October 2, 2014

4 Tips for Translation-Friendly Tech Writing

As a fairly new member of the Excosoft team, I’m honoured to add a few words to our blogosphere. My background isn’t foremost in engineering, but rather in linguistics, translation, and technical writing—so I'll be contributing on those topics.

Ah, the art of technical translation. Or to be frank, the sometimes quick-and-dirty business of cutting costs on the things that rank low on the totem pole of your company’s corporate structure, such as the information you send out with your product (we do not support this view!). Most would agree that information in a user manual must  be understandable enough to avoid product mishandle that results in injury, sudden death, or related lawsuits. Preferably it should be good enough as to not affect your corporate image negatively. Opinions and demands differ, but let’s look at the hen instead of the egg: if you hand in a cheap poster for framing, you’re not going to get a Mona Lisa back. Technical information must be written in a way that takes its eventual translation into consideration. How? Following are 4 key tips for producing “trans(re)latable” technical writing.

1) Be Boring

Remember in school when your teacher told you to “vary” your prose? Let’s forget about that (unless you’re still in school). In technical writing it’s better to be boring and consistent - sticking to a defined terminology and writing in short sentences. There even exists technical writing departments that specialize in the reduction of synonyms.

There’s no shame in keeping it simple, so long as brevity does not reduce understanding. A concise, consistent, and controlled language will generate great  benefits when time comes for your text to be translated: you’re more likely to get more hits in the translation memory, and your text’s potential for reusability will grow. Additionally, if your company has plans to switch over to automated translation - always a possibility nowadays - you will benefit from using consistent language with short sentences, since such systems primarily use statistics gathered from your corpora to estimate probabilities.

2) Be Informative and Non-Ambiguous

A technical writer should be informative. The average translator is not a technical expert, and thus relies on a well-written source-text where each piece of information may be understood independently of its context. However, this will not always be the case, no matter how good the technical writer is.

In Excosoft’s CCMS, Skribenta, translators benefit from the fact that each unit of translation (a block), includes a chunk of information larger than the usual sentence, thus reducing ambiguity caused by lack of context.

There are times, however, when the unit of translation may be exactly 1 word; for example, a text string for a menu button within a user interface (many of us have had a good laugh at interface translations I would guess). And if we are especially unlucky, it’s a homonym - words that share the same spelling, and even pronunciation, but differ in meaning. Just think of the different meanings inherent in  words like “bow” and “press”. In such cases, do not Google translate solitary words, unless you want to be made a laughing stock. Use your translation agency and provide them with a translation hint in your translation order.

3) Be Impersonal

Personal pronouns have no place in technical texts. Unless you’d really like to discuss cultural etiquette with your translation agency on a daily basis, be impersonal. French, Japanese, and many other languages employ honorifics, grammatical forms that encode social status.

4) Don't Get Lost in Translation

There’s always a risk that a word goes missing at some point between a text's original technical authoring, and its relayed translation. Technical translators often work on tight  deadlines; susceptible to accepting fuzzy matches from the translation memory with a quick hit on the return key, and quickly rearranging inline elements to fit the grammatical structure of the target language. It’s easy to see how a word or two might get lost. And  in the case of MIA negations, the actual meaning of a sentence might be reversed.

I once stumbled upon this translation:

Do install the child car seat on the passenger side equipped with airbag.”

Poor kid… In this case, the negation in the Swedish source-text (“inte”) had disappeared somewhere along the way. In general, it’s preferable, even safer to apply morphological inflection instead of negating verbs or adjectives where possible: do not=avoid; not strong=weak; not enough=insufficient.


These were my top 4 tips for tech writers working with translation. Let's hope your next translation project is a da Vinci.

For more tips just for tech writers, and other blogging-goodness from the Excosoft team, feel free to explore our blog.

About the author

Peter Strömbäck

Super-linguist of the team, Peter has extensive knowledge in linguistics, translation, and technical writing. Plus, he’s positive and hard-working.

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  • Excosoft
  • Information Design
  • Skribenta
  • Translation
  • User Experience

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