Jun 13, 2012

A matter of style

Style guides are underappreciated by most of us I suspect. By me as well. And yet many of us encounter problems, misunderstandings or confusion with clients over matters of formatting, spelling conventions, punctuation, etc.

Once in a while some fairly advanced client presents me with a style guide for English documentation in their company or their client's operation. While these are seldom perfect, they are very helpful, and they provide an important point of orientation for work and a basis for "negotiation" if improvements are needed.

I think that style guides are a service, like terminology, that translators could and should offer to clients, with regular updates. A style guide included with a project proposal might also not be a bad thing; it would lay out clearly the rules of writing which would apply by default to a translation and once again serve as a basis for negotiation if something else is desired. No more "oh, we actually wanted British English" three days after the delivery, with no indication of which British variant (Oxford, please) is desired. And, really, it should not be that hard to produce for most of us who have some notion of the rules we usually follow when we write.

Tools like PerfectIt! are useful for developing and maintaining style guides which can also be used for automated quality assurance procedures to catch those little mistakes which are so easy to overlook.

I've been thinking about style guides for many months now, considering how best to integrate them in my business. Recent efforts to incorporate various old blog entries in hardcopy tutorial documents made it clear to me that I need to consider a style guide for this blog too. Up to now, the formatting of text to indicate interface elements (menu paths, button names, field labels, etc.) has used a riot of colors, fonts and text styles. This is a bit counterproductive for didactic purposes as I really ought to know after nearly 30 years of teaching.

Have style guides played a role in your translation transactions? Have they been useful? What opportunities do you see for making better use of them?


  1. Hi Kevin - thanks for your continuing good work on this blog.

    I have made a few short style guide/glossary hybrids for a couple of long-running clients, where it is important for the style to be consistent over time (press releases, articles, web content, etc.).

    In the absence of other instructions I follow the European Commission English Style Guide and ask clients if they have any special requirements they would like me to follow.

  2. What a great idea! I have helped several companies develop and maintain style guides, and I have to agree-- they are SO incredibly useful, at all stages of the text creation process! There is no doubt that the provision of a style guide as a value-add "extra" would be helpful to translation clients too. Whether or not they see the value immediately, well, that varies. :)

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Good article!

    We have found that style guides pay huge dividends, mainly in two ways:

    First, some of our clients struggle with their source language authoring. Consistency across writers or from document to document can be a challenge. These then manifest themselves in delays and translation issues downstream.

    In several instances, we have worked with clients to create style guides for their writers and then train the writers in its use and in writing for translation in general.

    Second, on large projects, they help us with consistency, quality, cost, and turnaround time.

    But one problem is that many style guides are too long to be useful. They don't have to be - we have found that a one-pager is often sufficient but it is a tough balancing act to get it just detailed enough yet. (We recently wrote about this on Medical Translation Insight as well.)


  4. As a one-time author of an in-house technical writing style guide, I should be very positive about them in translation. And I'm sure that those who have been positive about this subject so far, have indeed found them useful. My personal experience of them in translation has not been a happy one though. The case that comes to mind is a project last summer. Poor project management from beginning to end:
    1. late delivery of source materials for a nonetheless urgent deadline
    2. a server-based termbase that you couldn't access according to the directions provided
    3. a TM delivered in non-canonical format (a Trados 2007 TM provided as a set of files rather than a single Trados text export or a single TMX file... the result: an unusable TM)
    4. a superficial, frequently ambiguous, and needlessly lengthy style guide that made you feel that you'd wasted your time opening it to read the thing.

    So, I think that if the style guide is itself well-written, clearly laid out, targets the specific industry or company context and is delivered in time to be read properly before the actual translation work, this kind of document has a point. I agree with the poster above who alluded the importance of a context with a lot of recurrent work for the same customer, one where the source language writers had to follow a similar, parallel guide, and where adherence to the rules was assessed.


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