Why Successful Translation of Technical Texts Starts with a Technical Writer

The best way to ensure that your translated technical texts are effective is by starting with well-written documentation in your source language.  In this article, we are going to share common roadblocks that companies face when it comes to the translation of technical texts. Then we will talk about strategies that technical writers can use to get the best possible result.

Potential Issues in Translation of Technical Texts 

When your company sets out to translate a technical manual, operating instructions, or user guide, there are several potential issues to keep in mind:

  • Text expansion
    Simply put, it takes a different number of words (or characters) to convey the same concepts in each language. For example, the text expands on average by 20% when translated from English to Spanish or German. That means that you may need 1200 words to convey the same meaning that took 1000 words in English.
  • Cultural knowledge
    A successful translation is easy for the target audience to understand, without having to resort to Wikipedia. In other words, using idioms, pop culture references, or even country-specific symbols can create roadblocks for the reader.  
  • Lack of clarity
    Nothing is more frustrating for a user than not understanding the operating manual or installation guide for a newly purchased product. But unclear instructions can confuse even the savviest users. 
  • Inadequate context
    Clear technical writing explains concepts with enough context that the target user can understand them. Technical document translation needs to ensure that this context is not lost when moving from one language to another, and may even require additional context based on the target language and culture.

5 Ways Technical Writers Can Facilitate Translation of Technical Texts

Even if they do not speak more than one language, a technical writer can make translating technical documents easier by considering the final product. Writers increase the value of technical writing when they ensure that it is easy to translate.

Here are a few key guidelines to consider when developing technical documents that will undergo translation:

Write for a Global Audience 

Imagine that you are writing technical documentation for a popular product such as Gmail. As a native speaker, you may be writing in English, but the final product will be translated into dozens of languages. Ultimately, these user guides will be read by people in Tokyo, Cairo, and Buenos Aires.

So how can you make it easier to translate texts such as user guides and operating instructions—and deliver the best possible documentation for all users?

  • Use active voice. Passive voice can over-complicate sentences and make them difficult to parse. For example, write “The ticketing system handles user requests,” rather than “User requests are handled through the ticketing system.”
  • Avoid idioms and metaphors. Yes, idioms and metaphors can be translated into another language, but their intended meaning may not transfer. Stick to clear, descriptive language.
  • Choose the simplest word. Use rather than utilize, buy rather than purchase, simple rather than straightforward.
  • Give context where necessary. Rather than assume that the translator will know that you are referring to the U.S. state of Georgia instead of the country, specify inside parenthesis.
  • Include articles before nouns. In both spoken and written English, we often elide a second article: “Did you want the purple or green?” Make the sentence clearer by writing “Did you want the purple or the green?”
  • Use parallel structure. This list of bullet points is a good example: each one starts with a simple verb in the imperative form: Open the box and remove the device. This makes them easier for the reader to parse—and gives the translator a sense of how to structure the content.
  • Avoid gerunds. English speakers rely heavily on gerunds (-ing words, like writing). But they can make sentences more difficult for non-native English speakers to parse correctly, increasing the potential for misunderstanding. 

Avoid Ambiguity Whenever Possible

Writing With Translation of Technical Texts

When writing with translation of technical texts in mind, writers should avoid ambiguity. What seems obvious to one person could be unclear to another—never make assumptions.

English has a number of words with opposite meanings, also known as “contranyms”. In some contexts, sanction means to approve of something; in others, it means to boycott it. Other words have multiple plausible interpretations: does bimonthly mean twice a month, or once every two months?

Pronouns are another source of ambiguity during technical manual translation. In Spanish, for example, it is common to drop personal pronouns. But within a sentence, a verb such as tenía could refer to I, he, she, it, or you. Good technical writing will use pronouns strategically to make sure the meaning is clear. 

Some technical writers go a step further and use “controlled language,” which means that they follow a specific set of rules when writing. The rules might include a limited vocabulary, avoiding passive voice, or adhering to a maximum number of words per sentence. Among the major companies that have created their own versions of controlled language for technical communication are Caterpillar, IBM, and Xerox. 

Focus on Consistency

Use the same vocabulary throughout the document. For example, if you say “Turn to page 50 of the manual for troubleshooting,” stick to using the word manual elsewhere. 

It can be tempting to use synonyms to keep the text from sounding repetitive, but this can lead to confusion during translation of technical texts. If you switch between manual, user guide, and handbook, the translator will then need to confirm if they all refer to the same document.

To make translation of technical texts easier, you may want to create a style guide for your project, which we will discuss further on in this article.

Accept Feedback from the Translator During Translation of Technical Texts

Technical documentation translation can enhance the source text as well. A translator will closely read each sentence of the original document. During translation of technical texts, he or she may identify potential issues that impact the source text.

For example, a translator might suggest a way to rephrase a sentence in the source to avoid ambiguity.  Or they might notice multiple words being used to refer to the same concept, introducing the potential for confusion.

Translators will also bring a new cultural perspective and can identify ways to improve the document by removing references to cultural concepts. They may also find places where more context is needed for a reader to understand a concept.

For the best possible result, keep the lines of communication open during translation of technical texts. Allow translators to provide feedback and ask technical writers about their intent or thought process. 

Develop a Style Guide

During Translation of Technical Texts

Unless you are a very small company, more than one person is probably involved in writing and editing your technical texts. The best way to keep everyone on the same page is by creating a robust style guide. This will ensure you stay consistent within one document as well as across all documents.

Your style guide can include rules such as:

  • Grammar and usage: Are writers ever allowed to use the passive voice? Do you use the Oxford comma for clarity?
  • Terminology: Will you use the term “hotkeys” or “shortcuts” in your user manual?
  • Inclusive language: What pronouns do you use to refer to an individual user? 
  • Formatting: How do you write dates and times? How should phone numbers be formatted?

Many tech companies, such as Rackspace and Mailchimp, have made their style guides publicly available as examples.

After you have created a style guide, you can input the rules into software such as ProWritingAid or PerfectIt. They have plugins for common software such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs, which allow you to automatically check your text against custom style guide rules as you write.

Once you have a source-language style guide, you can also provide it to your translation team. It will help them understand your writers’ style choices and how your brand expresses itself. They can use it as the basis for a target-language style guide as well.

How Art One Can Assist You with Translation of Technical Texts

At Art One Translations, we have extensive experience in translation of technical texts, from handbooks and maintenance manuals to operating instructions and user manuals. We can translate any documents that your target audiences need to use your product and service.

Our team of subject matter experts can deliver high-quality, easy-to-understand translations. We have a three-step translation process that includes editing and quality control, and we also handle the project management so that you have a single contact with us.

We understand the importance of technical writing for your growth, and we are here to help you grow even further by creating a translated version of any technical texts your users need. For more information on our technical translation services, contact Art One Translations today.

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