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Importance Of Precision In Scientific Translation English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3868 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Since the second half of the 20th century the role and importance of scientific translation has increased significantly. Also, due to globalisation and the rapidly growing free exchange of information on the international scale the translation of scientific documents is becoming more prevalent (Grygoruk 2009:1). As stated by Jumpelt (1961, cited in Axiela 2004:31), “the extremely high requirements set for scientific and technical translation mark it out clearly from other genres, making it into an independent research field in its own right”.

The importance of the scientific discourse has been further accentuated by the abrupt increase in the use of language for specific purposes (LSP) in the academic field, and the constantly growing interest in the terminology related to the specialised domains which have increased the understanding and awareness of the intricacy and organisation of scientific texts (Aixelá 2004: 31).

The very first attempts to promote accuracy in scientific communication were made in the 1930s by F.Wüster – with his introduction of modern terminology (Cabré et al. 1999:5).

As indicated by Cabré et al. (1999:47), specialised communication is distinct from general communication in terms of the type of written/oral texts it generates and its use of specialised terminology. The uniformity and standardisation of this terminology eases the communication between specialists for whom the main criteria of the specialised discourse include conciseness, precision and suitability (Cabré et al. 1999:47). Although English has become the ‘koiné’ for the exchange of scientific discourse on the international scale, many countries still favour the use of their native languages. For this reason, the translation of scientific texts is imperative (Cabré et al. 1999:23).

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In this essay my reference to the concepts of scientific and specialised translation/ terminology are interchangeable. After identifying some of the main characteristics of scientific discourse, I will analyse and discuss the general importance of precision and the use of specialised terminology in scientific translation looking at some of the many existing translation theories as well as strategies and approaches used for rendering various scientific texts. I will also consider the translator’s role in the entire process and highlight certain problems and consequences stemming from an inaccurate use of the language in translation of scientific texts.

Based on the classification given by the OECD (2002:67), the fields of science fall broadly into five general categories: natural sciences which focus on the study of natural phenomena (including biology, mathematics and chemical sciences); social sciences concerned with studying human behaviour and social phenomena; medical sciences; engineering and technology and humanities. However, for the purpose of this essay, I will relate my discussion merely to the fields of biology, medicine, chemistry, biotechnology and law.

In order to establish the main goals of scientific translation, we have to, firstly, identify some fundamental features of specialised (scientific) discourse. According to Gotti (2003), the main characteristics of specialised texts incorporate monoreferentiality (which refers to the presence of one word form/referent in a given context), lack of emotion, transparency (allowing immediate identification of the meaning of the term, purely based on its structure), conciseness, consistency and conservatism (involving the use of traditional language borrowings) (Gotti et al. 2003, cited in Cap 2006:115). To Al Hassnawi (n.d:1) scientific language is also governed by logicality, precision, reason, truth to particular reality, standard expressions, referential meaning, generalisation, and most importantly the use of scientific terminology, specialised terms and formulae. Moreover, Jones (1965, cited in Shiyab 2006:136) indicates that scientific discourse has purely informative character and aims at presenting facts only. It does not exaggerate or distort facts. It also never tries to persuade a reader, and if an element of persuasion occurs it is always based on the principle of logical reasoning.

As maintained by Cabré et al. (1999:47), a scientific text, similarly to its translation, requires, first and foremost, conciseness as expressing concepts in a clear and compact form which reduces chances of their misinterpretation. Secondly, precision of scientific language is needed because of the specific nature of scientific subject matter. The third prerequisite entails the adaptation of the scientific text to specific context and according to the expectations of target text addressees and their knowledge of the subject matter (Cabré et al. 1999:47), (they can be experts, semi-experts or non-experts (Bowker & Pearsons 2002:27). However, the three above mentioned attributes can be only achieved by the proper utilisation of specialised terminology. The use of the original terms to introduce or identify a specialised idea or concept is fundamental to achieving concise translation. At the same time, the use of the relevant term instead of an attempt to paraphrase it maintains the precision of the translated text (limiting the use of synonymous expressions (Strehlow 1988:7)). Standardised terminology is the most powerful tool available to specialists to enable communication within a particular scientific domain (Cabré et al. 1999:47). Besides, as maintained by Newmark (1993:75), standardisation of scientific language contributes to its reliability. It can be thus assumed that standardisation of scientific terminology leads to the increase in internationalisation of scientific terms and at the same time helps reduce subjectivity (Cabré et al. 1999:23).

Scientific translation has been challenged by the notions of complete equivalence and faithfulness which, as indicated by Surrukai (2001:649), are never possible to attain in this kind of translation. Although the translation of the original scientific discourse cannot be wholly literal or identical (mainly because of culture and language differences), it is definitely achievable. Instead of focusing on the notion of sameness in translation of scientific texts, which, according to Pieńkos (1999:199), is a strictly mathematic and abstract understanding of the subject matter, we should adopt a more flexible approach, namely the concept of equivalence adequate to the constraints of a given situation. This approach entails the use of a set of specialised means characteristic to each language in order to express or describe a particular word regardless of the type of equivalence used in the translation process (dynamic, formal, functional, etc.) (Kłos et al. 2007:83)

There are many translation strategies used for rendering of scientific texts. For example, Faber, Hjort-Pedersen and Klinge (1996/1997, cited in KÅ‚os et al. 2007:87) distinguish two divergent approaches. The first one is a target language orientation which aims at producing a translation specifically orientated towards the target audience and based on the reuse and borrowing of the linguistic material from already existent parallel documents. The target text has therefore little in common with the original text. The second strategy leans towards a source language orientation which seeks to translate the text orienting it at the source language community by reproducing and using the semantic and linguistic features of the source text in order to increase its resemblance with this text. The latter strategy appears to be very popular in scientific translation, in particular, of the texts related to medicine, biology, biotechnology (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:88) and chemistry. It thus seems that in the situation when the terms lack equivalents in the target language, one of the translation strategies ensuring accurate and precise translation entails the use of “borrowings”. Haugen (1950:212) defines a borrowing as an attempt at reproduction of certain patterns found in one language and its application to another language.

I will now briefly identify and give examples of the three main groups of borrowings using English-Polish language combination. The first group of borrowings are mere replicas of the source language terms, where spelling is retained in the target language, e.g. crossing-over → crossing-over; telomer → telomer; mutant → mutant; splicing → splicing (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:88); laser → laser; titrator → titrator (DomaÅ„ski 1996:264-66). The second group includes borrowings which morphemic importation can be further categorised along with the level of phonemic substitution (none, partial or complete) (Haugen 1950:62), e.g. cytosol → cytozol; transposon → transpozon; activator → aktywator; ultrafiltration → ultrafiltracja; attenuation → atenuacja; deletion → delecja; adjuvant → adjuwant (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:88); coulometer → kulometr; electrode → elektroda; crystalization→ krystalizacja; distillation→ destylacja; process→ proces (DomaÅ„ski 1996:264, 389). The third group are calques – translations of the source language terms in the form of “functional shifts of native morphemes” (Haugen 1950:62), e.g. catabolic repression → represja kataboliczna; competent bacteria → bakterie kompetentne; contact allergy → alergia kontaktowa; dispersive replication model → dyspersyjny model replikacji; amino sugar → aminocukier; antidoxant → antyutleniacz/przeciwutleniacz (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:88).

There are also certain types of (exact) linguistic equivalents which undoubtedly ensure a precise translation of specific English terms into Polish. Equivalence can be defined as “a link or bond of some sort between the source text and the target text (Byrne 2006:26). As indicated by Newmark (1993:75), translation equivalence rests upon various degrees of equivalence and hence, it cannot be simply understood as a single notion. For instance, functional/dynamic equivalence involves the use of the closest counterpart word in the specialised target language, e.g. designer proteins → biaÅ‚ka proteinowe; rocking platform → koÅ‚yska laboratoryjna (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:89).; conductivity cell → naczynko konduktometryczne; distillation unit → destylarka (jednostka destylacyjna); oxygen meter → analizator tlenu; photo multiplier → fotopowielacz (DomaÅ„ski 1996:260,264).The other group is formed by hybrid structures which are a mixture of the two translation methods, namely morphemic substitution and importation (Haugen 1950:62), e.g. freeze fracture (method) → metoda freeze fracture; generic marker → marker generyczny (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:89); measuring cylinder → cylinder miarowy; absolute zero → zero bezwzglÄ™dne (DomaÅ„ski 1996:276-279).

Furthermore, the translator of specialised texts should pay great attention to the correct use and translation of idiomatic expressions and collocations. The mistranslation of these linguistic structures and the formation of incorrect collocations lead to multiple denotation errors in the translation of scientific texts (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:90). For instance, an expression ‘respiratory organs’ was incorrectly translated into Polish as ‘ukÅ‚ad oddechowy’ instead of ‘narzÄ…dy oddechowe’, which changed the meaning of this expression. The term ‘control of bacteria’ was translated as ‘zwalczanie bakterii’, and should have been translated as ‘ograniczanie (rozwoju) bakterii’. Again, the meaning of the term was changed. The part of the sentence …macroscopic and microscopic pathology is to be performed… was translated into Polish as …należy przeprowadzić makroskopowe i mikroskopowe badania laboratoryjne…, instead of …należy przeprowadzić makroskopowe i mikroskopowe badania patologiczne… It resulted in the occurrence of terminological errors and consequently led to the change of meaning. The use of the wrong equivalent term for the word “gross” led to the terminological error in the translation of the phrase …gross pathological findings…which was rendered as …ogólne zmiany patologiczne, instead of …poważne zmiany patologiczne… (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:91).

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The use of specialised terminology in the translation of scientific texts is undeniably a complex process. Another effective strategy for translating this type of discourse is Vermeer’s Skopos theory (Vermeer, 1978, cited in Nord 2006:30). The functional approach to translation is based on the Skopostheorie. Skopos is the Greek word for “aim, purpose” and the basis of the theory is that the method of translation is dictated by the purpose of the translated text (Nord 2006:30). Functionalism in translation follows certain basic principles which can be summarised in the following points: 1) The purpose of the translation defines the strategy/method. 2) The client (commissioner) must define the purpose of the translation. 3) The translation must achieve its purpose i.e. in the case of scientific translation, to inform. 4) Functionality can only be confirmed by the reader if it satisfies his needs at that moment in time. This is more likely to be achieved if ‘function markers’ are used to indicate the intention. 5) The function achieved by the target text will not necessarily be identical to that achieved by the source text (Nord 2006:31-32). This theory would appear to be in direct conflict with the accepted principles of ‘faithfulness’ and ‘fidelity’ as it gives the translator licence to do almost as he pleases as the end justifies the means. It seems to have little or no place in scientific translation. However, as the purpose of the translation is to give the reader an accurate understanding of the source text, it may, indeed, have a place.

The key to the success of the theory is in the relationship between the source text (and its author), the client (who commissions the translation), the translator and, finally, the readers of the target text (Nord 2006:33). Following the client’s instructions, if the translator chooses a functional method he must act as a ‘responsible mediator’ between the interested parties. This responsibility is called ‘loyalty’ in the Skopos theory and could, perhaps, be argued to replace the more conventional ‘fidelity’ (Nord 2006:33).

Improper and imprecise use of specialised terminology may lead to serious mistakes caused by a misunderstanding of the translated documents, papers, etc. The most common obstacles encountered by a translator of specialised texts, at the text level, are usually due to the multiple meanings of words (ambiguity) caused by the frequent occurrence of lexical items such as polysemic and homonymous ambiguity (ZieliÅ„ski 2006:146), and synonymy. According to Nowak (2006:184) the presence of polysemous expressions in scientific texts (and language in general) is very undesirable and is often the core reason for unreliable and inaccurate translations. In the translation of legal documents, for instance, a translator will often struggle to find a precise equivalent expression in the target language. On the one hand, he may have a range of expressive means that could be used for a given term (e.g. a word, grammatical category or syntactic structure). On the other hand, in most cases, the translator will not be equipped with any of these expressive means so as to precisely reflect the exact meaning of a source term. In the first instance, the translator will have to make a creative choice of the most appropriate equivalent expression, and the second situation will require from him the formation of a new equivalent term or the introduction of a new linguistic borrowing. Besides, inadequate and inaccurate translations are also a result of translators’ insufficient knowledge of the source and target languages and the rules governing their proper use including language morphology, semantics, orthography, syntax, lexis and style (KÅ‚os et al. 2007:84-85).

As for legal translation, legal language is ruled by specific cultural markers (Shiyab 2006:157). It may be hard for the translator of legal text to find the right terminological equivalents because of the differences of the two legal systems involved (Shiyab 2006:156-7; Rogers 1999:123). Consequently, in Smith’s (1995) point of view, for a translator of legal texts “recognising a case of absent terminology requires constant comparison between the legal systems of the source and target languages as well as being familiar with up-to-date legal literature” (Smith 1995, cited in KÅ‚os et al. 2007:86). Mistranslation of specialised legal terms may lead to serious consequences, e.g. for lawyers who, if dealing with international legal cases, have to use various translations of legal documents. As a solution to this problem, KÅ‚os et al. (2007:83), proposes the application of functional equivalence and Shiyab (2006:158) suggests a literal translation of legal documents/acts, which, in his view, could potentially resolve some of the problems encountered by translators concerning the preservation of clarity and preciseness of legal terms.

In line with Ahmad’s (1994:1) argument, the translator of specialised texts can be only capable of producing an adequate translation if he fully understands lexical and grammatical structures of the source and target languages as well as the organisation and purpose of the text. Having this knowledge, he then has to be able to communicate ideas contained in the original text, which may be unknown by the target reader. Translation thus appears to be “a complex cognitive process involving the simultaneous and integrated execution of linguistic -, iconic – and symbolic – representation tasks…(together with) the deployment of episodic and semantic memory (Ahmad 1994:1). Jumplet (1961, cited in Baker & Saldanha 2009:247) argues that, although a translator is allowed to make particular choices regarding a translation based on his individual ‘subjective’ preferences, he is also obliged to make the ‘objective’ choices which entail an application of certain formats and schemata being compulsory in a given type of translation. In contrast with some other theorists (e.g. Ortega y Gasset), for Jumplet (1961, cited in Baker & Saldanha 2009:247) as well as Maillot (1969, cited in Baker & Saldanha 2009:248), translation of scientific genres requires great precision, accuracy, explicity, accuracy, simplicity and clarity which are some of the fundamental prerequisites of a reliable translation. Besides, in Jumplet’s view, translation should read naturally and its stylistic character should be determined by the purpose of a given translation. Jumplet’s approach towards scientific writing involves mainly prioritisation of the target text, its purpose and the target audience. He also stresses the major significance of the quality of the target text, strictly dictated by adequacy, accuracy and equivalence between the source and target text (Jumplet 1961, cited in Baker & Saldanha 2009:247).

Although the role of a scientific translator is primarily to provide an accurate translation, his role can sometimes be more of a mediator than a translator due to cultural differences between the source and target linguistic communities. How to convey a meaning where no accurate translation exists is the choice of the translator and his choices may be arbitrary and will be based on his culture and personal experience. Literal translation can lead to awkwardness in the translated text. In line with Rey’s argument (2000, cited in Hoorickx- Raucq 2005:98) “awkwardness in the translated text is mostly due to…missing linguistic equivalents in the target culture.”

It could be argued, therefore, that the ability to act as a “mediator” is much more important than would be expected in scientific translation. The difficulties are further exacerbated by the fact that English is the primary language of scientific text and, in such a fast-developing field, there are many newly-coined words and phrases which do not yet have an equivalent in the target language. (Hoorickx-Raucq 2005: 97-101).

In summary, we have seen that precision in the use of specialised terminology in scientific translation is of major importance as it ensures accuracy and adequacy of the translated discourse. We have seen how different methods and strategies can be used to achieve the desired result: a concise, consistent, reliable, logical, precise, unambiguous translation which is relevant to the expectations of target recipients.

I identified that, although the natural readability of the target text is strongly desirable, in the translation of the texts from the fields of medicine, biotechnology, biology, chemistry and law, sometimes the preservation of the original meaning of source terms is more crucial. Therefore, after recognising the vital role of equivalence in rendering of scientific text, I established that the translation strategy involving a source language orientation and the use of borrowings can ensure clarity and preciseness of the translated discourse. I also looked at the Skopos theory which highlights the importance of the role of the commissioner in allowing the translator to fulfil his purpose and how, sometimes, the translator also has to act as ‘mediator’ and terminologist. I showed that a broad knowledge of the specialised language and terminology involved as well as a good knowledge of source and target languages help translators avoid making stylistic, terminological, grammatical, orthographic and punctuation errors. Also, knowledge of the main rules governing the translation process of scientific text helps eliminate the errors concerned with adding or omitting information in the translated version. We saw that an inaccurate and imprecise translation of scientific texts, especially medical, legal and pharmaceutical texts, may result in serious consequences even for people’s lives (e.g. an unjust sentence, a wrong dose of medication given to, or taken by a patient, use of the wrong tools by a surgeon during an operation, and countless others).

On the whole, scientific texts play an instrumental role in the process of transferring specialised knowledge of a given specialised subject field. The role of the translator in the mediation of that knowledge is the key to the production of a fully functional and adequate translation. Precision and the correct use of specialised terminology are fundamental, but these can only be used effectively as part of the many tools available to the translator when combined with his knowledge and expertise.


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