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How to translate technical documents

How to translate technical documents

Technical manuals or instruction guides are documents which provide guidance to end-users on processes and how to perform various tasks. Usually, such documents are intended to inform users how a product or machinery works, what to expect, and how to use it. So, it is clearly important for organisations to have up-to-date, accurate manuals. Accuracy and clarity becomes even more crucial when offering a product in a new market, or language.

It is important to translate your technical documents when entering a new market, as user guides play an essential role in shaping user experience. Plus, an inaccurate technical manual could lead to the company being liable for damages if people experience problems caused by an inaccurate guide.

In this article, we will be highlighting some of the best practices you should follow when translating a technical document:

Before translation

Copywriting: Always follow technical writing best practices. For example, write short, concise, one-idea sentences. Try to avoid the use of idiomatic expressions, and making cultural references — as these can be open to misinterpretation.

Design and Layout: if you’re translating from English as a source language, to any of the Romance languages — Italian, Spanish, French and so on — the translation will tend to be longer than the original. So leave some space in your page layout to accommodate a longer word count.

Link your graphics: The best way to handle graphics and images in a technical document is to place them, inline, within the text. This way, they will move with the text (ie. up or down if the paragraph above is longer/shorter).

Find out more: Preparing Layouts for Translation (desktop publishing / DTP)

Use a specialist — find the right technical translator

Technical documentation usually contains specific terminology relating to your product, machinery or technology. Your translator must be familiar with your field, and the appropriate terms, in order to translate them correctly.

A high degree of accuracy and precision are essential for technical translations. A technical translator is expected to:

  • Have native-level proficiency in the target language
  • Have professional-level expertise in the source language
  • Be able to deliver concise, error-free translations that retain the original meaning
  • Have experience in the relevant field (engineering, pharmaceutical, etc)

As a result of the precision needed, many technical translators usually study technical writing. They should also have several years of hands-on experience.

Translating technical content for the first time

You may want to start by compiling a glossary. A glossary is a list of all the technical terms you often use, and their translations. Some glossaries feature many languages, some are just bilingual.

Ideally, a translation agency should create a glossary for every customer — at QuickSilver Translate, we do! After creating it, an internal reviewer (the client) should validate it. At this point, they can make any changes they like. Once the glossary has been approved, it is in use and on-going. It is important to keep the glossary up to date — for example, to include new products or services your company are offering.

Find out more: Technical glossaries and termbases

Post-translation — Ask for feedback from users!

Remember, the whole point of translating any technical document is to walk users through how to use your product. So, you will want to find out from real customers how useful the manual actually is! With the suggestions and feedback, you can improve the document when you update.

The hallmark of a quality technical translation is that there is no ambiguity, the text is short and concise, and there is consistency in terminologies used across the document. In addition, there should be consistent spelling, grammar and semantic structure; but above all, the translated technical manual should be super-helpful to users!

Examples of documents that might need technical translation

  • Aviation training manuals
  • Data analysis and research
  • Data sheets
  • Engineering specifications
  • Instructions and operating manuals
  • Installation and service manuals
  • Maintenance guides
  • Materials and products catalogs
  • Patents and patent applications
  • Scientific and white papers
  • Technical reports
  • Product specifications
  • Technical equipment certificates and regulatory documents
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • Technical drawings
  • Pharmaceutical instructions and guides

Find out more: Technical translation

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