The value of subject matter experts in translation | Lex Academic Blog

Mistranslations are often funny. When I was studying for my degree in modern languages, one of my tutors began a seminar by presenting us with several amusing translation blunders – the point being, I presume, to instil in us a sense of the importance of accurate translation. Indeed, mistranslations can have serious consequences. And the more technical the source text, the more likely they are to occur, because a translator without training in, or practical experience of, the subject matter is unlikely to fully grasp what the author wants to say. As Language Scientific, who specialise in translating engineering, medical and other technical documents, succinctly put it: ‘If you don’t understand it, you cannot translate it’. Since I’ve no training in engineering or medicine, I couldn’t work for Language Scientific, even though I’m a proficient speaker of French. There comes a point where linguistic proficiency isn’t enough, where translation requires understanding on a conceptual as well as linguistic level. There comes a point, in sum, where translators also need to be subject matter experts.

So where is that point? When do you need a subject matter expert? If you’re thinking of hiring a translator, consider the following:

  • Is the text you want translated going to be published?
  • Does it contain subject-specific terminology non-specialists are unlikely to be familiar with?
  • Is your target reader educated in the subject matter? Will your text be widely read?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you probably need a subject matter expert. They can bond with the text more closely than a generalist can because they are educated in the subject matter and understand its terminology. They may even have published on the subject themselves. They can therefore integrate subject-specific terminology into the translation, rather than replacing it with more widely understood but less precise vocabulary. A subject matter expert can produce a more accurate, idiomatic and professional translation which readers educated in the field will appreciate, value and take seriously. In an academic context, a less than polished approach has the potential to cause embarrassment for the author of the original text.

As well as a more accurate translation, working with a subject matter expert offers several other advantages:

  • Time – Because subject matter experts are familiar with subject-specific terminology, they will spend less time than a generalist would looking up terms in a technical dictionary, meaning a faster turnaround time for the client.
  • A reader’s perspective – Subject matter experts are likely to have a background similar to the target reader’s. This enables them not only to translate the text more accurately, but also to query technical content that is factually inaccurate or unclear.
  • Motivation – If a translator has invested the time and energy needed to become a subject matter expert, it’s reasonable to assume they have at least some personal interest in the subject. The enjoyment they will get from translating a text related to their area of expertise will increase their motivation to do a good job.

Broadly speaking, if your text is aimed at a specialist audience, it’s worth working with a subject matter expert – for a more accurate and professional translation, and for peace of mind.


Dr Robert Payne, Executive Assistant to the CEO at Lex Academic