Technical Translation: Best Practices for Usability

Every document or application has both a target audience and a purpose. Usability is how we measure whether the target reader can use the document for its intended purpose.

Let’s take an example from everyday life. If you purchase an electric pressure cooker and you have never used one before, you will need to read the user manual. If the manual is filled with confusing technical jargon and you are not able to understand when to use each of the different settings, then it fails from a usability perspective.

How technical translation best practices affect the usability

Usability needs to be top of mind whenever we translate technical copy, whether that means instruction manuals, warning labels, or the user interface. Established best practices for technical translation take usability into account. These best practices aim to ensure that the translated text is “fit for purpose”—in other words, can the specific target reader understand and apply what they read?

To meet usability standards, the translated copy should:

  • Be understandable for the target reader 
  • Use terminology relevant to the target market
  • Be consistent within the document as well as with related material
  • Make sense within context—particularly if inserted into a user interface

In this article, we will take a look at technical translation best practices—organized to follow the steps of the translation process—to enhance the usability of translated documents.

Develop a robust brief

Technical Translation Best Practices

One of the key components of a successful technical translation is a thorough brief. Developed through close collaboration with the client, the brief helps define how usability will be measured for this project.

The brief needs to clearly state the information a translator needs, including:

  • The target market, including the geographic area
  • The purpose of the document
  • The desired tone of voice
  • The reader’s level of expertise

The level of expertise is especially important in technical translation. For example, both pool companies and individual homeowners purchase pool cleaners. But how a manual should be translated depends on who will be reading it. Pool technicians have much more expertise and therefore can easily understand industry-specific vocabulary. Homeowners, on the other hand, may need installation and maintenance guidelines that assume they have never worked with such a system before.

Geographic area also comes into play for two reasons. One is that vocabulary may vary based on the country. For example, English speakers in Canada use wrenches to tighten fasteners; outside of North America, the same tool is called a spanner. Similarly, European French texts about IT often use Anglicisms such as e-mail. In Québec, terms with French roots are preferred (ex. courriel), even when that means coining a new word.

Secondly, the geographic area also dictates any laws or regulations that may be in place. If a product is to be sold in Québec, its packaging or instructions may need to meet certain requirements. The EU as a whole has certain regulations regarding product documentation, and its member states may also set their own standards.

A detailed brief ensures that the translation will be understandable to its intended audience. It also makes sure that it complies with any relevant laws or norms.

Select expert translators, reviewers, and terminologists

Another best practice in technical translation is to handpick the linguists for each individual project.

The process starts long before a project begins, by developing a pool of experienced translators with specialization in technical topics. Their subject area knowledge should be proven by a combination of educational qualifications, industry experience, testing, and portfolio pieces. 

From within that pool, project managers can then select the most qualified team. Even within the broader area of “technical translation,” it is important to look closely at a linguist’s profile to make sure they fit the brief for the industry at hand.  

Linguists with subject matter expertise are best positioned to understand the end-user for the translation, and how to create a document that’s fit for purpose.

Create a thorough glossary

No list of technical translation best practices would be complete without discussing terminology management and glossaries. 

Glossary creation occurs early in the process once the brief has been provided.

Linguists comb through the source copy, looking for words and phrases that are challenging or ambiguous. They also look for terms that recur often. Once the source list is compiled, they research each term, review any reference material, and propose a translation. 

After the draft glossary is created, subject matter experts on the client’s side review it (whenever possible) to provide feedback. They often have unique insight on the terms used by the target audience, and they may suggest new terms as well.

Once created, the glossary is then imported into a Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tool for translators to reference as they work.

Ensure internal and external consistency throughout the document

Consistency is another of the technical translation best practices that leads to a usable final document.

We have identified two ways in which a technical translation needs to be consistent.

Internal consistency means that the document is consistent with itself. It should not use one term for a process on page 56, and a different term on page 102. The reader should not have to flip back and forth to clarify.

External consistency ensures that the document is consistent with the product it is referring to. For example, the help center for a software application needs to use the same terminology that appears within the program’s menus. Likewise, an instruction manual for a piece of manufacturing equipment should use the same language as appears on the warning labels for that machine.

A solid glossary often helps avoid internal consistency issues, particularly on larger projects that may involve multiple translators. Likewise, CAT tools play a major role in ensuring consistency—not only do they flag glossary terms, but they can also be configured to verify that specific terms were used in the target text.

Likewise, the QA process—discussed later in this article—should emphasize consistency within individual documents. Reviewers should look carefully for instances of inconsistent terminology.

Translation memories also play a large role in enabling consistency. A translation memory is a database that pairs segments of text from the source language with their translations. When used with a CAT tool, translation memories can show a translator how a similar segment was handled elsewhere. Since segments from different documents can be included in a shared translation memory, it can be used to ensure external as well as internal consistency.

Maintain open lines of communication

With technical translation, especially in niche subject areas, the client is often the authority on the subject matter. When translators are able to ask specific questions, the result will be a higher quality document.

When working on a translation project, designate team members who can respond to the linguistic team’s questions. Include speakers of both the source and target language, as well as experts on the process or product at the center of the project. 

If the team that created the source-language document is available, they can help the translator clarify any ambiguities in the text.

In return, translators often provide feedback that can be useful for technical writers and other team members. They may indicate inconsistencies or ambiguities in the original text.

Ensure thorough quality assurance

The use of an exacting quality assurance (QA) process is another best practice in technical translation.

To minimize errors and ambiguities, and to avoid inconsistencies, the QA process should involve a different linguist at every step. While translators review their own work before submitting it, another linguist should edit it. When editing is complete, a third linguist proofreads the final document to spot anything the others might have missed.

As part of this process, editors and proofreaders are also given the initial brief, so that they consider the target audience and the document’s purpose as they make their changes.

In-context QA for apps, software, and websites

We assess the usability of a document by asking if the target reader can understand the material and apply it as needed.

For mobile apps, software, and websites, we need to go a step further and ask how the translation fits in with the user interface. Are users able to navigate successfully through a website? Do the translations make sense once they appear in the context of a webpage or a program?

Let’s look at a common example from e-commerce websites: English sites use the word “Home” to refer to the main page of a website as well as a category of goods. But Spanish uses Ínicio in the first instance and Casa in the second. If the wrong word populates in a dropdown menu, users may be confused.

For that reason, in-context QA is important for all applications and websites. The translation process often involves extracting segments of text from the original, then populating the translations when complete. In-context QA has a speaker of the target language navigate the translated site or program, looking for potential errors in meaning, layout, and functionality.

By relying on these technical translation best practices, we can deliver a translated document that users easily read, understand, and apply in practical situations. 

Art One Translations applies these principles to each technical translation project we deliver. If you have product documentation, interfaces, or other technical copy that requires translation and localization for your target market, we would love to discuss our technical translation process with you. Contact our team today, or request an obligation-free quote.

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