Online resources as a tool for the technical translator

Over the past 15 years of precipitous growth, the web-based depository of vast information and documentation resources, accompanied by hundreds of search engines, has radically altered the work of translators. While computer technology changed the instrumental and operational aspects of our profession, access to the web afforded limitless opportunities in terms of how to improve the substantive content and quality of our end product. 

Back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the common public perception of a translator was that of a person sitting at a typewriter surrounded by numerous dictionaries, handbooks and other reference materials. Today, the translator’s desk has become neat and clean. There is no need for heavy volumes with handwritten notations, no dusty encyclopedias, and no notepads or Xerox copies of terminology lists. Just a keyboard, a mouse and a screen — and, literally, the world behind it.

These days, I look at my 1,200+ volumes of dictionaries collecting dust on the bookshelves with mixed feelings, probably the same way an SUV driver looks at a horse-driven cart. Although horse cart driving is a charming embodiment of centuries of artisan cart design, horse handling and grooming, when it comes to getting the job done, the SUV wins hands down. Similarly, the use of traditional dictionaries has become quite limited in the modern translator’s world, and the art of their compilation has been replaced with terminology management technologies. Because online terminology databases and documentary sources are widely available, terminological guide compilation and validation take hours rather than months or years.

The ability of today’s translator to fully utilize the potential of web-based resources is a critical factor in both the quality and the speed of the translation process. Alas, as with any other fast-growing technology, human skills lag behind in this regard. For example, using a traditional dictionary only requires a basic knowledge of the source alphabet, while searching online sources in a meaningful manner presupposes sophisticated skills in the area of compiling and fine-tuning search queries, as well as handling the numerous resultant hits. Even more important is the conceptual difference between using a dictionary, thesaurus or similar collection of terms, and working with the various contexts in which a sought term occurs.

Any nonencyclopedic dictionary is essentially a collection of terms taken out of context and arranged in some user-friendly order, such as alphabetically or by subject area. Except for occasional scope and/or usage notes, an ordinary bilingual dictionary provides no information on actual usage, in light of the fact that the dictionary meaning of a term and its usage may differ from one another (as they so often do). Furthermore, in cases when a dictionary provides several target terms with no scope information, it is incumbent upon the translator to decide which term is the most appropriate one in the target context — not an easy task without consulting other explanatory texts, whether an encyclopedic definition or a paragraph from some text in the target language, the subject, style and documentary category of which are close to those of the source document. Generally speaking, dictionaries, being collections of terms taken out of context, provide insufficient information (or no information at all) on the actual usage of a term in a specific context. This is why one of the most prevalent translator errors consists of incorrect usage as a result of selecting the wrong target term from a series of quasi-synonymic translations of a single source term provided in a dictionary.

This inadequacy becomes even more acute when a translator encounters marginal terminology, such as exotic or rarely used terms, which constitutes a major challenge to technical translation. As a timely example, while recently translating a document pertaining to cables, I had to employ quite elaborate online search techniques in order to find an exact Russian equivalent for the English term Chinese fingers, since I could not find it in any traditional dictionary. A similar problem arises with terms that have numerous similar meanings, such as pin, rod and so on. Choosing the correct target term requires an extensive knowledge of both the subject matter and the specific design or situation described in the text being translated, which, unfortunately, is often not the case.

This is precisely where online resources combined with iterative search techniques implemented by full-text search engines come into play. From the translator’s point of view, a full-text search engine is an interface to a gigantic searchable collection of texts and images containing terms and expressions in the target language. Unlike special dictionaries as a source of target terminology, a full-text search engine responds to a user query with real documents — samples of the actual usage of a given term in a relevant context, which is exactly what a translator needs. See Table 1 for some examples of useful querying tools.

An images tool, for instance, is extremely helpful to a translator when it comes to getting an idea of the appearance, configuration, view or specific visual features of an object, as well as the respective terminology. See Figure 1 for an example of using the Rambler images tool to get a schematic of a nuclear reactor with the Russian names of its major components.

Figure 2 shows the powerful Quintura search engine (, which permits both web and image searches by displaying the terms associated with the search query.

The ability to search within a specific website or domain (site search) is important when it comes to ensuring the correct choice of a target term for a specific country. As an example, the English term affiliate (a corporate entity) is traditionally rendered differently in Russia (аффилированноелицо) and in Kazakhstan (связаннаясторона), although these two Russian terms are considered to be quasisynonyms.

The translation of patents probably serves as the best example of the concept of using existing documentation as a target terminology source. Patent translators commonly employ the simple technique of identifying patents similar to the one being translated, such as a relevant cluster of patents from the same subclass. In addition to terminology, they contain graphic materials (such as schematics) that illustrate the design, structure and performance of an invention in detail.

Another example consists of translating, say, a certificate of compliance. Here, it is extremely helpful to review certificates of compliance that already exist in the target language and country beforehand. This gives the translator a clear idea of the applicable terminology, style and document features. 

Yet another example might be that while translating a document on nuclear reactor safety, the translator encounters an excerpt from an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulation describing a certain requirement. At this point, two scenarios are possible: the translator either translates the text of the excerpt and moves on, or attempts to locate an official translation of this IAEA regulation into the target language on the web and takes the text of the excerpt from it. If successful, the latter approach not only guarantees the accurate and verifiable rendering of the source text into the target language, but quite frequently makes the translator aware that some of the terms or expressions already present in the translated part of the document can be rendered more accurately in conformance with the established terminology and style, so the necessary corrections can be made before proceeding with the rest of the translation. 

Having before one’s eyes a document in the target language that is as similar as possible to the source document in all respects not only improves the authenticity and quality of a translation, but also saves the translator a lot of time.

Unfortunately, finding such an exact match is more the exception than the rule. In reality, the scrupulous translator has to deal with a number of reference documents that he or she has found on the web, each of which covers only certain aspects of the source text. Such reference materials come from various sources, and therefore, their accuracy and relevance vary. That is why the translator should always have a clear understanding of these parameters.


Multilingual and corporate websites

Regardless of their affiliations and countries of origin, websites constitute the primary source of bilingual and multilingual documentation, offering parallel texts of documents in two or more languages. It should be noted that a website interface does not necessarily have to be bilingual or allow browsing in two languages at the same time. While search and access techniques, as well as document availability in a desired language pair, may vary from site to site, there is always a very good chance that the translator can locate an unknown term or expression in the relevant context in less than a dozen clicks.

The national government agencies of a given country sometimes replicate English-language websites that are relevant to their activities in the local language. For example, the Federal Atomic Energy Agency of the Russian Federation ( has created a Russian-language site ( that mirrors the English-language website of the World Nuclear Association on Radioactive Waste Management ( 

An impressive collection of references to more than 170 multilingual websites with parallel texts and site-specific search tips covering more than 50 broad subject areas is provided at

Matching the language pair, however, is not sufficient for a successful search. Since the same word or expression may be rendered differently in different target-language contexts, it is equally important to match the context: the document type, style and other textual features.

The online documentation available from corporate websites includes marketing documents and customer documentation, such as manuals, instructions, handbooks, guides and datasheets. Figure 3 shows an original material safety data sheet (MSDS) and its Russian equivalent found on a company website, where the same MSDS is also available in numerous other languages. Translators may also find administrative documentation as well as annual reports and filings.

From the translator’s perspective, there are three categories of major industry player websites that can be used as documentation sources: the multilingual websites of national companies in the source-language country; the target-language websites of international companies with an established presence in the target-language country; and national company websites in the target-language country.

Other online sources include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), public associations and watchdog organizations. Secondary sources include journals of abstracts and web link collections such as, which contains an impressive collection of links to Russian civil engineering and construction websites.

However, not all online resources are created equal. Table 2 presents an empirical 1-to-10 scale ranking of online sources based on the author’s translation experience in the nuclear power, aerospace, oil and gas industries. Authority refers to the legitimacy of a source, its standing and/or its ability to position itself as a touchstone of standard terminology. Trustworthiness refers to the authenticity, credibility, dependability and conformability of the terminology provided in the source. Availability refers to the online presence of a specific source and the degree of effort required to locate it on the web.


Treaties and international agreements

For search purposes, treaties can be referred to by a number of different names: international conventions, multilateral agreements, covenants, final acts, charters, protocols, pacts, accords and constitutions of international organizations. Treaties and international or multilateral agreements are, as a rule, readily available online from multiple websites in two or more languages. Since documentation of this type normally takes precedence over domestic legislation, it is especially useful when translating documents in the areas of international affairs and commercial transactions. A major online resource is Oceana (, which boasts more than 15,000 treaties and international agreements, including tax treaties. However, United Nations (UN) and international organization websites are the primary sources for the translator, since they provide the full texts of official multilingual versions of treaties and related documents. In addition to legal terminology and proper style, these documents normally include the following helpful components:

A terms and definitions section. From the translator’s perspective, this is the most valuable part of any treaty or multilateral agreement, since it contains terminological information that has been agreed upon by two or more member states and that is provided in two or more languages. Thus sanctified, such terms are a sure bet (see, for example, the definitions section in the parallel texts of the model international contracts — the English and Russian versions — on the Russian website

Schedules and appendices containing factual information

Technical data, material safety data sheets and so on

More detailed information and documentation concerning treaties is available from the multilingual websites that support such treaties. In addition to the UN website, a good example is the website of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (, which provides references to documents in five languages.


International and professional organization documentation

In common usage, the term international organization is usually reserved for intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the UN, the European Union, the Council of Europe or the World Trade Organization, in which sovereign states or other IGOs are members. Not only are their documents published online in several languages, their activities include the formulation and implementation of regulatory and reference materials concurred with and approved by the member states, which represent a reliable source of terminology. 

One such example is the IAEA (, an organization inside the UN system and a leading publisher in the nuclear field. In addition to key international conventions and agreements, IAEA publications include international guides, codes and standards aimed at establishing and promoting internationally recognized principles of nuclear safety, radiation protection, radioactive waste management, the transport of radioactive materials, the safety of nuclear fuel cycle facilities and quality assurance — for example, the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, which is offered in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Another source of parallel texts is provided by the IAEA Fact Sheets (, which make available, among other things, numerous documents in English, French, Russian and Spanish.


International standards

International standards are formulated by international organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization; the International Electrotechnical Commission; the International Telecommunication Union; the British Standards Institution; the American Society for Testing and Materials; and so on, and are available for consideration and use worldwide. The adoption of international standards results in the creation of equivalent national standards that are substantially the same as their international counterparts as far as technical content, and that seek to eliminate differences in the technical regulations and standards independently and separately formulated by each nation, national standards organization or industry.


National legislation and government sources

National legislation (legislative and regulatory acts) and national standards are highly authoritative terminology sources, especially when the intended recipient of the translated document is a governmental agency of the target country. Similar to international agreements and standards, legislative acts establish core terminology within their respective subject areas. It should be noted that in legal translation, a legislative act is the terminology source of highest authority, with very few exceptions.

National government agencies and authorities, and the documentation available from their websites, constitute another reliable terminology source. In Russia and the Ukraine, many ministries and agencies, especially those involved in international programs — for example, the Russian Munitions Agency ( — maintain English-language versions of their websites and respective documents. Others provide various examples of documentation such as certificates of compliance and HAZMAT regulations in mining, nuclear and other industries.


Scientific and technical publications

Scientific and technical publications include professional and trade journal articles; newsletters; annual, statistical and technical reports; policy papers; and literature reviews. However, as sources of terminology, their reliability varies. For instance, professional journals differ from trade publications, which usually do not include in-depth research articles, while scholarly journals tend to be refereed publications and can be regarded as more authoritative than magazines.  Surveys of published research or literature reviews on a particular topic or in a particular subject area provide a quick overview of the state of the art in a given field. For the translator, they constitute a source of well-established terminology and knowledge. Trade publications are industry-specific documents (in the fields of civil engineering, aviation and so on) that are available from a variety of trade associations and business groups, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Society for Technical Communications, the Materials Research Society and many others. These organizational publications in the target country and/or the target language, if and when available, are highly reliable terminology sources.

Validating the terminology

For translation purposes, verification can be defined as the process of ensuring that a target term is an accepted term of art within a relevant subject area and document type, while the purpose of validation is to ensure that a target term is an accurate equivalent of a source term in the context of the document being translated. In addition to matching the document type during an online search, search statistics — the number of web pages or documents found — serve as the most reliable tool as far as preferred usage (especially for multiword phrases). By way of an example, Table 3 shows the search statistics for the English acronym RFID using Rambler, a Russian search engine.

Neither the internet in general nor any search engine in particular is magic. The translator should always bear in mind that search engine output is counted in occurrences rather than terms as such. It is the translator who verifies and validates the terms by ranking them as a function of their sources, and who selects the target term from the most trusted source in the target language.