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Technical Translations: Going Back to the Source

by Jim Dulin

When Evansville, Indiana-based Mead Johnson Nutritionals recalled 4.6 million cans of baby formula it was not because the formula inside the can was bad – but rather the translated Spanish formula for mixing with water on the outside of the can was.

According to an Associated Press article in The Savannah Morning News, the company warned that the incorrect instructions could lead to “serious health problems and even death.”

How does this happen, one might ask? It’s more common than you might think. The International System of Units – or SI – is the metric system used in science, industry and medicine. But when a product is marketed and sold to the consumer in the United States, measurements are often converted from the laboratory into the more familiar US standard of pounds, tons, gallons, cups and teaspoons.

The problem begins when these measurements are converted back into metric without going to the original lab-sourced calculation. Since miles and kilometers are not the exact same distance and tablespoons and milliliters are not the exact same volume, rounding up or down when converting from one standard to the other is required. Go back and forth a couple of times, rounding up or down, and the calculation is now nowhere near what the original formula was.

You can get all of that right and still run into other problems in technical translation services that have nothing to do with measurements. A maintenance manual for an HVAC unit might include instructions to loosen bolts, take apart the filter compartment, clean everything with high pressure water, reassemble the compartment and replace the filter. Huh? In this instance, the term “replace” could mean “rinse clean the filter and put it back” – or it could mean “install a new filter.” Going back to the source – the manufacturer – is the only way to be sure.

Avoid your own can of worms: No matter how large or small the project, translations are always a team effort and the customer is an integral part of the team. A good project manager on the translation side of the equation will flag issues and clarify with the customer in advance of sending the document out to the industry expert translator. Conversely, the customer will recognize that a professional translation team periodically needs clarification and the customer will be ready to provide feedback in a timely manner. An open line of communication between customer and translation team ensures that the intent is unambiguous, accurate and on time. That’s why going back to the source is a formula for success in avoiding costly mistakes, embarrassing news stories and sometimes legal liability when translating technical documents. Contact us for a review of your technical document and find out if it needs editing before sending it out for translation.

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