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Chapter 10: Writing for Localization - Advice for Technical Writers

Technical writers play a crucial role in the product development process. They are responsible for writing the content that describes your products to your end users. Technical writers develop printed documentation, online documentation (such as help files and functional PDF files), and website content. They must take the technical knowledge imparted to them by product developers and present it clearly and concisely to your less technically savvy consumers. As you can well imagine, this is not an easy task.

When rolling out your products to the global marketplace, an additional burden is placed on your technical writers. While they are preparing documentation for your U.S. release, they must also keep in mind the requirements for simultaneous or subsequent localization. This process of designing a product so that it can be exported to other countries is known as internationalization.

Documentation that has been properly internationalized is easier, less costly, and more efficient to localize. Not only does this reduce your localization costs, but it can have huge indirect savings as well. Faster localization often means quicker time to market and accelerated revenue streams.

Some tips that can help your company realize these benefits are described in the following sections.

Layout Issues: Allow for Text Expansion

It is vitally important that your document's layout leaves enough room (i.e., white space) for the inevitable text expansion that occurs during the localization process. This cannot be overemphasized; formatting the translated document is far easier and more efficient when adequate space is available. Formatting costs can rise dramatically when the translated text must be laboriously manipulated to fit within a cramped space.

As a general rale, assume that your English text will expand 20 to 30 % when it is translated. This should provide sufficient white space in the English source document for effective localization. In technical documentation, there is a tendency to crowd pages with too much information, impairing the readability of the material presented. Keep in mind that extra white space also makes your English version that much more readable. Because the exact amount of expansion varies by language, please refer to the table presented in Chapter 9 for specific percentages.

Anna-Frida Abrahamsson photo

Anna-Frida Abrahamsson

Project Manager

Swedish is a language; Belgian isn't really; and there isn't such a thing as Swiss. Swedish and Norwegian are two different languages but they sound pretty close. Confused yet? Mandarin is Chinese to speakers of Cantonese, yet both can be written in Simplified Chinese. As if learning over 2,000 characters were a simple thing. It's a good thing there are localization companies out there to keep track of these kinds of things.

Another factor that contributes to text expansion is whether or how hyphenation is used in your document. For example, many German or Dutch words can be much longer than their English counterparts, and many are also hyphenated. How these hyphenated words are handled will either create an opportunity for convenient line breaks, offsetting much of the extra space that would otherwise be required, or necessitate even more white space.

If your text does expand when translated, you will need to decide whether the localized documents should maintain the same page breaks and the same total number of pages as the English source document. It is generally easier, and therefore less expensive, if page breaks can flow during the localization process. From the perspective of customer support, however, it is often preferable for the localized manuals to match the page breaks in the English version so that support personnel can easily refer to "page 37 of the manual" for solving a problem. If page break matching between languages is necessary, it is even more important to allow for that "extra white space" described above. Matching page breaks from source to target documents can add to the cost of the project, especially when the source document does not allow sufficient white space for text expansion.

When you are ready to hand off your materials to a localization provider, always include a PDF file with the electronic source files. This allows the provider to double-check that the localized files match the electronic file you provided. It is all too easy to accidentally hand off the wrong revision or version of files for localization.

Graphical Considerations: Separate Text from Graphics

Ideally, graphics should not contain text for the simple reason that it eliminates the need to translate it. If text must be associated with a graphic, try to create the text as a separate component in the page-layout application (e.g., FrameMaker, QuarkXPress, InDesign) used to create the document. That is, a callout or caption for a graphic ideally should be a text block in the layout program, not an element of an Illustrator Encapsulated Postscript (EPS) file. This requires less work to localize (saving you money), as the graphic text is part of the main document text and not a layer inside the graphic file.

If you must include text in EPS graphic files, remember to leave it in text form. Do not outline the text, as this makes it very difficult and time-consuming to retype and translate.

Screen captures are a special category of graphics. By their very nature they contain text. Translation of screen capture text is accomplished through localization of the software that was used to generate the English captures. Once the software is localized, the screen captures are regenerated. When developing application software, be aware of how the text fits in various windows. As with printed documents, avoid packing text too tightly because, as described in Chapter 9, it will expand when the software is localized. When creating the screen captures, be sure to generate all of them at the same screen resolution and scale, and then save the files in the same format used by the document layout application. You will also want to employ a logical naming convention that will help identify where they are placed.

Limit Your Font Types and Font Faces

When selecting fonts for a new document destined for translation, simpler is better. Some languages contain a multitude of accents and special characters that can become illegible if overly ornate or decorative fonts are used. The conventional combination of a standard serif font (e.g., Times) for body copy and a standard sans serif font (e.g., Helvetica) for headings is a good example of font selections that work well for translation. In general, stick to fonts that are clean and crisply drawn, avoiding fonts with exceptionally thin serifs or wispy detail.

Try to keep the total number of fonts used in the document to a manageable number - no more than three or four. Ideally, select fonts that are available on both PC and Macintosh platforms. This facilitates the easy movement of the document across platforms, if required, during localization.

As a general rale, custom or proprietary fonts can be problematic. They are often expensive or difficult to acquire. If required in the final deliverable for branding purposes, expect to provide them to your localization provider. Not only will it reduce time and expense, but you will be sure to get the exact font you need.

Some languages require extended character sets that provide accented letters such as "1." Many specialized fonts do not support languages other than English because they lack this extended character set, so select your fonts carefully. Still other languages need special fonts that are not available as extended character sets. For example, Japanese, Korean, Traditional and Simplified Chinese are considered "double-byte languages," which means that each written character contains two bytes (16 bits) of data instead of one byte (8 bits). This used to cause problems for applications and operating systems that did not support double-byte characters. Fortunately, today's operating systems and the applications that ran on them use Unicode. Unicode directly supports the double-byte character sets, as well as all other character sets, making the display of foreign characters much easier.

Character styles used in Western European or U.S. English layouts are not always transferable to Asian languages. In many cases they are not used at all. For instance, character styles such as bold and italic are not always applicable to Asian type styles. Furthermore, Asian characters do not distinguish between upper- and lowercase. For design purposes, the best way to distinguish Asian characters from surrounding text is to vary the font face or weight (e.g., using a heavier version of a typeface for added emphasis). Your localization provider should offer a variety of techniques to help keep the look and feel you originally intended for your Asian products.

Internationalize Your Templates

If you use templates and associated scripts to provide a standard look and feel for your layout, it is important to consider localization issues when designing that template. Scripts that automatically capitalize titles, for example, rarely work correctly on translated content, since capitalization rales vary by language. So keep your target languages in mind, isolating text and automated formatting in clearly identified sections of the template so that your localization provider can easily find it.

Jen Warnock photo

Jen Warnock

DTP Specialist

Bring on the typos and mangled files - I have no character drop-out.

Develop a Glossary

Glossaries help linguists understand any industry- or product-specific terms you use in your writing. As you write, keep a separate list of terms that have special meanings. If, at the beginning of the project, you provide these terms and their definitions to your localization provider you will receive a much higher quality product at the end. See Chapter 5 for more detailed information about glossaries.

Write Marketing Materials with Localization in Mind

Marketing materials may require special handling as they do not always localize easily. The text and images that succinctly communicate your company or product to an American audience may not be relevant in Europe or Asia. We are all familiar with the stories about product names that take on a second meaning when introduced in another market. If possible, create your marketing materials with localization in mind, and keep the content as precise and globally understandable as possible. If this is not possible, be prepared to provide supplementary materials that will help explain the background, concept, and context behind your marketing campaign. At this point, localization may become less about straightforward translation, and more about creating the same idea or message while using a different concept altogether. This is where your localization partner will prove their expertise and become invaluable to you.

Remember Your International Audience

When developing your content, avoid using slang terms and culturally biased graphics. Slang is difficult to translate and understand in a foreign context. Similarly, graphics can also have a cultural bias that can be confusing. A rabbit might be used in an English document to represent "fast," but to the French it looks like dinner!

Sharon Spence photo

Sharon Spence

QA Specialist

I'm fortunate to have been the oldest exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, in the fall of 2002. Learning to communicate in Japanese at middle age was one of the most challenging, frustrating (at times), exhilarating and rewarding things I've ever done. These days, having satisfied some of my yearning for international study and travel, I'm sticking close to home and raising my two miniature Dachshunds. Now how can something so ordinary compare with the excitement of living in Japan? I guess Jimmy and Buster are the "paradox" of my life.

Define Acronyms

Write out the full form of each acronym when it first appears in the source documentation. Later, when translated, the first use of the acronym should be both defined and translated in the target language, even if the acronym remains in its English form throughout the document.

Monitor Your Word Count

The cost of localization is directly related to the number of words you write; more words mean higher costs. Monitor your documentation word count by using the "Word Count" command found in your development software. Keep sentence structure and grammar simple and vocabulary choices clear.

Use Repetitions in Your Documentation

The cost of localization can also be lowered by including repetitions in your documentation. Most localization providers use tools to help identify text that can be leveraged; that is, once translated it can be re-used either within the same document or in subsequent versions. (See Chapter 6 for more details about translation tools.) Although you may earn style points for finding new and different ways to say the same thing every time a phrase or concept appears in your English source document, you might also surpass your budget by doing so. Including lots of repetitions in the text will increase the leveraging percentages, which in turn can substantially lower the localization cost.

Re-use Your Content

Many companies make their documentation available to customers in both a paper-based medium and an electronic form, such as HTML and PDF formats. Other companies have opted to save the printing and distribution charges associated with hardcopy manuals and rely solely on the electronic versions. Both HTML and PDF formats are widely used on the Internet and on alternative media such as distribution CDs because they appear virtually the same regardless of the operating system the customer uses to view them. For complex, interrelated documents, HTML and PDF formats also offer the advantage of incorporating hypertext - clicking on a cross-reference, index, or table of contents entry takes the user immediately to the relevant entry.

When generating electronic documents, you want the output style to convey the same structured sense of importance that was incorporated in the print document. Moreover, a document that does not use style tags efficiently (i.e., one that uses a different style tag each time to produce exactly the same formatting attributes), requires much more time to set up than a document that uses only one style tag to represent this uniform style. Using consistent style definitions throughout your document allows both PDF bookmark data and HTML style tags to be generated in the localized files more easily.

Content Management Systems [CMS Tools]

The advent of single-source and content management technologies has everyone thinking about content re-use. For FrameMaker users, it is now possible to structure a document that contains all of your print and online help content and to use single-source publishing tools to publish this content as print documentation, online (HTML-based) documentation, help files, and functional PDFs. Each published output may use all of the original content, or just a subset that can be selected using conditional text. Similarly, XML-based content management systems allow you to store content "chunks" in a database structure and to publish your deliverables from those chunks. Both processes are great for localization because translation has to occur only once for use in many outputs. See Chapters 15 and 16 for more information about single-source content management tools. Creating modular content repositories (whether for single-source applications or complete content management systems) takes planning to design a logical structure that is easy to reference. Though these tools may offer substantial savings in time, effort, and money, they also require careful planning before starting the process.

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