Translating technical documentation

It’s tricky – the challenge of translating technical texts

3 Dos and Don’ts for your technical translations

Construction manuals, user manuals, operating manuals, user instructions, assembly manuals, online assistance, process descriptions, QM handbooks, training documents, tutorials – so many different texts contain technical information.

In our technology-oriented world, their number continues to rise. Numerous laws, (EU) directives and norms also mean that manufacturers of technical devices have to fulfil more and more complex information requirements – and as a result, the demand and quality standards for the translation of technical documentation also increase in turn.

According to the Gesellschaft für Technische Kommunikation, known as tekom for short, product information is on average translated into twelve different languages. But can these painstakingly produced technical texts simply be entrusted to any random translation agency? Definitely not! And technical authors themselves are well aware of this. After all, there are specific rules governing technical communication, and they are actually quite numerous.

 

Technical documentation – exact and unambiguous

The rules of technical communication are intended to ensure that content is never ambiguous, leaving no room for interpretation – so the content cannot be misunderstood.

To put this into perspective: an advertising text for a product is intended to win over potential buyers – often they succeed in doing this both with coherent content AND on the meta-level. Alongside the basic information, they resonate with promises that are intended to trigger the precise feelings which incite customers to make a purchase.

On the other hand, product information texts should be as factual as possible. Such texts are required to explain exactly how the product should be used with zero ambiguity – and with NO meta-level. The main task of technical documentation is to rule out as far as possible any form of ambiguity in order to avoid user errors.

 

Correct utilisation – this can be a life-saver

Whereas imprecise operating instructions for a toy car may “only” potentially cause frustration, a production line of incorrectly assembled vehicles can cause consequential costs running into the millions. And apart from one-off financial damages or medium-term loss of image, incorrect utilisation due to an ambiguously formulated technical document can also lead to personal damages, which in the worse case scenario can even cause danger to life.

Technical communication is an important aspect of product safety, amongst other things because of descriptions of protective measures, warnings and storage life information, and is therefore part of the legal duty of care of companies to prevent harm to end consumers.

 

Technical documentation – consistency is key

Consistency – the uniform use of consistent linguistic devices – is the key to producing texts which are as unambiguous as possible. This is the ultimate aim of technical communication. This means that all terms and formulations used in the documentation must always be used in the same form without exception – both within a text and also generally across documents and media.

Varied synonyms and paraphrasing would have a negative effect on the quality in this case. Instructions are one example of this, which are often found in technical documentation such as manuals and user instructions: Click the button and Select the interface may be synonymous with regard to content, but should not be used interchangeably, as this only causes unnecessary confusion. 

 

Strictly consistent

This “principle of equality” in technical communication applies to word selection, sentence construction, document structure and formatting in equal measure. Not only this, but operating instructions should be formulated chronologically as a rule, in such a way that the What is explained first, then if applicable the where and then finally the how

Example: To complete the registration process (what), click on the email (where) to follow the activation link (how). And not: Click on the activation link in the email, then registration will be complete.

If the language and layout follow the stipulated rules, then technical documentation works like traffic lights: it can be quickly grasped by participants, it is easy to understand and it offers them a helpful point of orientation.

 

Technical translation – similar, but different

Very similar rules apply to translations of these text types. Technical translation is a discipline in its own right in the field of technical communication. That’s because by its very nature, all of the rules that apply in one language cannot always be transposed 1:1 to all other languages without sounding odd or even allowing room for misunderstandings.

Anyone commissioning technical translations should therefore bear the following dos and don’ts in mind:

 

Technical translations – 3 dos and don’ts

Dos

  • 1. Finding suitable specialists


    Assertion or proof? Finding suitable specialists

    For technical documentation, it makes sense to use professional translators, and indeed specialist technical translators. The problem: the professional title of translator is not protected. And there are many different career paths leading into this profession: university studies, voluntary work, lateral entry from another career path – a graduate technical translator is not necessarily better suited than an engineer who became a translator through lateral entry.

    Translation agencies can also easily claim that they can also handle technical translations. It is therefore a good idea to ask more specific questions about whether and how the translation agency demonstrably ensures the suitability and quality of their native speaker specialist translators.

     

  • 2. Counting on the right knowledge


    Wide-ranging or in-depth? Counting on the right knowledge

    Who is better suited to produce specialist translations of your technical documentation? A technical editor with a broad knowledge of a variety of industries or an engineer with an in-depth specialisation in your particular field? A linguist specialising in technical subjects? Could it be a technician who has completed further studies in translation? Or could a tech-savvy copywriter even be the ideal translator for your project?

    To a greater or lesser degree, all of them could be suitable to carry out technical translations of your content. The more details your briefing about the relevant project for the translation agency contains, the better placed you will be to find the ideal translator!

     

  • 3. Compare the costs for the glossary


    Thrifty or lavish? Compare the costs for the glossary

    It’s logical, too: the translation agency will pay attention to strict terminological consistency. And it will be as automated as possible using your existing glossary or one that has been newly created for your purposes. Ideally, your glossary should include all of the technical terms within your desired translation, including a description or definition, rules governing usage and also forbidden terms which must not be used. You can either maintain the glossary yourself or entrust this task to the terminology management team at your translation agency – this service costs money but will save you time and money in the long run. A well-maintained glossary is worth its weight in gold for keeping technical translations consistent. It’s worth comparing the details of the quotation. 

    Another tip: You should be aware that some technical translation agencies can be reluctant to return your glossary to you if you want to take it with you when switching to another service provider. However, the ownership rights do actually belong to you and/or your company.

     

Don'ts

  • 1. Don’t put blind faith in old reference documents


    Still good or time to get rid of it? Don’t put blind faith in old reference documents

    Common error: It feels as though the best showpiece or material was only created recently and your experience with it was the very best. But in actual fact, it is already outdated. With the advent of new technologies and changes to languages, technical terms have already changed – the world is simply spinning faster than it used to.

    Take a look at what you are sending your translation agency as reference material for your technical communications. If these texts need to be revised in various places, there is a danger that an undesirable imitation effect may be found in the translated document. A professional translation therefore starts with a good briefing and up-to-date reference material.

     

  • 2. When you aren’t strictly consistent


    Without exception or room for exceptions? When you aren’t strictly consistent

    If you’ve mastered the rules, sometimes you can break them – if necessary. In fact, consistency is the ultimate goal of technical communication. But increasingly, “hard” technical documentation is blended with “soft” user information for the end consumer. Documentation is not only required to be unambiguous, it must also represent the brand. Many companies want a specific tone of voice to be reflected in their instruction manuals, online assistance and tutorials too.

    Unambiguous terminology and synonymous wordings come together here. In this case, solutions and compromises must be found: which term can be used where and how does this work in other languages? You can establish an appropriate rule for professional translation in advance in collaboration with your translation agency.

     

  • 3. You don’t always have to use the same solution


    Human or machine? You don’t always have to use the same solution

    Machine translation is reputed to be better than human translation, particularly for technical documentation. In machine translation, no inadvertent mistakes such as typos are made, measurements are correctly converted and the machine doesn’t forget anything, not even the most minor points. For an error-free text, a correction stage is also required, i.e. post editing is carried out by a human (with technical knowledge).

    The combination of both translation types can be unbeatable. However, in many cases, human translation can be the more intelligent solution. It always depends on the specific text type and its specifications. You should allow the translation agency to test out which translation solution is right for your texts. For various text types, this might involve different methods. Making a smart choice can save time and money.

     

Summary

The volume of technical documentation is growing, both with regard to the (required) media and the languages required. Although, or in fact specifically because they are intended to make things as easy as possible for users, technical texts are tricky and challenging to produce.

Professional documentation has to follow a number of rules and must fulfil legal specifications, guidelines and standards. As a rule, technical communication forms part of product safety and must increasingly master the balancing act with promotional product information, including user manuals. For technical translations, quality requirements are extremely high. This means that translations should only ever be produced by qualified translators – more specifically, by experienced industry or specialist translators who are native speakers.

Ideally, the task of verifying who is the right translator for the respective text type or technical product should be entrusted to a certified translation agency. Using machine translation can be a smart choice, but this is not always the case – this too should be thoroughly tested out by the service provider in advance. 

Once all of the requirements have been clarified, you'll find that it's actually not that difficult to translate the text after all; in fact, it's a breeze!