Language is more than just a series of words. It connects people through common ideas, and translation is the magic ticket that helps it to cross foreign borders. Technical documentation translation takes the challenge to entirely new level, demanding a degree of accuracy that few other niches require. That’s further complicated by the need to find the right terminology which is not only industry-appropriate but also specific to the organization.
The term “technical documentation” has a wide berth. In engineering, it covers the functionality and architecture of a piece of technology. In the pharmaceutical industry, it refers to the assembly, safety, and efficacy of medications. The term applies to technical documents in a huge range of industries from instructional manuals of kitchen appliances to software user guides, engineering operation and maintenance manuals for heavy machinery, advisory services reports, proposals, to name a few. Some must appeal to industry equals, while others need enough clarity to reach across sectors. That makes technical documentation translation particularly challenging. To complicate the matter further, such manuals often take the form of image-rich handbooks with complex structure and formatting.
Multi-lingual technical documentation must penetrate new markets and meet the challenges of niche industries without disrespecting cultural differences. If that’s not challenging enough, document formatting must remain consistent despite a 10 to 30% text expansion that sends your pagination off balance. Let’s look at a few tips for coaxing accuracy out of the toughest documents and to ensure your technical documentation translation goes on as smoothly as possible.
- Keep Your Technical Documentation Translation Simple
Technical writers are sometimes prone to complicated sentences and fancy wording. It’s the translator’s job to smooth out those sentences to achieve sharp, clear statements. Limiting dependent clauses and idiomatic expressions goes far in avoiding misinterpretation.
The outcome of technical documentation translation will be best if compound words and sentences are transformed into something short and sharp. Idioms and abstractions are easily misinterpreted and often contain cultural mores, so they should be translated literally. Better yet, make sure the source material doesn’t include them. Half of success of technical documentation translation lies in the hands of the original writer, so be mindful of technical writing guidelines.
- Begin with the Right File Format
Not all file types preserve formatting and pagination well. Responsive HTML and CSS holds onto layout exceptionally well, but imported PDFs throw all original formatting out the window. The rule of thumb is to send the original source files to your translation provider. This will not only save time on file conversion and text extractions but also allow their DTP team to provide clean post-translation typesetting of your document that will have the same look and feel as your original.
- Be Cautious of Cultural References and Symbols
Even technical writing can be rich in cultural references. Don’t assume that foreign cultures use western symbols either. If you are dealing with a global customer base, it might be difficult to learn about the cultures of all the countries where you are doing business and be familiar with what in these countries is culturally appropriate and what is not. Therefore, it is important to rely on skilled in-country translators who are not only bilingual but also bi-cultural and are expert in translating technical documentation. They will have a working knowledge of which language elements cross borders and will be able to spot inappropriate cultural references and advise on modifying them.
- Localize Rather than Translate
Every region has cultural barriers. When translating technical documentation, it is important to adapt a product’s translation to a specific “locale”, a country or a region. Localization provides a more nuanced translation, avoiding the overly-literal in exchange for a more culturally aware result. The goal of localization is to aim beyond mere text conversion, and keep in mind the importance of localizing layouts, visuals, units of measurement, dates and currency formats among other specifics. A good technical translation is the one that does not feel as a translation but rather as a text specifically written for a target audience.
- Automate Repeatable Tasks
If you will be repeating indices, references, and tables of content, automate them so that you can focus on more important tasks. Software can make your formatting fool-proof across target languages. Maker Interchange Formats will preserve your entire document’s formatting without separating your translation from it. That can get in the way of developing consistency across documents—a problem that structured formatting solves. DITA or XML applications keep format rules separate, relying on commands to map your text. Automation can also:
- Change fonts for specific languages
- Adjust your indents to make room for expansion
- Alter your prefix text
- Prepare for Text Expansion
Foreign languages tend to expand English text, and that requires preparation. Documents may need to be resized, and images might need to be shifted. Increased character counts can skew your entire format, so prepare for them early by making your initial document easy to edit. You can re-paginate your text after the fact or create a smaller font, but this achieves sloppy results. If you are working with a website, responsive design handles the problem with far more finesse. If you are using other formats, including extra space in your initial draft might be a good idea.
Expansion varies by language. German requires about 30% more space, while Italian only needs 10%. German is rich in 70-letter words, yet all Vietnamese words are monosyllabic. That has dire effects on your image layouts unless you exercise plenty of forethought. Character-based languages will need vertical and horizontal expansion, so your best bet here is to ensure your documents are easy to edit. To complicate the matter further, right-to-left languages need to be left-oriented, and images are often placed on the right.
Cultural differences extend far beyond mere word-length. Every country has its own document norms. North America relies on letter size, while Europe uses A4 formats. The latter are longer and narrower, so layout often needs to be adjusted. Legal and foolscap sizes of paper have their own dimension differences, and while most countries have accepted ISO 216 paper sizes, many still use a different standard.
- Use the Correct Terminology
Incorrect terminology has legal implications that can cost a pretty penny in the long run, so use defined terminology across your entire organization. This way, all your content will be consistent, and serious errors can be avoided on a large scale. A terminology guide or glossary of terms with your organization’s preferred translation will help your translation provider to localize and brand your content. Typically, the glossary includes the term, its part of speech, its preferred translation and a descriptive note with more information on the meaning, as well as the context in which it is used.
- Link Your Images
Embedded images are difficult and time consuming to edit and can shift your format with minor text changes. They also expand your file size by as much as 20 times. Linked images will keep their compression no matter the format of your technical documentation translation, limiting your reformatting to textual elements. That will make your job considerably simpler. Keep all your images in the same folder as your document to avoid broken links.
- Stay Aware of Legalese
Contracts and agreements must comply with your target industry’s regulations. Underestimating the power of regulatory language can result in serious financial penalties. A professional translation company will make sure to assign the translation of such documents to an experienced in-country translator who specializes in the regulatory landscape of your industry and can advise your team and modify translations accordingly.
- Prepare for the Future
Translation doesn’t end with the final submission. The documents you hand over to your customer have a long future ahead of them, so they must be easy to maintain. They will need regular updating as industries learn and evolve, and end-users must always have access to that new data. Digital preservation is an art in itself, and not all file formats offer it. TIFFs, for example, are widely adapted and accessible to a huge range of software, so they’re considered a good preservation format. XMLs are preferable for database management systems, and CSV files make spreadsheets easy to preserve. Automation and digital technology can make updates a walk in the park or a hike through the center of the earth. The right translation company has a host of software tools in the works to ensure accuracy and speed, and that comes at a decidedly lighter price.
Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools allow to speed up the process of updating the documents considerably. Translation Memories (TM) standardize terminology translations, shaving hours off of the process by using a database of stored segments that have been translated in the past. This way, text units can be applied and reapplied across the lifespan of your documents.
Building a sustainable strategy for technical documentation translation projects requires juggling hundreds of technologies, procedures, and publishing tools at once. Choose a technical translation company that has every trick up its sleeve, and you’ll never have to drop another ball again.
You might also be interested in learning about some trends in technical writing in 2020.
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