Scientific and Technical Translation

Maeve Olohan (2016)

London, UK & New York, USA: Routledge, 253 p.

Reviewed by: Sofia Malamatidou

Scientific and technical texts represent a large proportion of all texts translated nowadays, and many translator-training programmes provide students with training in scientific and technical translation. However, until recently books addressing the challenges of scientific and technical translation have been scarce. Apart from Wright and Wright’s (1993) Scientific and Technical Translation, which is probably outdated by now, the only contemporary resource available is Byrne’s (2012) Scientific and Technical Translation Explained: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Beginners. This year a very noteworthy book has been added to that list: Maeve Olohan’s (2016) Scientific and Technical Translation, published by Routledge. What distinguishes it from Byrne’s book is the fact that the chapters are organised around representative genres of scientific and technical writing, with rich contextual information, while readers are encouraged to develop a critical understanding of how translation of each of these genres can be carried out.

The book is broadly organised into three parts and consists of seven chapters. The first part (chapters one and two) addresses general issues related to scientific and technical translation. The second part (chapters three to five) focuses on specific genres of technical writing, while the last part (chapters six and seven) focuses on scientific texts. At the end of each chapter, there is a good number of activities, as well as useful suggestions for further reading. The book begins with a captivating introduction, which emphasises the importance of developing critical reflection and research skills in trainee scientific and technical translators.

The first chapter offers a distinction between science and technology and an overview of the translation profession in terms of workplace configurations, as well as of the skills that scientific and technical translators need to develop. Such information is valuable to anyone interested in a career in translation, not necessarily specialising in the technical or scientific fields, and is useful reading material for any courses aiming at developing translation skills. This is followed by a discussion of some key concepts of functionalist approaches to translation, e.g. communicative purpose and translation brief. The importance of this chapter lies in the fact that it manages to contextualise scientific and technical translation, and provide the necessary theoretical tools for its examination.

Chapter two examines the practical tools, which can be used in scientific and technical translation. Terminology presents one the biggest challenges in any specialised translation field, and as a result this chapter focuses considerably on translation difficulties related to it. A large part of this chapter is dedicated to corpus tools and how these can be used at different stages of the translation activity to address the challenges presented by terminology. Readers are guided through the process of creating their own corpora, but also on how to access existing corpus resources on the web. The focus on corpora is a very welcome addition to translation training. Although this is not the first book to suggest their importance in the translation profession (e.g. Zanettin et al. 2003; Zanettin 2012), the very practical and step-by-step approach employed here conveys clearly the advantages of using corpus resources in a matter of a couple dozen of pages.

In chapter three, readers are introduced to technical instructions, which is the first genre examined in the book. First, their general characteristics and typical rhetorical features are discussed. Then, translation problems and difficulties, both linguistic and non-linguistic, are examined, and examples are provided from a technical document and its translations into German and Arabic. The fact that considerable emphasis is placed on non-linguistic problems allows translation to be understood as an activity that deals not only with language, but also with other culture-specific features of texts. However, this may be seen as happening at the expense of a more in-depth discussion of linguistic features, e.g. how declarative and motivational information is expressed differently cross-linguistically, or how genre conventions might differ in different languages.

Chapter four deals with technical data sheets and brochures. Their typical features are presented, accompanied by a wide range of examples, and the problems these might pose for translation are examined. This chapter is organised differently from the previous one, and each feature is surveyed in depth, in terms of its communicative purpose, but also as a possible source of difficulty for translation, and the author also suggests how such difficulties might be addressed. This organisation is particularly successful in allowing the reader to gain a holistic view of the genre, in terms of its general characteristics, and a more in-depth understanding of its particularities when it comes to translation.

The next chapter focuses on patents and is again organised differently from the previous two. The author provides detailed information on the context of production of patents, and readers gain a good understanding of how and why they are organised in the way they are, and what decisions affect the production of this text type. Information is also provided in terms of online resources and job opportunities related to the translation of patents. Some general principles of patent translation are discussed towards the end of this chapter. Documentary translation, i.e. a translation that is presented as a report of the communication between the source text author and source text receiver, is promoted by the author as the most appropriate strategy to be adopted when translating such documents.

Chapters six and seven deal with genres that belong to the realm of scientific writing. Chapter six discusses scientific research articles and abstracts, and one of its main aims is to develop pragmatic competence in translators, and familiarise them with the different ways available for generating and communicating scientific knowledge in different languages. As a result, it focuses considerably more than previous chapters on linguistic features, and readers can develop analytical skills by identifying and analysing the rhetorical and metadiscursive functions of these text types. Compared to previous chapters, chapter six encourages critical reflection more actively, as it invites readers to consider how translators might contribute to the generation of knowledge, and how they can position themselves in relation to the dominance of English. Although the author does not clearly state whether she agrees with Bennett (2007) that translators can commit epistemological destruction through translation, it is possible that she shares at least some of Bennett’s views. This is further evidenced by the fact that there is no reference to more moderate attitudes on the topic, such as the one expressed by House (2003).

The final chapter examines popular science, and, as previous chapters have done, begins by offering a rich description of the context of science popularisation and how it is related to scientific writing and other public discourses. Two main categories of popular science texts are examined in more detail, namely science in the news, e.g. newspapers and news websites, and international editions of popular science magazines. Cross-cultural differences are discussed in both cases, but the discussion is considerably more detailed in the case of the latter, where two English articles from National Geographic and their translations into a range of different languages are examined. Finally, some other categories of popular science products are mentioned (documentaries, websites, books), as well as the opportunities that citizen science, e.g. initiatives like TED, offer for gaining experience in translation through volunteering.

The activities available at the end of each chapter are carefully designed to allow for a gradual development of relevant skills, beginning with a familiarisation of some of the main features of the genres in question, and an examination of possible cross-cultural differences. These activities aim to develop critical thinking in trainee translators and offer an excellent preparation to the actual translation tasks that follow them. By adopting this stepped approach to activities, the book successfully achieves its aim of highlighting the importance of critical reflection in translation and encouraging translators to develop it. Activities are also sufficiently open-ended, and can be adjusted based on individual needs and preferences. While no activity explicitly invites group work, it is not difficult to imagine how some of the activities might be used as a spring board for group discussions.

The main strength of the book is that it takes into consideration theoretical models and frameworks that can help translators in their job, most notably functionalism. As a result, it manages to bridge the divide between theory and practice, and to offer an excellent example of how the former can inform the latter, to produce better translations. Also, the book succeeds in developing critical translation skills, by guiding trainee translators to become reflective practitioners. Other strengths of the book are the impressive range of authentic examples, and scenarios, and the rich contextual information that is provided, in terms of both monolingual and cross-linguistic scientific and technical production. The clear focus on corpora as a powerful resource for translating scientific and technical documents is also worth mentioning, since it breaks new ground in translation training. It is indeed high time that professional translators benefit from corpora, and that available books recognise more explicitly their potential for improving the profession.

In terms of limitations, these are not many and are related to the organisation of the book. The chapters examining the different genres are all characterised by a different structure and progression of ideas, which, although justified by the different nature of each text type, might make the book difficult to use in situations where a more consistent approach to teaching specialised translation is required. There is indeed some imbalance in the amount of real examples provided in each chapter and the space that is dedicated to discussing translation problems. However, this imbalance is addressed by the excellent activities at the end of each chapter, which allow for a more in-depth engagement with any aspects that might not have been sufficiently covered in the main body of the chapter.

Overall, the book delivers in terms of its aim to enable readers ‘develop the knowledge and skills [they] need for the activities of scientific and technical translation’(p.3) and it provides an excellent resource for both self-study and any higher-education programme in which scientific and/or technical translation is taught. Personally, I certainly cannot wait to use it in my classroom next year.


Bennett, Karen (2007) “Epistimicide! The Tale of a Predatory Discourse”, The Translator 13, no. 2: 151-69.

Byrne, Jody (2012) Scientific and Technical Translation Explained: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Beginners, London and New York, Routledge.

House, Juliane (2003) “English as a Lingua Franca: A Treat to Multilingualism?”,Journal of Sociolinguistics 7, no. 4: 556-78.

Wright, Sue Ellen, and Leland D. Wright (eds) (1993) Scientific and Technical Translation, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, John Benjamins.

Zanettin, Federico (2012) Translation-Driven Corpora: Corpus Resources for Descriptive and Applied Translation Studies, London and New York, Routledge.

Zanettin, Federico, Silvia Bernandini, and Dominic Stewart (eds) (2003) Corpora in Translation Education, London and New York, Routledge.

©inTRAlinea & Sofia Malamatidou (2016).
[Review] "Scientific and Technical Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 18
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