Translating Technology for an International Audience

Several of the sessions I attended at the AIAA Space Forum were given by engineers or scientists who were not native English speakers. I give them a lot of credit for being wiling to stand up and present on a difficult subject in a language not their own. Below are some suggestions for coping with that sort of situation…maybe it’s advice for myself in case I’m ever crazy enough to talk technology outside the U.S.

What to Do When You Do Not Understand What You’re Hearing

In one talk, I must confess, I had a comprehension problem because the speaker was a) a student from China; 2) talking about a subject I am only vaguely familiar with (orbital trajectories); and 3) using a lot of equations in his presentation. Speaking about a tough subject using a language I don’t understand (calculus) in a language that was not his own, the speaker was at least three degrees of translation separation.

Like I said, I had a comprehension problem.

The student’s spoken English and PowerPoint bullets were clear when he used words I understood…infinitely better than my ability to understand Chinese, which is nonexistent. I suspect in my case the best resolution to understanding what he was saying would be to go back and read his paper. I probably will not understand all of it, given my limited education in orbital mechanics, but I will have the time to read, look things up, and perhaps ask someone who DOES understand orbital mechanics what the author was trying to get across.

In any case, the ability to learn what a foreign nation author is saying involves seeking out a source that moves removes one of those degrees of separation.

What to Do When You Do Not Understand What You Are Saying

Another presenter, this one from Italy, spoke accented but understandable English. Where his presentation suffered was on his slides, which were a mix of misspellings and convoluted grammar. I felt bad for him, because he had some interesting material (which I understood better than orbital mechanics). Even a presenter whose native language IS English can suffer a loss of credibility if his or her spelling is bad.

In this case, though, I was curious as to why his slides were not edited by someone. If I were to present in another language, I might do the following:

  • Run my presentation slides (and definitely my paper) through Google Translate as a starting point.
  • Ask the conference track chair if there was someone available in the host country who could review and correct my work for correctness and clarity.
  • Find out if there is someone I know or within my organization who does speak the language in which the presentation is to be given.
  • As a last resort, pay for a translation service. This option is probably best for ensuring that at least the language is correct. That is no guarantee, however, that the technical part of the paper/presentation will be correct (Engineerish is its own language, as I’ve discussed here more than once). If there are services that specialize in engineering translations, so much the better.

Now I actually face the same problem as that Italian presenter, as I would like to ask him a question about his spacecraft design. I took a “tourist Italian” course nine years ago, but I certainly would not trust myself to write a letter in Italian at this point.

So…how do you handle presenting in another language? Also, does anyone reading this speak Engineering Italian?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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