Writing (clearly) is not easy, as we all know. Whether you are penning a technical text or advertising copy, there are many factors to be borne in mind and the questions you have to ask yourself are always the same: “Will it work?” and “Will readers like it?”…. And if the text is going to be translated, a whole new set of complications arise.
Here are some hints for technical writers and copywriters, from the translator’s point of view.
Practical tips for technical writers
You’re a technical writer about to draft a user manual? Remember that our aims are your aims!
- Consistent technical terminology
Make sure your choice of terminology is precise and remember never, ever, to use more than one term for the same thing! In technical language, synonyms are bad news. The translator will think you are talking about two different things, and will take care to use different terms in the translation. Which means? In the same document, the same knob may appear as a switch, a selector, a regulator, a …. Your documentation will not be consistent and you will have the end user running round in circles.
- “Stand-alone” paragraphs
Use simple language and short sentences. Every paragraph must contain clear, complete instructions. A user with a problem will only look for the keyword or chapter he needs; he won’t have time to skim through the whole manual.
The big “must”: legibility.
- Always express the same concept in the same words
A technical manual is not intended to be stylish prose; it is there just to provide information. So use the same sentence structure and try only to change it when necessary. If you decide to use the third person (“the user unscrews”, “the operator must take care”), make sure you use it all the way through the document and don’t switch to the imperative (“unscrew”, “watch out for”) or the second person (“now you unscrew”, “you must watch out for”). This also makes the text more repetitive.
Let’s look at an example in practice:
Don’t use abrasive detergents as they may damage the surface of the worktop
Users should avoid the use of abrasive detergents, which may damage the surfaces of the walls
The only real difference between the two sentences is that the first refers to a worktop and the second to walls.
Let’s try rewriting the sentence as follows:
Don’t use abrasive detergents as they may damage the surface of the worktop.
Don’t use abrasive detergents as they may damage the surface of the walls.
We have two sentences in which 10 out of the 11 words are identical. Obviously, the translator only has to change the last word to translate the second sentence. You won’t be charged for the translation of two sentences, but just for one whole sentence + one word.
Quick and economical!
A manual written to these criteria is also much easier to update over time. Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools subdivide documents into units of text known as segments. If the segments are properly structured, only the new ones will have to be translated, while the ones already used and translated in the past can simply be reviewed. Which saves a lot of time and money!
Practical tips for copywriters
You’re a copywriter who has to come up with something new every day? Fantastic! But if what you write is going to be translated, keep a few minor points in mind:
If possible, don’t use them. Puns are great, they give you a title, they are high-impact and stick in the memory more easily but … in 99% of cases, they don’t work in translation. Translators try to find a similar pun (sometimes virtually impossible – languages reflect very different cultures and mentalities … and remember, translators aren’t copywriters!), or give it up as a bad job and simply try to translate the concept and not the words. The final effect will be much less striking and may not really put your message across.
- Local references
We all know, it’s a strong temptation. A reference to a film, a book or a phrase everyone knows, a popular personality, an old advertisement that reminds us of when we were children … What could be better? But remember that readers who live in other countries have different back-histories or different sensibilities. When translated, references of this kind can be meaningless. So resist temptation, and opt for a text that is more linguistically correct.
Every marketing text is based on a concept; if you’re a copywriter we need say no more. When you send a text off for translation, are you sure the concept is always really clear? If the translator is not familiar with your client, the client’s target or the idea underlying the message for translation, he may misinterpret your text. It’s very easy to get it wrong! Put a little time aside to give us a briefing, in writing or on the phone. Explain the thinking behind the words, and tell us what you are trying to say and to whom.
Just a little care and attention will enable the translator to come up with the goods faster (don’t tell me delivery times don’t matter to you….) and make your message more effective. A good marketing translation is the result of great teamwork, and you are part of that team!
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