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Lost in Translation: How Poor-Quality Documentation Costs You Money

Lost in Translation: How Poor-Quality Documentation Costs You Money

A number of years ago, the software company where I worked was struggling to keep its translation costs down. One day I drew the connection between our ongoing need for consistent writing and the costs of translation. For example, we would use “record” and “transaction” to mean the same thing (in truth, it described a process of data records becoming financial transactions, but our readers didn’t understand that until they became experts themselves) and this confused not only our English-speaking readers but it created headaches for our translators. Translators typically charge by the word but they also keep lists of common terminology to save them time.

When preparing documents for translation, consider some of these common errors to avoid.

Images may need to be translated

Not only does the text that appears in images need to be translated, but the images themselves may not translate well to a particular region or culture. Translation is after all a form of localization, so check your images carefully and alert your translators to check them too.

When I was preparing a document on snow plows for translation, not only did the vehicle we’d chosen have to be checked for authenticity to the region (do they have snow plows like this there?) but we also had to decide whether to Photoshop a translated version of “snow removal” printed on the vehicle or just erase it (we did erase it in the end).

Corporate branded words and phrases may OR MAY NOT need translation

There are lots of funny rules around how branded words and phrases should be handled when a document is translated. For example, I worked at a company that had trademarked the phrase “telematics for the planet”. But it was only ever trademarked in English, so we had to instruct our translators to let this stand even when used in the flow of a sentence.

Lorsqu’on utilise nos produits, ne soy pas oubliant « Telematics for the Planet™ »…

Translation also needs to be localised

A good translator is on the alert for terminology that is appropriate for the audience. A good translator will also alert you to figures of speech, metaphors, and clichés that don’t translate at all. Keep your technical documents free of such writing and you’ll save money on back-and-forth communications.

What’s worse than the over reliance of metaphors in writing? Why, mixed metaphors of course. Just imagine translating this baby into Spanish, or German, or Russian.

Inflation is a very difficult genie to put back into a bottle so you’re not going to be able to stop on a dime.

Units of measure may need more than just language translation

Units of Measure are also a form of localisation that are frequently overlooked. While our English-language documentation was destined for the American market, we always preferred Units of Measure to be listed in American measures (with metric in parentheses). This detail eluded us when we sent the same documents for translation into French (bound for a Quebec audience) and it came back with all the American measures carefully translated into French even while Quebec (and indeed all of Canada) uses metric measures.


Je suis desolé, mais…

Some French words that look like English words can be very misleading. Take for example, “Je suis desolé”. I really hoped I would never have to utter those words in French. They sound so last-ditch. I could perhaps imagine myself saying I’m desolated that I smashed my rental car into a tree, but it would be very difficult using those words if all I did was step on someone’s foot or bounced a cheque. Perhaps this explains why the French would sooner shrug than apologize – evidence of a shortcoming in their language.

Europeans are so much more conscious of saving energy than North Americans. In public places, such as restaurant lavatories, lights are on timers giving you a couple of minutes to do your business illuminated before having to fumble in the dark. This is also true of hallways in hotels, which is a bit of a hazard given the uneven floors and stairs. As I was leaving my hotel room I bounded down the stairs in the dark (hey, I’m practically a native now) only to miss a stair. Had I not been quick, I might have pitched down a couple of flights, but as it was, I grabbed the handrail using the same hand I was using to hold my plastic key card and caused the key to nearly crack in two. The remaining four flights gave me the time to compose my best French so I could explain to the concierge what had happened to the key. “Excusez-moi monsieur, mais j’ai tomber sur les escaliers et cette clé est cassé.”

Then the heavens parted and I got to say it… “Je suis desolé”. I half expected the concierge to look at me like I was mad, but he just smiled and said that it was not a problem and the key could be fixed.