Setting up your source files for translation

by | Aug 5, 2019

In early ’90s, the need for clear instructions to accompany consumer products arouse dramatically. Consequently, many organizations issued the first relevant standards. One example of this is the ISO Guide 37:1995. More or less at the same time, international trades were booming, thus driving manufacturers’ attention on multilingual documentation.

On the cusp of this trend, in 2006 the European Union issued the Machinery Directive.

The Directive was explicitly aimed at ensuring a common safety level in machinery placed on the market or put in service in all member states. More specifically, the Directive stated that “each machine must be accompanied by instructions for use in the official Community language or languages of the Member State where the machine is placed on the market and/or put into service.” (Art. 1.74)

According to the Directive, symbols and pictograms should be preferred, while written instructions should be clear, easily understandable and concise, and above all, suitable for non-professional users. Writing for translation, therefore, means first of all setting up the source text so that translation or localization can take place without a hitch.

What follows are a few attention points that will help you set up your source content and prepare it for translation and localization.

Source Content

Start by accurately identifying your target audience to work on the most useful content. Focus on the information the users in that group need the most. In the case of a catalog or website translation, for example, you might want to arrange for shorter or revised versions. Make the sections containing information about customer support or how to contact a sales representative relevant to the appropriate geographic locale.

In some instances, (technical) documentation might require ancillary materials. For example, when preparing user’s documentation you might also have to translate warning labels; the same goes for messages in software user interfaces.

Design and Layout

If your documentation is to be built around pictograms and icons, it is best to use self-explanatory drawings and images. For example, in the case of mechanical equipment, you could use exploded views in which the various parts are numbered and a legend with the numbers is shown below the image.

Never create a document in which the various components are indicated in full on the image itself, because your translator might not be able to access them for translation at all.

This is particularly important when localizing software documentation. First of all, decide whether you should localize the screenshots. If you do, it’s essential to start the project by translating the software screens first and then provide the localized screenshots to the translators. If you don’t, in some cases the translators won’t be able to access the source text locked within the graphics.

Always provide large blank spaces within images to accommodate the text and drive the reader’s eye. Text will expand in some languages and may contract in others. For example, an English-to-Italian translation will contain 15-20% more words than the source texts. This means that you need to keep an eye on font sizes and page margins as well as images and graphics, not to mention boxes and labels in graphic user interfaces.

Terminology, Language, and Controlled Authoring

The first priority must be terminology. A sound terminology policy will help your writers avoid ambiguity, a sore point especially if your company is going to implement machine translation in the localization workflow. Also, a well-structured termbase will help improve accuracy in documentation and reuse content units. Don’t forget your training; and user support staff might also use the same documentation as your users, so consistency will help reduce calls and complaints.

Probably needless to say, writing style is also important. Information must be written as simply as possible, bearing in mind never to sacrifice accuracy for simplicity. Business and technical writers are fond of George Orwell’s six rules for writing, others prefer William Zissner’s classical advice. The Elements of Style is a classic, for better or worse.

Different language, different rules of writing: You’ll also find, for example, that many Italians know Umberto Eco’s rules for writing well (almost) by heart. Anyway, there are plenty of writing manuals available online or through bookshops and public libraries.

Consider writing a company style guide. In some industries, like the publishing and advertising industry, a style guide is a must. But it can also be useful for any organization that prepares documentation for internal and external use. With the help of a stye guide, your writers will all use one specific tone and present your business/brand in a consistent way.

Choose the authoring tools that suit your needs. There are many tools available for controlled authoring, depending on your language needs. If you want to keep it simple, Microsoft Word offers a syntactic-grammatical check complete with readability scores. Google Docs has recently introduced similar functionalities as well.

If you want to keep your sentences short and effective (think Gordon Lish) or if English is not your first language, the Hemingway app or WriteFull can help you keep your sentences as clean as a bone.

A more sophisticated (and more expensive) tool is, for example, Acrolinx. There are also various tools that allow you to structure your technical content. The most popular are Oxygen and Adobe FrameMaker.

Scalability and Maintainability

You must be able to adapt a document to various media and formats. For this you need a two essential tools.

Translation Management Systems (TMS): A TMS will generally comprise glossaries (terminology, again!) but also translation memories containing both source and translated texts. Translation memories will help you reuse previously localized content (in short, you will never translate the same sentence twice), thus reducing overall costs and turnaround time as well as increasing consistency of your translation.

Content Management System (CMS): Make sure that you think about how you’ll connect your content to the different mediums where it may be published, as well as to your translation management system for roundtrip localization. There are specialized CMSs, i.e. specially designed for a precise type of content, and generic CMSs, which tend to be more flexible to allow the publication of different types of content.

If you need to localize your documentation, we recommend choosing a CMS that can be easily connected to a translation management system, allowing you to speed up your translation project and make it more efficient. When you connect your CMS to a TMS, your translators will be able to access the content to be localized as well as translate it in context; for example in the case of a website, they will translate directly on the page. You will then publish the final version on your website (or another platform) with a few clicks.

The ideal combination of CMS and TMS is one that is flexible and scalable enough to allow you to automate. Automation can help you leverage the power of technology to get the most out of all available resources. Translation and localization processes that aren’t streamlined can negatively affect your productivity, quality, and budgets.

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