My top 6 rules for one-time writing and translating
Guest Contributor Alice Kyurkchiyan-Naidenova
Being a philologist and interested in foreign cultures, localization was one of the most important topics for me from the tekom First Level certification program. My two years’ practice as technical writer has further convinced me that producing written texts with localization in mind avails the efficient text translation thereafter.
Speaking strictly in terms of linguistics, pieces of texts in English can be misunderstood by translators if the latter lack content context or translation instructions. Furthermore, translators may come across other constraints that would make localized text sound awkward or grammatically incorrect.
It is the responsibility of technical writers to not only produce exemplary minimalistic pieces of text, but to also foster quality localization.
I am now eager to recommend to novice fellow writers my top 6 rules for translation facilitation:
Use exact words
My tip to go:
Similarly, choose wisely among other parts of speech that have close meaning.
Knowing the exact lexical definitions, a translator would find it easy to render as best matching meaning as possible.
The following concepts appear in the Longman Language Activator dictionary under the key word above: above, over, overhead, overhang. In English, the four words have nuances in meaning, whereas one may mistakenly take them for pure synonyms.
If a rock overhangs a construction site, workers may be worried about their safety, whereas if the rock is above the site, no threat is implied.
Translators will render these nuances.
To warn users of the possible negative consequences of incorrect machinery usage, you may well differentiate among the verbs to injure, to hurt, and to wound.
And does is like imply that objects behave the same way or look the same way? The pros of the exact word choice are the proper conveyance of meaning and adherence to legal requirements for correct information on a product’s utilization.
Consider linguistic gender and number issues
My tip to go:
Wherever possible, it is a safe choice to avoid the use of personal, object or possessive pronouns in English when the translator may not know the noun they refer to. I prefer repetition of noun to pronoun replacement.
Certain nouns may be classified in terms of gender in non-traditional way or gender may vary across languages.
Although non-animate nouns in English generally lack grammatical gender, she and her are often used to refer to ships, cars, and countries. The names of countries are often feminine when they denote political and economic units.
France has been able to increase her exports by 10 per cent over the last six months.
Lacking context, translators will find it hard not to think of a human being by reading the separate sentence “She goes at Dock 2”. Think of paraphrasing to “The ship has a regular place at Dock 2”.
In English, plants are non-animate, whereas in German a rose is feminine and is substituted by the nominative pronoun sie (“she”).
Imagine another scenario: your original text is in Finnish and a sentence refers to the role of an airhostess. Finnish lacks grammatical gender and hän stands for either he and she.
As for number, some collective nouns can be used with verbs in either singular or plural form depending on whether the focus is on the group on the whole or on every individual who is part of the group: board, corporation, crew, staff, team, audience, department, association, etc. If these are referred to by pronouns, I would choose a consistent form throughout the particular documentation to foster cohesion.
Some plural nouns are singular in other languages: binoculars, bellows, pliers, to name a few. If the subject in your sentence is they but the translator doesn’t know the referent, a semantic error is inevitable.
Avoid semantic ambiguity
Ambiguity in meaning can stem from a variety of stylistic and syntactic means and unidentified context. I ponder on the following aspects of language usage:
Consider labelling parts of speech
My tip to go:
Knowing what part of speech you refer to helps the translator use proper word order, inflexion, prepositions.
Initial wrong rendering of words in a foreign language may make a later translation sound awkward and inconsistent as one and the same original word will have translation variants, and that is not adequate for technical documentation.
If describing a user interface (UI), it is possible that you will present a list of button names for localization. Always try to provide context so that translators can distinguish whether your “Answer” in “Select Answer to see the correct option.” is a verb or a noun.
The double work for both you and translators is guaranteed if your “Access” button is sometimes rendered as a verb, and other times as noun. Precision can be achieved by providing instructions on the button semantics, or through comprehensive style guide with information on accepted button name rendering.
Stick to traditional word order
My tip to go:
Any alternative (yet meaningful) word order draws attention, implies expressiveness and may bring change of focus in meaning.
English declarative sentences have a regular word order, which makes text appear neutral and may be plainly illustrated like this: Subject + Verb + Direct object + Indirect Object + Manner adverb + Place adverb + Time adverb. Any alternative (yet meaningful) word order draws attention, implies expressiveness and may bring change of focus in meaning. Fronting is what makes you remember the language of Star Wars’ character Yoda: “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”
It is in the second drawer on the left where the staff archive is locked. – The It construction draws focus on the location of the archive. Translators may doubt whether to preserve the focus or render the text in the respective traditional declarative word order.
Don’t omit pronouns to shorten sentences
My tip to go:
Consider whether semantic ambiguity arises if you omit explanations.
In formal English it is preferred to keep relative pronouns in defining relative clauses for ease of understanding. These are the instances in which an explanation about the thing or person follows the noun it defines:
Any element from the square construction facing downward can be replaced by a plastic one. – I would rather paraphrase to “… the square construction which faces downwards …” or simply to “… the downward-facing square construction …”
Consider whether semantic ambiguity arises if you omit explanations:
Finance Director hasn’t been appointed to manage. – Is the Director not appointed for you to manage him/her or is a Director still not hired?
Prefer active voice
My tip to go:
It is a well-established practice for technical documentation to adhere to active voice, which makes instructions clear and the focus is on the action, the action performer being the person who reads the documentation.
Active voice avoids the ambiguity that stems from the use of the so-called pseudo-passive constructions, which contain state (be, feel, look, seem, remain) and result (get, become, grow) verbs:
Data can get erased after you unlock the “Synchronize” function. – It is not clear whether you will have the possibility to erase data, or whether the data may be erased automatically.
Another disadvantage of the passive voice is the potential difference in meaning from the active voice:
The robot cannot be programmed to distinguish between materials. – The sentence can be interpreted in two ways:
(1) You are not capable of programming the robot, and
(2) The robot doesn’t support any functionality that allows for upgrade regarding material distinction.
Refrain from using ellipsis in consecutive sentences
My tip to go:
Instead of shortening it, repeat the verb phrase or use a synonymous regular verb.
Ellipsis is the stylistic device through which you don’t repeat words, but either omit them or replace them with shorter wording. A common instance of ellipsis is the reduction of verb phrases to an auxiliary verb. Not knowing the previous sentences, a translator would hardly guess the nature of the replaced verb in your newly added sentence below:
If you do so, the flagpole will remain stable. – In Bulgarian, for example, depending on the nature of the replaced verb, “do so” may be rendered to mean “make this happen” or “act this way”, which are far from being synonymous. Instead of shortening it, repeat the verb phrase or use a synonymous regular verb:
Use the bolts that are provided with the flagpole kit to fasten the supporting elements to the ground.
If you fasten the supporting elements to the ground with bolts, the pole will remain stable.
Beware of the use of product names
My tip to go:
Make sure you always use the correct product name from the very beginning of the documentation process.
The use of product names should comply with style guides or company instruction materials, if available. It is not advisable to guess a name if you are unsure what it is. Make sure you always use the correct one from the very beginning of the documentation process. In this way you will possibly save your company the expenses and time spent for editing every mention of “XGTI Pro” to “XGTI Pro®” not only in your original work, but also in all translations in case the mistake is found at a later stage.
Strive for neutral language
My tip to go:
Do not use euphemisms, but do not be judgmental either. If choice is available, stick to a regular one-word verb.
If, for example, you need to advise in a financial guide how a person may well invest their money, you may say you offer ideas of how people can be in control of their financial circumstances. If you want to sell your product, you wouldn’t normally try to persuade people that you can help them to ease their plight. You are not in a position to decide whether a family’s little savings are (not) enough for their current well-being. Do not use euphemisms, but do not be judgmental either.
When users should carry on a procedure until a result is reached, you tell them to “continue” doing it, not to “persist” in doing it in an unreasonable or difficult way. We imply: “Keep trying, we, product developers, know that you will succeed and your attempts will be rewarded.”
In addition, neutrality should be met not only in terms of communicative purpose, but also in terms of proper style, that is formality. Generally phrasal verbs tend to sound more colloquial, so, if choice is available, stick to a regular one-word verb. I consider formal language to be trustful as well.
Check the translators’ work
My tip to go:
If in a language my original English sentence is divided into two, I would reconsider next time the length of my main and subordinate clauses.
You don’t have to be a linguistic master to spot odd texts or descriptive markup in exotic languages. By “checking” I imply skimming through the translations for any possible stylistic errors (unnecessary space, lack of full stops, capitalization at the beginning of sentence) or markup that doesn’t match the original one. This check has not only improved translations I have been provided with, but also taught me how my writing could be improved. An example would be comparing sentence length. If in a language my original English sentence is divided into two, I would reconsider next time the length of my main and subordinate clauses.
Even if the technical writer doesn’t speak all the languages in the world, the writer should be sure that their texts will be equally understood in all languages all over the world. Technical writers should provide translators with context and instructions, avoid ambiguity in their own writing and envisage localization issues to steer clear of discrepant and odd translations.
Awkward language makes technical documentation sound demanding, language excellence makes it sound human and read “I am here to help you”. Indeed, technical writers’ product is H2H, that is human-to-human, at least it still is.
About the Author:
Alice Kyurkchiyan-Naidenova is an English Philology graduate of Sofia University and effective writing devotee. With a manifold previous experience, she embarked on technical documentation more than 2 years ago to discover the meaningful profession she is most enthusiastic about.
 Della Summers et al., Longman Language Activator™, Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, p. 2
 John Sinclair, English Grammar, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000, p. 31, Usage Note 1.107
 Randolph Quirk, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman Group Limited, 1985, p. 318, Nouns and determiners, Paragraph 5.111 (ii)
 Lucasfilm Ltd., The Starwars.com 10: Best Yoda Quotes, 26th November 2013, http://www.starwars.com/news/the-starwars-com-10-best-yoda-quotes,
 Randolph Quirk, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman Group Limited, 1985, p. 169, Active and passive voice, Paragraph 3.77