Writing for translation

“I once translated an instruction manual where the French actually ended up being shorter than the English, exactly because there was a lot of redundancy and unnecessary material. I didn’t, for example, translate the first step, which said, ‘Take the product out of the box.’ My client asked, ‘Where’s number one?’ and I said, ‘French people know to take it out of the box!’ ” —Anthony Michael, when asked whether he stylistically edits poorly written English before translating into French.

Last night I attended the Society for Technical Communication Canada West Coast Chapter’s November meeting, where Anthony Michael of Le Mot Juste Translations gave a talk about writing for translation. Here are some highlights:

  • The translation process is often considered an afterthought, but if you know a document will have to be translated, it’s best to take it into consideration from the outset, both so that enough time can be allowed in the schedule and so that the text in the source language can be written to facilitate translation, especially in the case of technical documentation.
  • Be aware that plays on words such as puns are virtually impossible to translate, and metaphors can be culturally specific (he gave an example of having to eliminate or rethink the baseball metaphors—step up to the plate, cover all bases, out in left field—in a business report destined for France). Keeping the sentences in the source language short and unambiguous (not to mention grammatically correct) will facilitate translation and may even make machine translation possible.
  • Despite the prevalence of poor machine translators, good ones do exist. For example, Xerox in the 1980s had a machine translator that did a decent job on its technical documentation. The final product must still be edited by translators, of course.
  • Source and target texts will often differ in length (e.g., French is usually 10 to 15 per cent longer than English); this is a consideration when planning document design. How will the text be presented? How will it flow around visual elements? Other considerations include the effects of target languages that use a different character set or a different direction of text. Michael gave an example of an ad for a brand of laundry detergent that showed, from left to right, dirty clothes, the detergent, a washing machine, and clean clothes. Because the ad consisted only of images and no text, the company thought it had escaped translation issues but didn’t take into account that in Semitic languages, text is read right to left, and in the Middle East, the ad had exactly the opposite meaning to what was intended.
  • In addition to unilingual and bilingual dictionaries, many of which are now online, translators also use specialized dictionaries for particular subjects and grammar references. Other tools of the trade include terminological databases, such as the one on Termium Plus, as well as translation memories, which are essentially concordance databases. An example is Linguee. Translation memories allow you to search existing translations to see how a particular term or phrase was translated in the past. The search results include snippets of text around the term to give the proper context. Software programs often used to create translation memories are MultiTrans and Trados.
  • Don’t forget about confidentiality issues or other legal matters, including copyright ownership and potential for libel, when sending text out for translation. It’s best to have these spelled out in your contract with your translator.
  • Context is everything. Provide as much context as possible to your translator, either in your source text or in an accompanying document. Spell out or explain all acronyms, provide reference material, if possible (e.g., if you have a set of previously translate documents on similar subject matter). Indicate the gender of people where necessary, because that person’s professional title, for example, will have to take on the masculine or feminine in some other languages like French.

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