Although the internet has succeeded in bringing the technology community together, this centralised community speaks many different languages. As a result, when information is only available in an unfamiliar language, the common response is to use a free online translation tool, such as Google Translate. With this in mind, the need to produce clearly written communications has never been greater.

Indeed when budgets won’t allow for translation into multiple languages WordPress blogs and websites can use widgets such as global translator that will automate and cache the pages effectively creating a 48 language website effortlessly. As long as the fact the translation has been done automatically is clearly stated it is rare to see a complaint, but the benefits can be significant.

Of course, it’s well known that online translation tools lack attributes such as ‘tone’ and ‘suggestion’. However, there are ways to help improve automated translation. For instance, sentences should always be clear and concise. Keep well away from slang terms, colloquialisms, neologisms and ambiguities, as well as any unnecessary clauses, fragments or run-on sentences. Similarly, idioms, proverbs and figures of speech that are well known in English may have absolutely no relevance in another language, particularly when translated automatically. Furthermore, do not split compound verbs and always use common vocabulary. Additionally many people find that non-technical translation services will translate word for word and even translate technical terms that ought to remain in English – ‘user-friendly’ being translated into amichevole in Italian for example (meaning friendly as in a person!)

Like most things it is best to keep it simple and stick to one idea at a time: bite-size chunks of information are far easier to translate than long, complex sentences strung together with commas and semicolons. Always explain abbreviations and acronyms in full. It is also a good idea to assess whether key words or concepts you are mentioning have homonyms in other languages. Otherwise the result can be downright rude – or funny at best. In Spanish for example, the term ‘fresa’ means as much strawberry as… cutting tool.

Using a consistent word or term for a product or process is especially important in technical writing. In English, writers often prefer to avoid repetition, but this can confuse speakers of other languages as well as online translation tools, so a happy balance is needed. Incidentally, the same is true with business concepts. Modern French – especially Belgian French – makes heavy uses of English words, be it ‘management buy-out’ or ‘Chief Executive Officer’.

Of course, the test of writing for translation is to use an online tool to ‘back-translate’, which will give a clear idea of comprehension and the ultimate test is to find a locally distributor or sales office executive that can check it for you, or translate it completely in the first place! Although as true technical translation is an art not a science you then need to wonder if they have changed the text so that it is still on brief.

Technical translation is a tough subject to crack and although automatic tools can do a job there is no real substitute for a locally based technical translator and a marketing agency that employs local language speakers to do the job for you.

Download our guide “Technical writing for translation.

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