Nov 24, 2008

How To Write For Translation: The Essential Technical Writer's Guide

I discovered this 36-page PDF gem while visiting the relaunched web site of an Australian partner of mine, Academy Translations. It's available as a free download through a little request box in the sidebar.

The booklet is a nice, concise overview of important issues, not a detailed technical treatise on how to write. As such, it is also an excellent reference for others involved with documentation and translations projects... including translators.

Some of the advice to technical writers, such as the controlled use of language, is just as valuable to translators as it is to original authors. I long ago gave up hope that more than a small fraction of the people writing the technical documentation I translate will follow these principles. There are a few delightful exceptions, but very often I find five synonyms or more in a source document, which good technical style and clarity would require to be reduced to a single term in the English translation. Or the writers fail to understand the proper use of lists, with bullet lists used to explain key ordered sequences, followed by similar instructions in an ordinary paragraph, where the steps are no longer immediately recognized as distinct. Although I often use other methods, I think the style advice for writing documentation is very good.

The booklet also discusses design aspects, such as the use of authoring software, appropriate templates, text formatting and allowing for text expansion, and the importance of style guides and terminology glossaries are expressed. As far as style guides and glossaries are concerned, anyone who translates much is aware that too many clients do not provide such material, and that source documents are often very inconsistent in both respects. Taking this from a translator's perspective, I see it as an opportunity rather than a liability. Keep your own short style guide handy, and submit it for approval as part of a quotation. This is likely to have one of two results, both of them positive:
  • the client will accept your suggestions, probably be grateful for them, and you will look like a pro or
  • the client will provide the style guide information that should have been given to you in the first place.
In the case of a software manual where the names of buttons are written in various ways (Cancel, "Cancel", Cancel, Cancel, , Cancel, etc.) in the same document, I expect the first reaction.

When glossaries are not provided by clients, they have long been part of the "add-on business" or extra service I provide. Depending on the scope, budget and schedule of the project, a terminology project sometimes precedes the translation itself. At the very least, a glossary of terms I want the client to be aware of for purposes of review and possible discussion is submitted with the delivery of the translation. These lists often become the start of the previously neglected corporate terminology.

The guide goes on to give advice on collateral and marketing material, including tips for DTP programs used to produce such material.

Writing online help is covered, with similar issues to conventional documentation (style guides and terminology).

Web site translation issues and tools are presented, and the final sections (which are much too short) cover brand issues and what to do when thnigs go wrong.

The guide is certainly worth its price and more. I found it a refreshing read in exactly the sort of clear, simple style it encourages. Most importantly, it got me to thinking again about what I do right in my work and where my attention should be focused for improvement.

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