Scientific Translation Challenges

The scientific translation is considered to be one of the most difficult types of translation. Its large volumes of text, complex vocabulary, special grammar and narrative style set the bar high. Moreover, the quality of work must be impeccable. The scientific community is the most rigorous and demanding audience. The presentation of research results in the form of articles, reports, monographs, or textbooks may fail to achieve its goal if its translation is done poorly.

Types of Scientific Texts

The types of scientific texts that a translator may have to deal with are diverse. They differ in volume, ways of presentation, and the abundance of facts, figures, and calculations. Let’s take a look at the main types.

Articles. Small in volume, such texts contain a review of one or two aspects of the issue studied. This is perhaps the most common type of scientific texts for translation. Researchers in various fields publish their work abroad in academic journals and collections of research papers.

Research Reports.  Such texts are directly related to experiments, tests, or other practical work. They often contain a great number of formulae, calculations, and technical drawings.

Monographies. A complete study of a particular issue, collected in a single booklet. Usually great in volume, over 100 pages. Translated for publication abroad.

Theses. The actual text of a study. Such texts can consist of several chapters, including extensive practical sections with formulae and calculations, as well as appendices with descriptions of experiments, general drawings, and technical drawings. They are submitted to an academic board for review. Such texts require translation for review by foreign experts.

Textbooks. Translated for publication abroad. Designed for school and university students, graduate students, students of advanced courses. Due to their educational focus, they are usually simpler thematically and content-wise.

Each of these types has its own particular characteristics for translation, although they share common features in the narrative style.

Scientific Prose Style: Translation Challenges

A number of particular features determine whether the text belongs to the category of scientific texts:

The level of vocabulary used. The concentration of terms and field-specific words. Their comprehension is a mandatory part of the work of an expert in technical topics.

The level of grammar. The use of special phrases: impersonal sentences and sentence fragments.

Stylistic level. Accurate and concise language. The complete absence of any fiction attributes: metaphors, comparisons, metonyms.

When translating a scientific text, it is important to consider all of the above. The translated text should be absolutely identical to the source text in terms of stylistics.

Translation of Terms

A particularly difficult aspect of working with scientific texts is the interpretation and correct comprehension of terms. What are the main mistakes made by inexperienced translators?

Deceptive clarity. Terms are ambiguous and can “wander” from one field of scientific knowledge to another with a change in meaning. A translator may take into account any single meaning of a word thereby distorting the meaning of the whole work. The context can help in such a matter.

Creation of “in-house” terms. Sometimes, researchers introduce new concepts into their scientific fields. If linguists can’t find any proper equivalents in the dictionary, they create their own terms. However, it is better to seek the advice of a field expert or the author in such cases to avoid distorting the meaning of the term.

Substantiation of concepts. To make an article or a monograph more understandable, the expert may supplement the terms with definitions or, in other words, expand them. Sometimes this line of thinking can be erroneous. For example, the researcher uses the term “potential barrier”, and the translator adds that this is a potential energy barrier.  This is an accurate definition, but if the translator uses the term “energy-intensive”, then this would already be a mistake.

Ways to overcome such difficulties are quite simple. It’s essential for a translator to immerse in the topic, to study special literature, to delve into the specifics. The second option is to have a permanent adviser that can suggest the right alternative, give advice, and explain obscure topics. Many professional agencies seek out translators with two degrees. Since this is not common, the knowledge of independent experts is often used instead.

Design Challenges

The scientific language apparatus is extremely unified. However, there are a number of details that vary in different countries. These are not very important but they do matter when they concern the design of a thesis.

For example, letters are often used for bulleted lists.  When translating into Russian, it is better to save the English letters in the text, to avoid getting confused in the search for Russian equivalents.

The translation of section names may also vary. In English, a section may be called a paragraph, an item, a clause. Some slight variations of the meaning do exist between these words. However, does the name of a small section really matter? A paragraph, a clause, or whatever else? In most cases, not particularly. In such situations, the expert has the final say. It is just important to preserve the uniformity and use the same term throughout the text.

Summary: General Scientific Translation Rules

To summarize, the following features are important for scientific translation:

  • Accuracy. This is not creative writing, so the translated version meaning should be as close to that of the source text as possible.
  • Logic. Theories are always based on an analysis of the body of causes and conclusions or consequences. Maintaining a clear structure for an article or a monograph is critical to their understanding.
  • Objectivity. This is the main feature of the scientific prose style which is most important to maintain during translation. The translator’s own thoughts and guess-work should be avoided, and the author’s idea should be preserved in its original form.

As long as translators follow these rules, they can do their work at a high level of expertise.


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