Engineering Translations
 No. 1, Volume 2 
 January 1998 

A. Greenland

Alex Greenland was born in the UK in 1956 and was ‘emigrated’ to New Zealand when a year old.
  In 1977, with a double major in French and German, he took a year off study to rough it through Europe and improve his purely academic languages, then returned to NZ to finish a degree in French, having decided he would be back in Europe one day, for good ....
  In 1980 he settled in Paris where he taught English and occasionally translated for some years, before moving through a few translation and documentation companies. In 1985 he joined a firm of French dam-design consultants as in-house translator. He has been working freelance since 1989.
  He works largely in engineering and construction, translating from French into English, and now lives in Normandy.

Alex can be contacted at


Jul 97 Issue
Oct 97 Issue
The Reader’s Page
Translator Profiles
In Search of Context and Perspective
by Johannes Tan
Translation in the Media
The Onionskin—Promoting Good Translation Practice
by Chris Durban
Engineering Translations
Building Bridges
by Alex Greenland
Translation and Typesetting
by Gabe Bokor
  Translation Aid Software Reviews
Review of Atril’s Déjà Vu 2
by Michael Benis
Translation Aid Software
Four Translation Memory Programs Reviewed
by Suzanne Falcone
Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature X
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
Banking and Finance
Financial Statements
by Danilo Nogueira
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Engineering Translations
or Building Bridges

by Alex Greenland

I have little real idea of what other translators’ work involves. I assume readers of the Translation Journal have no better an appreciation of what engineering translation involves, and will outline something of the diversity of my work.
  Engineering is a vast field. I like to think of myself as a specialist, but the enormous range of sub-fields into which I find myself delving in the course of what is essentially civil engineering work sometimes makes me feel like a sort of generalist. My jobs have covered dams, tunnels, roads, bridges, power stations, transmission lines, sewers, water treatment and desalination plants, canals and river-training, airports, harbours, mines, and offshore structures, not to mention a variety of buildings of different types, ranging from mud huts for displaced African tribespeople to monumental office blocks. Most of these fields can be broken down into different types of structure, each with different requirements.
Tunnels can be road tunnels, rail tunnels, or water tunnels. They can be on land—bored or cut-and-cover—or under the sea, in which case they will be either the bored or immersed-tube type. There are two basic tunnelling techniques: drilling and blasting (D&B), or using tunnel-boring machines (TBM) of which there are, in turn, two basic types: roadheaders or boom-type tunnelling machines, and full-face machines. The latter, too, can be subdivided into several different types, depending on the characteristics of the terrain engineers expect to encounter: open and closed-face, earth-pressure balance (EPB) machines, slurry-shield machines, etc.

  If you include construction within the realm of engineering—and if you are translating from French, you will find yourself doing so, since ‘le BTP’ (Bâtiment et Travaux Publics) is regarded as a whole, and the biggest contractors work in both fields—you will find yourself dealing with an even wider range of topics. For while basic construction terms may be the same from one project to the next, there will inevitably be reference to purpose-specific requirements demanding their own specialized terminology when dealing with hotels or hospitals, shopping malls or factories.
  In even the more mundane building projects, the translator might work on everything from the foundation, grounding, drainage, and external paving, right up through the structure of the building and its electric systems of different sorts, including multimedia communication systems, its doors, windows, and glazing, plumbing, tiling, paintwork, wall coverings, carpeting, false ceilings, lifts, air conditioning, fittings and fixtures of all kinds, etc., to the roof and the air terminal network (lightning conductor).
Roads can be concrete or bituminous, or even unsealed. They can range from temporary haulage roads to major motorways.
  Bridges can be concrete, steel, or composite; the different types include arch, suspension, cantilever, and cable-stayed bridges. They can be built on falsework, or using the balanced-cantilever technique—with elements cast in place or in yards on the shore—or they can be incrementally launched, jacked or rotated into place.
  Power stations can be nuclear, fossil-fuelled, or hydro, and in the latter case can be housed in buildings on the surface or in caverns deep underground. The differing risks, constraints, and safety requirements for each structure make design considerations very different.
  Dams can be arch, gravity, or embankment dams. Embankment dams can be earthfill or rockfill, can have a central core or an upstream facing—which may itself be concrete, bituminous, or a membrane. Then there are roller-compacted concrete (RCC) dams, which combine the attributes of concrete and embankment dams.

RCC dams are a relatively recent development, and are an interesting case for the translator—as indeed for the engineer—because for some years there was uncertainty over what they should be called: initially—in the 1980s—“rollcrete dam” (probably by analogy with “shotcrete”) seemed to catch on, but “RCC” is now almost universally accepted (the Japanese have developed a cement-rich variant of the method called RCD for Rolled Concrete Dam).

  It might be thought that the translation skills involved in engineering projects are relatively homogeneous; the different structures of a given kind do all fulfil the same purpose, after all. But the techniques concerned can differ radically. And each variation in construction technique implies the introduction of different associated techniques, different plant, etc.
Thus, a subsea tunnel might be a bored tunnel, which will involve its own particular tunnelling technique (D&B or TBM), followed up (and sometimes preceded by) grouting, then lining with cast-in-place concrete, precast-concrete or cast-iron segments, or fully welded steel plate; but if we are dealing with an immersed-tube tunnel, we are looking at casting of enormous concrete elements on the shore, dredging of a level trench into which they are to be placed, carrying the elements out on crane-barges and lowering them to the seafloor, or floating them out and sinking them into position, then attaching them together and sealing the joints.

  For a subsea tunnel, a translator might therefore be confronted with things as different as a dredger (of which there are many different types) and one of a variety of tunnel-boring machines. In the case of an immersed-tube tunnel, he may also have to deal with the vagaries of navigation and analysis of the probability of ship impact on the structure (something he may also encounter in a bridge translation—except that tunnels involve the additional risk of being struck by sinking ships).

In small doses, ecological considerations within an engineering report can probably be effectively handled by engineering translators, but the amazing growth of this extremely diverse aspect associated with large-scale engineering projects could be an opportunity for specialization by translators with an interest in the environment—at a global scale.

To further complicate matters, the type of structure designed will most likely depend on a variety of natural factors—geography, geology, geophysics, hydrology, hydrogeology, mineralogy, rock mechanics, soil mechanics, meteorology, seismology, river hydraulics, etc. The translator has to have some familiarity with each of these: they open the doors to a number of added complications in the design of a project, for the consulting engineers’ feasibility study will go into the whys and wherefores, the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of structure relative to the natural conditions expected at the site. So while each of these natural sciences is relatively ‘static’ for the translator—however extensive the specialized knowledge and terminology they involve—they can lead to discussion of every possible type of solution and construction technique: for instance, the choice between different types of bridges and/or tunnels may depend on meteorological, geological, tidal, and river-flow conditions, and every conceivable technical alternative may be discussed, weighing the pros and cons against those conditions, before the choice is made.
  Increasingly, large projects like dams and tunnels call for environmental impact assessments, and engineering translators may have to tackle ecological considerations, with discussion of the benefits and damage the project implies for local fauna, flora, and populations and their lifestyle. Of late, I have been translating increasing numbers of feasibility reports for dams, particularly in western Africa, which have addressed such things as: resettlement of local populations; ancestral land-tenure systems, combating water-borne and water-related diseases; positive and negative effects on agriculture, stock raising, and fishing; the most appropriate type of irrigation schemes to be associated with the dams; and every conceivable effect over hundreds of kilometres of river both upstream of the damsite and downstream as far as the coast where it was felt the change in river flow conditions could affect coastal erosion, the migration of fish in the lagoons, wildlife in coastal marshes, saltwater intrusion, etc.
  The scope of the different types of structures the engineering translator may work on is thus daunting. But that is nothing compared to what you face once you start examining the works actually involved in such projects.
  To start with, before a project can be designed, there are site investigations. A range of seismic, electrical, etc. geophysical prospecting techniques may be used, depending on geology, the habits of the engineers, or the resources available locally; or site investigations may involve an extensive borehole campaign—followed by grouting tests or water tests—or just a few hand-dug test pits. Specifications for this work will have to be drawn up for the investigations to be put out to contract.
  The investigation campaign may lead to discussion of regional seismicity and faulting, and will involve running laboratory tests on samples taken, in addition to any in situ tests, in order to determine the characteristics of the foundation and the suitability of the locally available construction materials, particularly for dams and roads. This will involve pure engineering principles (compressive strength, tensile strength, shear strength, angle of friction, etc.). It may also involve less basic considerations—particularly when investigating potential reaction with cements—resulting in lab reports on detailed examination of the materials by means of scanning-electron microscopy, fluorescence microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray analysis, thermogravimetric analysis, differential thermal analysis, nuclear-magnetic-resonance spectroscopy, etc. for the purposes of chemical analysis of the reactive potential of concrete or grout with the terrain, with reinforcing steel, with seepage water, etc. In other words, the translator finds himself transported from engineering into science.
  Having established that a project is technically feasible on a given site, the designers then have to establish its economic and financial feasibility. This will involve assessment of the cost of construction, the cost of environmental damage and mitigating measures, and a host of analyses relating to various internal rates of returns, costs of investments, comparative costs of different alternatives, mini-max regret analysis, etc. In other words, once again the engineering translator is taken outside the purely engineering field.
  The design of a project will throw the translator into the intricacies of mathematical modelling of every conceivable stress, force or moment, static or dynamic effect, involving complicated mathematics. Generally this is expressed in the form of equations, but there is inevitably some form of introduction or linking in which the mathematics have to be verbalized.
  Any engineering firm worth its salt these days is marketing its software programs. This gives rise to a host of user’s manuals that combine the worst of computers and mathematics with the best of engineering ...; or yet another specialization within a specialization.
Software produced by engineering firms might include:
  • programs for finite-element analysis of static and dynamic performance of projects in relation to earthquake, windloading, traffic analysis, pore pressure, reservoir pressure, tidal & wave effects, etc.;
  • expert systems for interpreting the readings of instrumentation systems with a view to forestalling safety problems, for simulating reservoir management and flood attenuation effects, for reconstituting hydrological records, etc.;
  • geometric programs for designing road alignments, or for dimensioning and setting out masonry structures to economize on the cutting of masonry units and the use of the more expensive specialized units, and so on.
Of course different projects will bring in different sub-fields.
  A dam project with an irrigation component might fan out into discussion of the relative merits of pumped irrigation versus controlled submersion or flood-recession farming, or of pineapples versus sugar cane in terms of irrigation requirements, market prices, consumption of imported fertilizers and pesticides, utilization of local labour and the ensuing socio-economic benefits, or the potential for mechanization. If there is a hydropower component, there might be details of the turbines and generators, control gates, switchyards and transmission lines. Or there might be economic analysis of the benefits and costs of irrigation water versus hydropower generation, with long-term comparison between the hydro scheme and equivalent oil-burning schemes, or of the costs and contingencies of imported power from a neighbouring country.
  Road or road-tunnel texts might explain lighting and signage options, traffic-flow analysis, or ventilation and pollution control; bridges may require aerodynamic analysis, and so on.

  On the contrary, expertise in one specialized subfield may be applicable to a wide cross-section of fields.
Familiarity with laboratory analysis of alkali-aggregate reactivity (AAR)—which causes swelling in concrete—will be as applicable to tunnel linings, dams, or bridges as to continuously-reinforced concrete roads. Experience with welding and weld-inspection techniques (fluorescence, magnetic-particle, and ultrasonic testing) will apply to steel lining for tunnels, dam penstocks, structural steelwork, or oil rigs. Post-tensioning might come up in relation to dams, bridges, nuclear containments, and some of the more sophisticated buildings.
  Eyebrows can be raised when, as a self-professed ‘translation specialist,’ one does not know the answers to all the questions.
  I once took over from an excellent translator who had been 15 years in the job. He could teach not only me a thing or two, but a great many engineers as well, and not necessarily the newest recruits. Though I realized the standard I would be measured against was an exceptionally good one, I did think there would be some understanding on the part of the engineering staff of the difficulties that confronted me. I found many of them unwelcoming, some even antagonistic, openly expressing their surprise—if not horror—at the fact that I did not know what to them were simple things.
  At that point I was taking my questions to the specialists concerned: geology to geologists, hydrology to hydrologists, turbo-generator questions to electro-mechanical engineers, and concrete questions to the construction/dam engineers. One day I happened to address a question to the wrong person: he didn’t know the answer, and we both realized that everyone in the company expected me to be as much a specialist as they were in their respective fields. I soon started mixing and matching: ask a geologist about the electric winding of a generator, and he might feel more humble than ever before. People then generally became extremely welcoming and helpful.
  The point may often have to be made that while a translator might be a specialist, market forces—not to mention personal preferences—may make him a multidisciplinary specialist, and that breadth and depth of knowledge can rarely grow commensurately.

   While I’m not suggesting that engineering is the only field with far-reaching ramifications, the way it fans out into masses of related topics makes it varied and interesting. Certainly far more so than some of the ‘overspecializations’ in which I have worked in the past, which I soon found tedious and monotonous. In contrast, engineering provides a constant, stimulating challenge. It also raises questions about the relationship between general and specialized translation, about building the necessary bridges between different topics—or between specialized translators. There is room in engineering—and in other translation fields, surely—for greater co-operation, work-sharing, or ‘partnering’ (as they say these days in the building trade) between translators with expertise in different fields. I have seen and participated in gingerly attempts, using different approaches, to harness the translation skills of different parties in a single project, but there is still tremendous scope for intellectually and financially rewarding specialization and collaboration.

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