Translation Essentials – Academic Translation

Academic Translation

Academic texts play a unique role in the lives of people around the world. These texts are unlike any other documents. Academic works span a number of genres, styles, and purposes. From theoretical to technical, and from liberal arts to the hard sciences, these texts are meant to shape thought and challenge imagination. They are meant to inspire and indoctrinate, to editorialize and to entertain.

The very nature of an academic text provides some serious challenges for translators, and some fields of study encompass many more complex issues than others. While all translations require diligence, academic texts are in a league of their own.

Consider the variations in style and content. The hard sciences (physics, chemistry, geology, etc) are highly technical in nature. Concepts are predominately universal and do not vary based on region or language. Literary fields, however, are filled with colloquialisms and figurative language that is often very hard to convey from one language to another. Subject matter that makes sense in one culture may be completely lost on another. Social sciences bring in yet more challenges. Topics cover ideologies and concepts that vary with time and place and rarely mean the same thing from one country to the next.

Challenges of Academic Translation

There is not a single list of all the challenges a translation service faces when preparing an academic text for translation. Many questions must first be answered.

Text style Number of Charts, Graphs, etc. Period Language
Text format Audience Ideological adjustments
Purpose Degree of acculturation Cultural adjustments

The answers to these questions will determine the extent to which machine-assisted translation systems

can be used on a document. The more technical and universal the text, the more beneficial CAT services are to the translator. Texts that have less lexical standardization and clarity are not as well suited for this type of translation service.

Many texts in the humanities, especially the social sciences pose special challenges. These texts often deal with terms, ideas and concepts that are understood in a single region, were understood during a particular period or have highly contrasted meanings within conflicting cultures. This means that many times the standard adjustments made to localize a document and create cultural relevance would not be applied to these texts.

There is also the temptation to modernize text. When dealing with history or past eras, putting modern concepts, ideas, beliefs, or even lexical and grammatical items could be considered anachronistic.

Most translators want their documents to read like an original document. Academic texts often do not lend themselves to this luxury. The very nature of academic texts often implies that the target audience is reading the document to learn something and must adjust themselves to the document and not the other way around. In this case, it is okay for the translation to actually sound like it is a translation.

Notes to Consider Prior to Translation

Before you translate an academic text, there are a number of things you want to consider that many other translation services do not have to worry about.

  1. Do you have the rights to the text: This is easiest if you are the author; even then, if you do not have full international publication rights you still may be facing an up-hill battle. If the work is already published, you may need a contract with the publisher as well. Further, you must make sure all publication rights are secure not just in your home country, but internationally. There are vast differences in publication requirements from country to country.
  2. Terminology: Decide up front whether you are going to have your words, phrases, and concepts localized or if they will remain as they are even in the target language. The same concept goes for the modernization of text; do you want your text to read just like you wrote it, even if it is out of date stylistically or grammatically? Or, do you want your work updated. Hint: if the text is about people of the 1920’s, you don’t want things modernized.
  3. Technical jargon, abbreviations, and the like face the same questions as terminology: Should these literary devices be footnoted and explained, transcreated, or transliterated? Unlike other fields, archaic and out of place devices are often not used inappropriately or as a stylistic element, but it may be required by the content of the text.
  4. Subject matter: If your subject matter is specialized, you want to ensure your translation service employs translators with expertise in your field. Knowing the “language” of the field ensures that words are properly used and applied. “Vector” means something very different to a biologist and physicist. It means something different still to a social scientist. A literary text may choose any of the above based on the content of the story. A single letter could change an entire mathematics or scientific formula, while an inaccurate transcreation of a manifesto could dramatically alter the intent of a philosophical paper.
  5. Syntax: Within most translation areas, translators are given the freedom to make adjustments according to culture and localization needs. In academic texts, this can be very damaging to the content. Many authors express their emotions and intent as much through syntax as they do lexical selection and terminology. While long flowing sentences may not be favored in English, to break up an highly complex, longer sentence from a different language during translation may destroy the spirit of the message. Within business documents, the “foreignness” of translated documents may not be appropriate, but in many academic texts, to lose it may be highly detrimental.
  6. Ideology: Academic texts by their nature are meant to share a viewpoint, teach a concept, or promote thought. These concepts often cause ideological conflicts. In most translations, the globalization and localization of texts would alter information to limit cultural conflict and avoid offense. Many times academic texts are offensive by design and the creation of culturally sensitive text may compromise the very concept the author sought to promote.

There are many challenges involved in translating academic texts. Even still, they are translated successfully every day. When choosing a translation service, you need to know the questions that need to be asked, the answers you need to hear, and the service that need to be provided in order to ensure your project meets your academic translation needs.

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

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