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Why Do You Need a Subject Matter Expert for Technical Translation?

Why Do You Need a Subject Matter Expert for Technical Translation?
on June, 09 2016

Technical translation projects are particularly complex because they need to be translated not only by an expertly trained linguist, but by a subject matter expert (SME) rather than a general translator. It’s the job of an SME translator to see to it that a technical document is correctly translated, using specific terminology accepted across the industry in any target language.

Why Does it Matter?

SME translators are linguistic experts with knowledge in a particular industry, such as medical, manufacturing, gas and oil. When you need technical translation, the SME translator ensures that the terminology they use will be understood by your target consumers.

SMEs usually have degrees in their field of expertise and should be an expert in the target country's culture and language, aside from having a strong command of the industry and source language. 

Technical translations require knowledge of specific technical terms as well as thorough knowledge of the subject matter itself. For example, a pharmaceutical company may be applying for an international patent for a drug they are developing.

The document that needs translation will contain scientific terms that pertain to the product. Some ambiguity might be allowed in the English language, but foreign languages require concise and exact translations.

If the translator does not have the required knowledge of the subject matter as well as the scientific language, it could lead to confusion.

Even one small mistake in the translation of a patent application, for example, could mean non-approval of the application, which could prove costly for the pharmaceutical company both in time and money.

No Easy Way Around it

There are still companies and individuals who want to save on translation expenses by using computerized translation. In some cases, this will suffice. However, computerized translation will not be able to provide the actual meaning of the terms, particularly when these are scientific, medical, or technical.

While computerized translation is able to give a summary of a document's meaning, only a SME linguist with the right knowledge and expertise can provide the full meaning of a technical document.


SME translation is exact. Technical documents generally include pertinent information about practices and procedures. Often these documents have detailed instructions about the correct way to operate an appliance or instrument. Therefore, high quality translations are required or the client may be faced with any (or all) of the following risks:

  • Inappropriate care delivery to patients
  • Industrial accidents due to wrongful operation or misuse of equipment
  • Instigating a claim or compromising court cases
  • Infrastructure or company system failure

Using a Technical Dictionary

SME translators refer to a technical dictionary from time to time. However, a translator cannot be called a SME if he or she only learns the terminology while translating a document using a dictionary.

Precisely understanding specialized processes is the result of education and training; not in relying on a technical dictionary. A translator who cannot fully understand the technical document for translation will not be able to translate the nuances and ambiguity of the jargon of a specific industry.

Whether it is a short product package insert or a complex operator manual for a manufacturer, it is vital that translators with the right experience in translating specific types of content be part of a translation project.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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