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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

5 Steps to Translate Technical Terms from German into English

There is a common misconception that translating language is simply a binary process that involves looking up words in a dictionary and replacing foreign words with the English equivalent. In reality, translation is much more complex that this. A bilingual dictionary can sometimes offer suggestions, but getting it right requires a knowledge of how to use those suggestions properly. Some words have no translation at all, others may require considerable rephrasing, and yet others may convey a mood that is best translated through the use of a specific writing style. Although these challenges definitely impact everyday language, they are especially pronounced when technical terms are translated. Read on to learn the five steps required to overcome these linguistic hurdles and achieve a flawless translation. German into English translation will be used as an example, but these principles can be successfully applied to any two languages.

1. Understand the Context

Understanding the context is the number one way to ensure a technical term is translated properly. If the translation discusses the inner workings of a catalytic converter and you don’t even know what a catalytic converter does, there is no way to produce an accurate translation. The dictionary will probably give you multiple possible translations applicable to various different contexts. Knowing when and how to use each word is key. Let’s take the German word “Sicherung” as an example. This could be translated as “circuit breaker”, “fuse”, “backup computer storage”, “locking mechanism”, or “safety device”. The only way to know which of these is correct, if any, is to know how the word is being used in context. Are you describing a fuse box? A safety door? A computer hard drive?

2. Know What the Source Word Means

With the context in mind, you may also need to dig deeper into the meaning of the word itself. Looking up the definition of the word in a German-German dictionary will help confirm that you are interpreting the meaning of the word correctly. For highly technical translations, it can also be especially helpful to search for videos featuring the word on YouTube or a similar platform. Videos are a great way to see the technology in action and get an idea of how people use the word to talk about the technology in German. Searching the word in Google may also yield articles in German describing how the technology works or discussing related topics. Such texts are an outstanding way to see how the word is typically used and get a better idea of the finer points of its meaning.

3. List Possible Translations

Once you have an idea of what the word means and how it is used in context, you can start a list of preliminary translations. This list should include English words with a similar meaning that are also used in similar technical contexts in the English-speaking world. As you make your list, be sure to note the differences between words. Is this word used only in reference to machines that are turned off? Is that word only used for manufacturing processes carried out in textile factories? Every little difference in meaning and usage matters.

4. Confirm the Context

If you are translating a text about combustion engines, make sure all proposed English terms can also be used to discuss combustion engines in English. If you only find references to the English word in connection with electric engines, it may be the wrong word for the context.

5. Confirm the Meaning

Now it is time to confirm that the meaning and usage of the proposed English translation is equivalent to the meaning and usage of the original German word. This step is similar to Step 2. You will basically be performing the same process, but for the proposed English translations this time. Look up the word in an English-English dictionary. Search for it on YouTube and other video platforms to see how the technology associated with the word works and how it is discussed in context. Search the term on Google and read articles about it. Compare what you find with your findings for the German word. Are there any differences at all in technology usage, word usage, or meaning? If both the German and English materials are nearly identical, you probably have a very good translation.

It may seem that translating technical terminology is a very involved process requiring a high level of linguistic fluency in two languages and extensive technical expertise. That’s because it is! Don’t have time for all of this? Let me make short work of it for you.

Contact me to learn how I can help you set up a technical term translation glossary to make managing your technical terminology easier.

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