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10 irresistible potholes writers find on the road to globalization, part 1


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ClientSide News Magazine pictureOptimizing the translation process has two basic components: improving the writers’ source texts and improving the translators’ process. For the moment, we’ll focus on the writer’s job.

Dear Translator: Please remember that most writers never had any training at all about translation and usually know one lonely language. Many of them can only rely on the limited writing advice that they got in school. They’re never aware of how they can make life hellish for translators and for international readers. So, don’t blame them; help them out. Pass this list on to them and discuss it until they understand.

Dear Writer: Become a hero among your company’s translators. Every improvement you make is multiplied by the number of grateful translators you help. This list is for you.

What follows is the first half of the list. The second half – in the next issue – pinpoints more and more detailed problems.

PothHole #1. Thinking that your original source text is the final product.

Translation takes a long time, so it is very important to budget enough time for converting files, translation itself, desktop publishing, re-doing screenshots, interface localization, etc. “Express” translations are done with shorter-than-usual deadlines and cost two or three times more than regularly scheduled translation jobs. We’ve come across translation vendors who very happily report that the majority of their work is from writers who couldn’t get their schedules organized. Writers who are pressed for time also hit many more of the potholes listed below and that makes translation even bumpier than usual.

Similar problems show up when we use MT to speed up translation. Shorter deadlines mean that there’s less time available to tweak the MT engine for a given job. So, in this case MT makes more mistakes and requires more time for editing.

Remember that your final product is the full set of documents, in the source language and in all of the target languages.

PothHole #2. Assuming that your files will work everywhere.

Translators are generally well organized folks and focus on optimizing their efforts. So, the first thing they do is take your original files and run them through translation memory (TM) software to see if any of your sentences were translated before. That’s easier said than done. If your files are in some FrameMaker, Word, or other proprietary format (i.e., not an open standard like HTML or XML) then translators will have to convert them. According to Murphy’s Law, your specific version of the authoring software will not be completely compatible with the specific version of the translators’ TM software. So, translators have to check and fix your converted files by hand, one by one. Remember those extra line breaks that you added to improve the formatting? Well, they really interfere with converting your files. The translators will charge you for all that unpleasant work by the hour, often for each language – on top of the price for translation itself.

Using the wrong file formats will make translation slower, more expensive, and more error-prone. And this is work that the translators will have to do all over, again and again, for the next versions of your documents.

PothHole #3. Using screenshots for eye candy.

Many translators specialize in translating manuals for software products, which often contain lots of screenshots. And the screenshots look really nice. But screenshots are very difficult to translate! For one thing, it’s hard for translators to figure out exactly how to see the same exact screen so they can take a new screenshot in the target language. This is doubly true for error messages, which are hard to produce on demand in any language. Often, localization of the software itself hasn’t even been finished yet (usually, a different team is working on that) so the translators working on the manuals don’t have the target-language product in front of them. Sometimes they have to edit the image by hand to cut and paste and draw in the translated words – even if the words have nothing to do with what the screenshot is supposed to illustrate. So, the translators have to painstakingly re-create your screenshots by hand, one by one. They’ll charge you for that by the hour, for each language – on top of the price for translation itself.

Think again: do you really need all those screenshots? Using too many screenshots will make translation slower, more expensive, and more error-prone.

PothHole #4. Thinking that your page layout will look the same in every language.

Translations in many European languages take up about 20% more space on the page and some Asian languages take up less space than English. If writers don’t leave a lot of white space in the original, then the translators have problems. If translated content spills over to another page, then either the layout has to be re-done by hand for each language, or the pages have to be re-numbered (everywhere!), or both. Once again, translators will charge you for that by the hour, for each language – on top of the price for translation itself. And this is work that they’ll have to do all over, again and again, for the next versions of your documents.

PothHole #5. Trying to make your writing “interesting”.

In high school, our English teachers wanted us to produce more “interesting” writing. They wanted us to use different kinds of sentences, phrase things in different ways, and even play with words. And this is how we’ve seen writing taught in other languages, too. This is a fine approach for producing literature that native speakers will read.

However, this approach makes life very difficult for translators, in two different ways. On the one hand, translators usually read English as a second language, so they don’t know as many of the nuances as a professional writer does. That means that the translators sometimes think that different phrasing has different meaning and they often have to sweat to render the (probably unimportant) difference in the target language. On the other hand, phrasing the same information in different ways means that you also have to pay for it several times. Remember the TM software we mentioned above? If you stick to the same phrasing for the same information, the software will see that and you’ll get the second and later translations of that information (almost) for free.

Similar things happen with machine translation. MT can translate many kinds of sentences very well. However, Murphy’s Law strikes when writers use varied phrasing: it’s much more likely that they’ll produce sentence types that machine translation simply can’t handle. That in turn means more editing effort and longer delays in translation.

Translating technical information about an unfamiliar product is a big challenge and an even bigger responsibility. There are several easy things that writers can do to simplify things, and the writers who do them will bask in the glory of translators’ undying gratitude. More potholes are ahead in part 2.

* Thanks to my consulting partner, Laurie Gerber, for the great title and for many suggestions.





Published - May 2009




ClientSide News Magazine - www.clientsidenews.com







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