Translating Technical Documentation 101

When it comes to translation, there is a wide array of needs. However, one area stands out from the rest, and that is the translation of technical documentation. The reason behind its importance is that any small mistake can become a large problem and even lead to legal ramifications.

Although contracts and legal documents are fairly technical and also common, there is another type of document that we come across regularly throughout our daily lives: user manuals. The wording, tone and even length can definitely vary depending on the way the company set out to communicate, but even when the language sounds light, any little mistake in this type of technical document can have a significant impact.

Adaptation is key

Technical documents may need to be translated to one language but used in many different regions, so in order to avoid localization pitfalls, all you can do is to be prepared to keep the translation as neutral as possible.


Tips for language service providers:

Let history help

By leveraging previous translations, you or your agency may have carried out, you can make your task much simpler. A technical manual that was translated in the past may hold the key to a translation memory that can be used in the present document.

Agree on terminology with your client

Before you get started translating technical documents, make sure you and the client are on the same page. Technical documents tend to be long and tedious, so the more you clarify from the beginning, the less time (and money) will be spent rewriting. At first glance, you might notice words and terms that are repeated throughout the document, so take some time to check that the client is on board with how you will translate those specific terms.

There’s no such thing as too many questions

It’s fair to say that we don’t know everything. When the time comes for you to tackle a technical document on a topic with which you are unfamiliar, don’t hesitate to call in the experts. The client should be more than willing to answer any questions; after all, chances are they are the best subject-matter expert you’ll have. If the client is unavailable, your next step is to try to find someone in a similar field (i.e. a doctor, an engineer, etc.).


Tips for translations buyers:

Stick to best practices when writing

The better a document is written, the more effective the translation will be. If the language provider doesn’t have to contact you with a million questions regarding the meaning of certain phrases, everything will go much more smoothly.

To avoid many back and forths, it’s best to use short sentences in your texts, avoid idiomatic expressions or cultural references that can be difficult to translate (or even sometimes almost impossible), and keep the writing as broad and neutral as possible. This way, it will be more likely that there’s already a translation memory to handle language repetition throughout the project with ease – decreasing the overall cost of your project.

Quantity matters

Take into account that translations tend to vary in lengths depending on the language. For example, if you’re translating something from English to Spanish, the target text will most likely take up more space than the original. This can be of importance when preparing texts that need to be printed, such as packaging labels where there is a set amount of space available.

Plan ahead

If your document will be prone to adjustments and version updates, talk to your translator ahead of time to plan the best way to do this. If the document is written in a way that doesn’t require a complete rewrite when the time to update comes, but instead only a couple of changes in a paragraph, it will make everyone’s job easier, faster and cheaper.

Experience is key

If what you need to translate is extremely specific, make sure your language service provider has the suitable tools, experience, and resources for the task. Even if you as the client can be the subject-matter-expert to consult when there are doubts, you may not always have the availability to do so before the technical translation is due. You can always ask them for previous experience or writing samples to get a feel for their capabilities.

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