Why Technical Translation Requires A Subject Matter Expert

by Nicholas Strozza

Technical Translation requires a specialized translator to translate into the industry of their know-how. When it comes to being able to translate technical documents, you want to be sure a subject matter expert (SME) translator is assigned to the project.

When should you hire an SME translator for your technical translation?

Translators are experts in the translation industry, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily subject matter experts of technical content. For instance, while you can trust your English professor friend to help you edit a document for grammar and syntax, you would probably ask your engineer friend to check your math.

When it comes to technical translation, an SME translator will ensure your document translates correctly into the target niche. Subject matter expert translators make sure your technical translation uses the appropriate terminology within the industry.

What is SME translation?

SME translation is comprised of a linguistic team that specializes in a specific industry such as oil and gas, manufacturing, and medical. An SME translation team ensures that the terminology will be well-received by your target audience.

Let’s say you’re translating a manual for an advanced medical treatment device. In this particular case, your subject matter expert will be experienced in medical translations or even have a degree in a related area of specialization, such as healthcare. If you’re translating an eye examination machine’s manual, you’ll want to look for an SME translator with experience localizing optometry terminology. Essentially, your SME should be an in-country expert with a strong command of your target language in addition to the source language and industry.

Many times SME’s have degree’s in their area of expertise, whether that be a translation degree or a degree that they earned prior to becoming a professional translator.

What happens to poor technical translations?

The consequences of failing to have an SME translation will depend on the purpose of the document. Generally, technical documents contain highly important information regarding procedures and practices. In many cases, these documents detail the proper operation of equipment. As a result, high-quality translations are imperative. Otherwise, you may be at risk for:

  • Industrial accidents as a result of equipment misuse or improper operation
  • Ineffective or offensive marketing materials
  • Delivering inappropriate care to patients in need
  • Compromising important court cases or inciting a claimFailing company systems or infrastructures

Can't translators who are not SMEs use a technical dictionary?

While SME translators may use a technical dictionary for reference, a translator who solely uses a dictionary to learn the terminology during the translation process cannot be called an SME. Simply put, there is no substitute for years of education and field training when it comes to understanding high-level specialized processes.

If a translator can’t fully understand what he or she is reading, he or she won’t be able to provide an accurate translation. Translation involves connotation and context as much as barebones definitions. Without having a background in the niche subject, a translator will not adequately understand the ambiguities and nuances of the industry’s jargon.

What are the benefits of having an SME translator?

In addition to your translation team, having an SME expert can significantly boost your translation efforts. With one of these experts, you can expect to see these benefits:

  • Access to experts who completely understand the content, terminology and regulation requirements of your technical niche
  • A higher level of quality in your translations overall
  • An improved turnaround time from project from start to finish
  • Minimal amount of questions asked during the translation process
  • An initial tester for your content as the SME is a part of your target audience and can provide insight into how a target community will react to certain information or formats

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When do you need a subject matter expert?

 An SME translator should be a part of any translation project in order to yield the most accurate and quality localization possible. Whether that be a small one-page educational letter to parents or a complex manufacturing operator manual it is important to have translators that are experienced in translating that type of content to be the ones working on your project. Similar to hiring an English writer to develop copy- would you really want an eCommerce fashion expert writing your legal privacy policy?

When it comes to technical translation, having an SME work on your project is very important. 

Consider these five questions:

  • Are you reaching a highly educated audience?
  • Will your readers have specialized training or educational backgrounds?
  • Will your translation serve to guide important, delicate or dangerous processes?
  • Is the target industry extremely regulated?
  • Does your niche market frequently experience regulatory changes?

As a general rule of thumb, if your translation requires knowledge, expertise or experience that requires specific terminology, make sure you are working with a localization agency that utilizes subject matter experts for its technical translation services. 

Nick Strozza

"Working at Interpro allows me to be part of a talented team where we are collaborating together to exceed our client’s expectations for each project."