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Technical and Academic Writing in the Education of Translators

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Genre-based writing instruction is part of the technical translation curriculum at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. The course called Professional Documentation (PD) fulfills this function.

The main genre-related topics covered in the course are instructions, articles, reports, abstracts and proposals. This paper gives a detailed overview of two important genres: the abstract and the proposal.

1. Introduction

Technical Writing and Academic Writing often overlap. If we regard Technical Writing as “writing about a technical subject, intended to convey specific information to a specific audience for specific purpose" (Markel 1988), the second part of this definition is obviously true also to Academic Writing, i.e. it is conveying specific information to a specific audience for specific purpose. Certainly the topics and the audience are different in Technical and Academic Writing.

Genre-based writing instruction is part of the technical translation curriculum at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BUTE, formerly the Technical University of Budapest) Budapest, Hungary.

This program contains courses preparing future translators to jobs that go beyond the borders of pure translation. One of these courses is the writing course containing both elements of Technical and Academic Writing that is called Professional Documentation (PD). PD is a course designed to make students of translation acquainted with those written genres of linguistic (interlingual) mediation, that are not translation, but which a translator may be required to write.

Not all topics of the PD course are related to genres. The main genre-related topics covered in the course are the following.

  • Instructions

  • Scientific papers (articles)

  • Reports

  • Abstracts

  • Proposals

Writing abstracts (abstracting) has special importance in BUTE translation curriculum as the state examination, which concludes the education of technical translators includes abstract writing. This means that an abstract of a technical article has to be prepared, where the abstract and the article are in different languages.

Why should we include writing instruction in translation curricula?

The reasons seem to be simple and obvious. On a general level we can say, that translators are specialized writers, thus getting acknowledged with written texts and producing them helps the students to become better translators.

Writing instruction widens translation students’ professional horizon.It allows them to become acquainted with the characteristics of a number of new genres and equipped with the necessary skills to produce texts corresponding to these genres.

By designing a number of assignments in which they have to decide, what is really important in a text and what is not, writing instruction can be formed in a way, that students concentrate on the notion of the importance of information.

Encounters with new texts also develop the student's vocabulary in the target language. Dealing with genres helps the students to become an understanding of cultural differences that influence the quality of translation and which play also a role when someone prepares documents for translation (Maylath 1997).

Benefits are especially visible if we speak about abstracting. Uso and Palmer (1998) enumerate these in connection with teaching English as a second language. These benefits are also valid if we teach abstracting to students of translation (who by the way often regard their training as an enhanced form of language learning).

Abstracting exercises enhance reading and writing ability, engaging the students in activities that are communicative and in which they apply knowledge previously acquired.

Abstracting not only employs decoding and encoding and develops critical reading skills, but it enhances the understanding of basic rhetorical principles.

The benefits of abstracting are in turn mostly applicable to the entire spectrum of writing instruction.

2 The genres

In the following we give a detailed overview of two important genres: the abstract and the proposal. 

2.1 Abstracts

Abstracting is a series of small challenges: no two are alike, yet the writing must be consistent, accurate and finished on time. The abstractor should also enjoy the challenge of reducing the work to its essentials. A creative, detective-like skill is needed to find the main points in a wordy, poorly written article (Neufeld and Cornog 1983, 1().

Abstracting can be defined as an activity of representing the most important information of a text in a shorter than the original text from a pre-defined viewpoint. The represented (original) text is mainly in a source language different from the target language of the representing text, i.e. the abstract. The abstract has to fulfill the minimal function of allowing its user to decide whether the original text has to be read or not.

Abstracting is a purposeful understanding of the original text, its interpretation and then a special projection of the information deemed to be worth of abstracting into a new text.

The first stage of the abstracting process is orientation, followed by the interiorization of the perceived needs, planning, translation (execution) and review.

An important element of many of these stages is reading, a special technique of which is selective reading, that allows the exploration of the text, searching for useful information, then immerse study of selected segments of the text.

It is especially important to differentiate between informative abstracts and indicative ones. Indicative abstracts exclusively consist of indicative utterances, informative abstracts consist of informative utterances, while mixed (indicative-informative) abstracts contain a blend of these. Indicative abstracts contain some kind reference to the original that is (often implicitly) the following: “(In) the (abstracted) document…”, etc.

Abstracting is a professional activity based on abilities and skills that can be and have to be learnt. It is based on summarizing information that can be spontaneous, everyday activity, but can also acquire a semi-professional character.

The quality of abstracts can be judged using the following criteria:

  • What is the level of abstraction?
  • Is there enough important information of the original text included in the abstract?
  • Are unnecessary details excluded?
  • Are there any misunderstandings of the original text reflected in the abstract?
  • How well is it worded in the target language ? (Koltay 2003)


2.2 Proposals

Proposals represent a genre that is highly useful for any writer, including translators. Well-written proposals multiply the chances of being accepted. In many cases proposals have to be prepared in two or more languages. Translators familiar with the genre and the cultural differences between the source and the target language can render a highly useful service. This is true even if we know that proposals differ by their type and conditions of their submission.

In the most general terms, a written proposal is a document in which the writer offers something beneficial to the reader in exchange for something in return.

The writer (or writers and the organization they represent) may offer to conduct research, develop systems, design and build equipment, improve services, repair damage, increase profits, etc. In return, the reader (or readers and the organization they represent) will provide funding, payment, equipment, and other support.

The proposal may reflect a need recognized and stated by the reader, by the writer, or both. This gives us the foundations for a typology of proposals. Not all proposals, but most of them fall into the following six categories:

  • applications for government grants,

  • bids for government contracts,

  • applications for foundation grants,

  • applications for corporate grants,

  • bids for commercial contracts,

  • internal proposals (where writer and reader are members of the same organization). (Haselkorn 1985)

Proposals are often written according to requirements set in Requests for Proposals (RFPs).

Proposals are delivered to a specific audience to achieve a specific purpose. The audience of a proposal may include both technical and non-technical readers. Both groups have to be addressed. One part of the audience may be interested in the results, other part in the costs; again others in trying out new things. Some may resist new ideas. he following questions have to be answered concerning the audience of a proposal:

  • Who is the real audience?

  • What does the reader already know?

  • What does the reader want to know?

  • What does the reader not want to know?

  • What does the reader perceive?

The person (or persons) who can make a decision or take action as a result of the proposal constitutes the real audience. In many cases there are many readers of a proposal. The first reader may have the authority to reject the idea but not the authority to approve it. A proposal may be evaluated by a team selected for that purpose. A good proposal should include information necessary to have each person who receives it take the appropriate action, as well as information required to ensure that the right person sees it. From this perspective, the audience can be divided into three distinct categories:

  • Primary audience: The person or persons who can make decisions or act on the proposal.

  • Secondary audience: Those who will be affected by the decision or action taken.

  • Intermediate audience: Those who review and route the proposal.

Individual readers often tend to focus on their own areas of interest and specialization. Some of them focus on technical details; others on budgetary and financial matters; and those who work in personnel may focus primarily on the way people will be influenced. (Bowman & Branchaw 1992).

A linguistic analysis of research grant proposals submitted to the European Union (Connor & Mauranen 1999) showed, that following the model for article introductions proposed by Swales (1990) ten rhetorical moves can be identified. Of these moves the following nine occur in the majority of proposals:

  • Establishing Territory

  • Gap

  • Goal

  • Means

  • Reporting Previous Research

  • Achievements

  • Benefits

  • Competence Claim

  • Importance Claim

The first move in most proposals examined was one which established the territory in which the research placed itself. They found that it is possible to distinguish two types of territory, of which at least one, but sometimes both were used:

  • a 'real-world' territory, i.e. how the proposed project is situated in the world outside the research field;
  • a research territory, that is, the field of research within the discipline or disciplines of the project.

The Gap move indicates that there is a gap in knowledge or a problem in the territory. The gap move is again very similar to the second swalesian introduction move known as "establishing a niche." Like the territorial move, the gap can also be placed either in the 'real world' (for instance environmental, commercial, or financial problems), or in the research world (for example pointing out that something is not known or not known with certainty, or needs to be known).

An important aspect of this move is placing one's work in relation to the consensus in the field. The researcher needs to be innovative, yet the proposed research has to remain within the constraints of the field. Citation of sources helps a great deal in solving this dilemma.

The Goal move is a statement of the aim, or general objective of the study. Depending on its formulation, the real-world element may be present or the research territory element may dominate.

The Means move specifies how the goal will be achieved. This move describes the methods, procedures, plans of action, and tasks that are to lead to the goal.

The Reporting Previous Research move consists of reporting or referring to earlier research in the field, either by the proposers themselves or by others.

Using the Achievements move, the proposals present their anticipated results, findings, or outcomes of the study.

The Benefits move comprises intended or projected outcomes of the study, presented in terms of their usefulness and value to the world outside, the study itself, or the domain of research in itself.

The Competence Claim move introduces the research group, or its responsible members. It makes a statement to the effect that the research group is well qualified, experienced, and generally capable of carrying out the tasks it proposes to undertake.

The Importance Claim move which makes out the proposal, its objectives, anticipated outcomes, or the territory as particularly important or topical, much needed or urgent with respect to either the 'real world' or to the research field.

No matter how persuasive the tone of the proposal, it may be rejected. In general terms, proposals are rejected because of:

a) No trust: For one reason or another, the reader does not trust the writers, their organization, or members of the given profession in general.

b) No need: The reader doesn't perceive a problem.

c) No desire: The reader perceived a problem but doesn't believe that it is sufficiently important to worry about.

d) No urgency: The reader perceives a problem and would like it solved but has higher priorities at the moment.

e) No value: The reader perceived a problem and would like it to be solved, but doesn't believe that the proposed solution will provide an adequate return on investment (Bowman & Branchaw 1992).

This list shows well the differences between solicited and unsolicited proposals. If we prepare a solicited proposal, it is unlikely that they would be rejected on (b) and (c). Obviously the reader's perception is depends on how detailed and unambiguous the RFP was. This is also true in the case of (d). "No trust" may be the case regardless of whether the proposal is solicited or unsolicited.

Beside of this, it is useful to see the following, more detailed list of possible causes for rejection.

1. The proposer did not demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem.

2. The proposal did not arrive by the submission deadline.

3. The information requested in the RFP was not provided.

4. The objectives were not well-defined.

5. The wrong audience was addressed.

6. The procedures and methodology were not specific.

7. The overall design was questionable.

8. The proposal lacked evidence of intent to meet all terms and conditions specified in the RFP.

9. Cost estimates were not realistic: either too high or too low.

10. Resumes of key personnel were inadequate.

11. Personnel lacked experience or the required qualifications.

12. The proposal was poorly written and not well-organized.

13. The proposal did not follow the organizational pattern specified in the RFP.

14. The completed proposal was not attractive.

15. The proposal did not provide adequate assurance that completion deadlines would be met.

16. Essential data were not included in the proposal.

17. The proposed facilities were inadequate.

18. The proposal failed to show that essential equipment and facilities were available.

19. The proposed time schedule was unrealistic.

20. The proposal failed to include the qualifications of the submitting organization (Bowman & Branchaw 1992).

We have mentioned the importance of proposals to be well-written. The above arguments have proven how important is the role that extralingual factors play in producing successful proposals. Just to mention one obvious issue: If the proposal does not arrive by the submission deadline, is this fact related in any way to linguistics?



Bowman, J.P. & Branchaw, B.P. (1992). How to Write Proposals that Produce. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press.

Connor, U. & Mauranen, A. ( 1999). Linguistic Analysis of Grant Proposals: European Union Research Grants. English for Specific Purposes. Vol. 18, No. 1, 47–62.

Haselkorn, M.P. (1985). Proposals. Research in technical communication. M.G. Moran and D. Journet, (Eds.), (255-283). Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Koltay, T. (2003) A referálás elmélete és gyakorlata (Theory and practice of abstracting [In Hungarian] Budapest: Könyvtári Intézet.

Markel, M.H. (1998). Technical Writing. Situations and Strategies. 2nd ed. New York: St.Martin's.

Maylath, B. (1997) Writing Globally. Teaching the Technical Writing Student to Prepare Documents for Translation. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Vol. 11, No. 3, 339-352.

Neufeld, M.L. & Cornog, M. (1983). Abstracting and Indexing: A Career Guide. Philadelphia, NFAIS.

Swales, J.M. (1990).Genre analysis. English in academic and research settings. Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press.

Uso, E & Palmer, J.C. (1998). A product-focused approach to text summarisation. In: The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. 4,No. 1.

This paper is partly based on the author's two earlier articles:

Teaching Proposal Writing to Translators. Translation Journal. Vol. 6., No. 2., April 2002. and Including technical and academic writing in translation curricula. Translation Journal, Vol. 2., No. 2., 1998.

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