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Writing for Translation: 10 Tips for Improving Your Technical Documentation

Jan 13, 2021

If you develop content that gets sent to technical document translation services, it’s important to understand how the writing and formatting of technical documentation affects the translation and localization process. It may not be as simple as you think. The translators and the translation company may actually have to put a lot of work into the project if the content isn’t clear and properly prepared for translation. Don’t worry though! Once you understand how your writing and design impacts the translation process, you can make changes to better prepare for translation. Following these writing tips for translation can help you improve the quality of the content, resulting in better translations, reduced costs and reduced turnaround time.

1. Use simple, clear phrasing

When writing for translation, use simple and clear phrasing. Choose words that are short and simple over longer, more flowery words. This will help reduce the number of words overall and make the translation more precise. Here’s a great resource with many examples of ways to rephrase things.

2. Use the active tense

Always use the active tense whenever possible. It’s more direct, so it’s easier to understand by both the end users and the translators. Reduced complexity means it’s easier to translate, and with fewer words, it should take less time.

For example, instead of writing: “The content was understood by the translator.” (passive)

Say: “The translator understood the content.” (active)

The end result is content that’s easier to understand and translate, and with a smaller word count.

3. Keep sentences as short as possible

Keeping sentences short may seem obvious, but it’s definitely easy as a writer to go on and on about how great a widget is and why you can never do without it because it will transform your life in so many different ways that I need to share with you and all you need to do is get one right now.

Whew! It’s hard to read all of that without taking a breath, right? It’s also hard to translate such an enormous sentence, so keep your sentences short. Also, some languages take up more space than English and you don’t want to run out of space for the translated content. So, make this your mantra: The fewer the words, the better.

4. Be consistent with terminology and content

If you don’t already have a list of product and/or industry terminology, create one for your translators to use — preferably before the project begins. They will translate these terms into your target languages and then in-country reviewers will approve them. Once that’s done, your technical document translation service will import the terms into its translation memory (TM) tool. This tool is extremely useful! It will show the translators the correct words to use for each term in each target language.

Also, reuse content wherever possible. For example, if a procedure is already documented in a manual, reuse that content. As a writer, it’s tempting to change what already exists to improve it, but it’s best to leave it alone. TMs are based on word segments, so even if you only change one word, it will impact the pricing. Ideally, you work with content that’s in a content management system (CMS), so you can easily identify which content to reuse. And even if you don’t use a CMS, you can still manually reuse content as your technical translation service will probably use a TM tool that can recognize the content as previously translated content. Reusing content increases consistency, and decreases costs and turnaround time.

5. Avoid noun strings

A sentence with too many nouns in a row can be hard to read and grasp right away. It can be especially hard to translate noun strings because the relationship to the nouns isn’t clear. As a result, the noun strings can be translated incorrectly. We recommend you rewrite noun strings to make the sentence clearer. For example:

  • She started working on the localization mapping software project. (noun string)
  • She started working on the localization project that involves mapping software. (reworded)

6. Don’t use abbreviations, jargon and cultural references

Avoid using abbreviations, jargon and cultural references, especially in technical content. This type of content may be understood by a particular region or culture, but other audiences may not understand it and it can be very difficult to translate. Many companies have made mistakes because they didn’t realize how their choice of words either wouldn’t translate directly or led to offensive translations.

7. Keep text separate from graphics

Translators need to be able to access the text inside graphics and screenshots. One way to handle this is to create separate text boxes for such text. Another option is to create callouts below the graphic. In both cases, the translator can access the content to translate it. If text isn’t accessible, it will require some desktop publishing (DTP) work by the translation company, which will add time and money to the project.

8. Allow room for text to expand

Translated content can take up to one-third more space than English, so you need to leave enough room for text expansion in tables, callouts, labels and other constricted areas. If you don’t address text expansion before sending the content for translation, you may end up with additional DTP charges.

9. Avoid manual formatting

We know it can be tempting to tweak formatting here and there to make things fit and look just perfect. But every time you override a style, for example, that means the localization team is going to have to look at that override and manually decide what to do with it. If you have to tweak the formatting a lot, you might want to change your styles.

10. Be aware that data formats may need to change

Dates, phone numbers, currencies and other types of data have different formats in other languages. Make sure these types of data are accessible so that the translators can make the necessary changes for their languages. For example, dates are written differently depending on where you’re from:

  • In the US, a date is written with the month, day and year: 3/5/21(March 5th)
  • In the UK, the day comes first, so March 5th is written as: 5/3/21

Also, if you reference any numbers like temperature or weight that are in imperial units, you need to add the metric equivalent as well since most countries use the metric system. It’s a pretty common practice to add the metric unit after the imperial unit, such as: 100 °F (38 °C).

Preparing your content benefits everyone

Spending some time thinking about translation as you develop and format content will benefit your English-speaking and global customers, while lowering your costs, reducing turnaround time and improving the translation quality. As a provider of technical document translation services, we’re here to help you with your translation needs. Please contact us for more information or to request a quote.

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