Content ≥ Form: Translation Guidelines for Technical Writers

As a technical writer participating in a multilingual project, the greater your understanding of the translation process and cross-cultural issues in general, the better equipped you are to deliver content that is optimized for multiple languages and cultures. This article highlights a few of the most important considerations when you pre-flight your technical writing for global delivery.
Think Metric. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t standardized on the metric system. Providing metric equivalents in the source text helps you ensure consistency and make your own decisions about appropriate units of measurement per the International System of Units (SI), and determine the significant number of digits for each conversion. Beware, however—some things should not be converted, such as wrench sizes and plumbing fittings, for example.
Think Global. Just a few examples… Not only do many countries use different voltages than North America, but the electrical connectors are also different—so your conscientious “3-prong, grounded outlet” advice may not apply to the overseas model of the product. Another common oversight: if toll-free “800” numbers won’t work outside the USA and Canada and you don’t provide alternate phone numbers, how will clients reach Customer Service or Technical Support?
Avoid Catch Phrases and Wordplay. Occasionally spicing up technical text with subculture references or vogue expressions for your own culture can make it more engaging for general audiences. However, these often won’t translate to other languages, and leave translators grasping for near-equivalent expressions—or worse, stilted renditions in the target language. Even trickier are the idiomatic constructions that, as a native speaker, you wouldn’t even think twice about when reviewing text prior to translation. For example, for some translators, “ramp up” or “throttle back” might be more error-prone than “gradually increase” or “decelerate.”
Know Which Regulatory Agencies and Certifications are Relevant. Some end users in the European Union might know what the North American term “UL-listed” means, but for them only the CE marking has similar regulatory importance for health and safety and environmental certification. Similarly, while approvals by the FDA, USDA, other United States authorities may be of some interest, similar regulatory bodies probably govern these fields in your target markets. When possible, list all regulatory approvals and certifications in your source English document (both in the US and elsewhere) to ensure that they appear in every translated version.
Disambiguate. Consider creating a term glossary specifically for the translation teams. As you receive queries while translating one language, be sure to add these explanations to your list. That way, more questions are answered beforehand as additional target languages are added. Often, queries from translators will uncover items that should be reworded in the English original to eliminate any possibility of misinterpretation.
ASIST Translation Services, Inc. is a full-service interpreting and translation agency located in Columbus, Ohio. We provide technical translation, interpreting, proofreading, studio voice recording and media production, localization of interactive and Web content, and specialized language services to clients around the world.