure includes long compound sentences that deliver information in detail. Thus, the translator should pay close attention when transferring the grammatical structures of the original to the target language.

Scientific Translation Techniques

How to build a bridge between scientists speaking different languages? First, an expert drafts a blueprint of the bridge—rough translation. Then they check in with a proofreader to weed out errors in the first stage. Then, using the bricks—expert knowledge and an assortment of tools—they build models of the bridge, the translation drafts. The draft then gets the approval of other experts and the contractors and, finally, the translator constructs the real-life bridge—the final translation.

While it sounds easy, in fact, scientific translators have a great deal of responsibility in this section, we will share useful tips that skilled translators use in their work.

Scientific Translation 101: Style

A translator should consider:

  • Usage of abstract and linking verbs: appear, seem;
  • Usage of verb-nominal phrases: conduct research, come to conclusion;
  • Impersonal manner of speech and preference of passive voice over active voice: the research was carried out, the decision was made;
  • Usage of the present tense: present simple is the most commonly used tense in academic writing;
  • Usage of introductory phrases: what is usually considered excessive is advised to use in scientific materials. Words and phrases like “finally, first, second, in conclusion” are often present in academic writing.

Terminology 101: How to Get Your Terms Right

The final and correct translation version should meet the following criteria:

  • A separate term/phrase is appropriately translated within the context;
  • Every term is compliant to a specific term system used in the original text (translator takes into account the chosen field of study);
  • The similarities/differences of specific terms are accounted for based on source material.

But how to translate terminology in the first place? Translation experts use a variety of methods to ensure the terminology in the target language perfectly matches one in the source. Take a look at some of them:

  • Equivalence. The translator scans the target language for a term, equivalent to the original. For example, “an atom” translates equivalently to “el átomo” in Spanish. This is the best way, but impossible in many cases;
  • Concretization. The original term with a more broad meaning is replaced by a similar term with a more specific meaning. This method is used to clarify a term that might have several meanings in the source material. For example, “bird” in scientific translation can be replaced with the bird’s genus (like Columba livia can be a concretization for a pigeon);
  • Generalization. The opposite of the previous method: the more narrow term is replaced by a more general term in a target language. For example, “Taraxacum” (Latin name for a genus of dandelion) in translation might be replaced with “flower” or “dandelion”.
  • Transliteration. The original term is described in letters of the target language. The expert must explain the term, especially if it was never used in the target language before. For example, “bill” is transliterated from English to Japanese in hieroglyphs that are read “bi-ru”;
  • Semantic calque (or loan translation). A term/phrase is borrowed from the source language word-for-word. For example, the word “translation” itself is a calque from Latin “translātiō”.
  • Borrowing. In this method, the translator uses the word in the target text in the same form as it was in a source text. This technique is used when there’s no equivalent to the word in a target language or it’s a new word introduced by the author of the original document. For example, English borrowed the word “résumé” from French

These methods alone won’t allow just everyone to translate the scientific text, but in the hands of the professionals, they are a sharp weapon.

Scientific Translator's Guide to Success

Being a scientific translator isn’t just about considering the right grammatical forms and picking a glossary. For everyone who wonders how to improve the translation quality, there are some professional tips.
Not every scientific document you’ll encounter in your translation journey will be the same. Some materials will be more strict and formal, some will have a simpler style. Some will be flooded with complex new terminology, some will be much easier to comprehend. The role of the translator is to feel the intent of the author and convey their message in its original form. For this, one has to have a flexible and inventive mind, as well as a decent dictionary at hand and adaptive translation skills.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” A famous quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” perfectly describes the pace at which scientific translators must educate themselves. Scientific progress quickly moves forward, with hundreds of articles released every month. New discoveries are made almost every day and to be a successful translator in a chosen field of study, one must be as informed as possible.
Check out the latest books and journals, familiarise yourself with emerging terms, research findings, and read fresh scientific papers. By surrounding yourself with the object of translation, you will become a subject-matter expert and gain confidence.

Educate yourself as much as possible

Going through a long translation process, you might overlook some mistakes in your own work. It is advised to proofread your drafts at every step of the process. You don’t have to always rely on your co-workers to check the text. Machine translation is a popular practice. Computer-assisted translation tools have features to check grammar, consistency and fix errors made in a translation.

Proofread the translation

It’s hard to argue that the translator reads the source almost as many times as the author. A fresh look at the material might reveal mistakes made by the author. What should the translator do about these mistakes? Fix them, of course. If you stumbled upon inconsistencies, discrepancies, and mistakes in diagrams and tables, notify the author, if possible, and correct the mistakes in brackets or footnotes.

Proofread the original

Scientific texts represent information in a form that forbids ambiguity. These texts are often cited by other scientists, so for a translator, it is a question of utmost importance to check and weed out any possible mistakes and vague statements. A discrepancy in a translation might make its way as a citation to another scientific material, damaging all following research and experiments.
Keep things clear and concise

Technical & Scientific Document Translation

Scientific translation is a task both tedious and challenging for a translator. The many conditions, requirements, and limits that academic texts put on the expert’s shoulders make the translation a complex process. The translator must not only be fluent in the language pair but also have deep scientific knowledge.

The work of the translator doesn’t end just in converting material to a different language. The professionals have to adapt the tone of the translated material and do some localization, making sure the context of the material is not offensive towards the target culture. The expert should possess high communication skills to work closely with the client or the author of the original text.

This is why choosing a good scientific translation service is vital to get a stellar result. At Palex, we have been tackling technical and scientific translations for 20 years. Our team of professionals works with over 80 languages and is experienced in various scientific domains. If you’re in need of a trusted translation service company, reach out to us and we’ll gladly discuss your project.

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