The Importance of Subject Matter Expertise in Translation

Subject Matter Expertise (SME)

When selecting a translation service, there are a number of different questions you should ask before offering them your business. Specifically, you want to know if their translators have

  • Native-level fluency in the source and target languages
  • Current cultural understanding relating to both languages
  • Subject matter expertise

This article takes a look at the third of these items: subject matter expertise.

What is Subject Matter Expertise in Translation?

In the world of translation, subject matter expertise refers to the translator’s knowledge of the material being translated.

In other words, if your texts are legal documents being translated from English to Arabic, does the translator have an understanding and expertise in the American and Arabic legal system? Should you be looking to translate a cardiology text, does the translator have knowledge and expertise in the field of cardiology?

There are three main types of subject matter expertise: Academic, Experiential, and Performance-based. While these areas may have different designations in various documents and be referenced differently by different services, the fundamental attributes of each is the same regardless of label.

Academic: A translator with an academic level of subject matter experience likely has an advanced degree in the field. This translator not only has the linguistic capacity to translate the documents, but has studied the subject matter, written papers in the field, and has an understanding of the associated language.

Experiential: A translator with an experiential level of knowledge has worked in the field and understands the subject matter from first-hand experience. These translators are often retired experts who are working in translation part-time.

Performance-based: A translator with a performance-based expertise currently works in the field and is up-to-date on practice, procedure, terminology, and regulations.

This is not to say that translators with an academic or experiential knowledge do not stay up on these areas as well, but the performance-based translator does so to keep their careers on-target. These translators typically translate part-time to enhance their knowledge in the field, to earn extra money, or for more altruistic reasons such as the desire to see information spread to a global audience.

The Importance of Subject Matter Expertise

Imagine being a cardiologist and receiving a translated document that reads as if it were translated by a first-year medical student, or worse.

  • Language: One of the first signs that your translation was not completed by an expert is a lack of technical language. If common terms are used to replace what should be highly specialized language not only are you in jeopardy of sounding less than professional, but the message conveyed may miss your specific intent.
  • Signs and Symbols: Each field has nomenclature that is particular to the discipline being discussed. Signs, symbols, abbreviation, and so forth are essential to the understanding of your message, but those same signs and symbols likely represent something entirely different within a different field of study.
  • Procedures: Lexemes are rarely translated word-for-word; instead, the words are translated into what they mean in the target language. This often involves one word being explained with a phrase, sentence, or even a paragraph depending on the language. When explaining a procedure, it is imperative that the translator is able to know not just what the words mean, but why they are being used in the way they are and how they fit into the overall picture.

If the translator does not have the same level of knowledge as the person or persons who will be reading the translated text, they will not be able to understand if the document is meeting its intended goal.

Beyond the medical or legal texts that should have specialized translators, business contracts are essential elements of commerce and vary considerably from country to country and culture to culture.

Accurately translating a contract from one language to another requires a lot more than transcribing words. Other fields that should consider the use of field-specific translators include construction, education, mining, IT, and pharmaceuticals.

Information in our world is changing rapidly as are the social and cultural situations around the globe. Translators who are not aware of the advances in the fields, the complexities associated with the subject matter, or the way the topics fit within the culture and region to which the documents are being translated, might be missing important nuances or worse.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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