Jinfo BlogThink Globally; Write Locally: What Source Writers Need to Know About Localisation

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By Kristen Giovanis

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Kristen GiovanisInformation professionals deal with fewer borders than many other business people. Researchers often work for clients in different countries, and many companies use technology that must make sense to an international workforce. But when you're working with words, sometimes you need more than translation -- you need localisation. A document can be translated word-perfect, yet not be effective in another market due to differences in the way local businesses operate and the way people think.

Through the process of localisation, writers translate the words and adapt the content of a source document to the needs and norms of the target country or market. Yet they can only work with what they are given -- part of the responsibility for effective localisation lies with the generator of the source document. After all, poorly written English cannot be turned into good Japanese.

Going to the source

Anyone, be it a technical writer or you, generating the source document becomes an important part of the localisation process. Their job is already pretty tough. They must:

  • Understand the product (often with the same level of detail and intimacy as the engineers who created it)

  • Incorporate content from engineering, legal and marketing departments

  • Please many opinionated people who most approve their work -- and all of whom have an opinion

  • Meet deadlines that are not always grounded in reality.

It's no wonder that the requirements of localisation are rarely at the top of writers' lists. Some essential tips can make a big difference in how well writers can produce documents that reduce the challenges of global communication.

Plan for success

There is no substitute for a good plan. This happens from the moment a company, a department or a writer knows that documentation will need to be translated and localised. The individuals involved can build a plan that will help the process run smoothly and have a positive outcome.

Create a standard workflow

Create a workflow or standard operating procedure that takes into account the needs of localisation. For example, if your organisation has international offices which will be reviewing and validating documents following translation and prior to release, incorporate that step and required time within the workflow. If the piece requires desktop publishing, determine whether it will be completed internally or if it will be outsourced.

Another element to consider in the area of workflow is consistency and document streamlining. If several individuals or departments will be creating source documents, be sure they are all working in tandem, with the same style guide and glossaries. One of my clients recently submitted a project made of up technical documents created by several writers; none of the documents conformed to a template or style guide. The company later revised its procedures, created a style guide and updated all documents using a modular system. As a result, they were able to reduce the word count of the source documents by 41 percent, resulting in significant savings in translation and localisation costs.

Budget time realistically

Translation and localisation projects require adequate time, usually calculated based on the length of the document. Other variables that may impact the timeframe are: the technical difficulty of the text, the review and validation processes in your workflow, and formatting or production of the final text in appropriate format(s).

Budget finances realistically

Localising can be expensive, especially for projects with multiple target markets. Keep in mind that localisation may be different, even when the target language is the same. A document will need to be localised separately for Chile and Argentina, even though Latin American Spanish is the target language for both countries.

Remember, too, that words are money, when it comes to translation and localisation. Many factors go into estimating the costs of a translation project, but the most important one is word count. One of our clients regularly produces documents in 26 languages; when you add up the cost of translation, localisation, validation and production, it comes to $9.72 per word.

Invest in your resources

Templated documents and style guides take time and resources to develop, but they ultimately serve to reduce your costs and improve your results. A specialised term glossary can also be a worthwhile investment, since a major challenge in localising documents is how to handle industry- or company-specific terminology, abbreviations and product nomenclature. Investing in the creation of such glossaries improves accuracy and consistency of your documentation, while reducing costs.

Writing for localisation

Companies can also invest in their resources by providing specific training and support to technical writers and others who create source documents. Build awareness and skill in your team for the requirements of localisation, and you will reduce your headaches -- and your costs -- for every project.

These tips can get you started:

Content tips

  • Be conscious of date and address formats. Standards differ from locale to locale. Many countries use the 24-hour clock, and the day/month/year order is the internationally accepted format except in the United States. One option is to spell out the names of the months or to use multiple formats such as '3.00 p.m./15:00'.

  • Understand that numerical values are represented differently in various languages. 4,222,222.00 in English is represented as 4.222.222,00 in Spanish, and as 4 222 222,00 in French.

  • Avoid country-specific information. Free telephone numbers, hours of operation for support services, local offices, country-specific warranties and regulatory information will all cause issues in localisation.

  • Use consistent terminology. It gets boring, but it is a must! Avoid creating new technical terms where adequate ones already exist.

  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms wherever possible. They can be confusing to both your reader and your translator. When acronyms are necessary, remember the standard rule: On first occurrence of the abbreviation or acronym, give the full phrase, followed by the abbreviation or acronym itself in parentheses.

  • In such cases, the acronym definition list is crucial, and in fact could be translated ahead of time, e.g. while a tender is being prepared in parallel. You can either merge this glossary with your general glossary of technical terminology or (preferably) include it as a separate appendix to your document.

Writing style tips

  • Use symbols whenever possible. Many industries have standardised symbols that are globally recognised and accepted.

  • Avoid passive voice. Use a direct, simple writing style and short sentences.

  • Do not use upper-case letters to emphasise a particular action, especially in noun phrases; in German, all nouns are capitalised, and you will lose your emphasis.

  • Write full sentences, including all articles, unless there is absolutely no alternative.

  • Avoid jargon, slang and buzzwords.

  • If a term is not listed as acceptable in a current reputable dictionary or specialised glossary, don't use it.

  • Avoid 'modifier strings' (also known as noun strings, stacked modifiers, etc.). Example: 'plastic tip fastener clips'. Modifier strings make up the most common form of grammatical ambiguity. Break these long uninterrupted strings of nouns and adjectives into 'bite- sized' pieces before they reach your keyboard.

  • Avoid 'invisible plurals'. These are usually two-word phrases (noun + noun), in which it is not clear whether the first noun is meant to be singular or plural. Example: Is 'program update' an update of one program or a general procedure for multiple programs? Example: For 'file retrieval', should one file be retrieved or all of them?

  • Avoid using the slash (/) as casual punctuation meaning 'and' or 'to'.

  • Choose words with one meaning, or at least with few meanings. Avoid verbs like 'make' and 'have', which have multiple meanings.

  • Use the simplest verb forms. Example: 'use' instead of 'utilise'.

  • Use indicative mood. Example: 'you do' instead of 'you would do'.

  • Avoid wordy expressions for time, place and relationship. Example: Use 'now' instead of 'At this point in time'.

  • Avoid nominalisations. Example: 'conclude' instead of 'reach a conclusion'.

  • Avoid using ambiguous modal auxiliary verbs like 'may' or 'might'. Instead, use a phrase such as 'It is possible that'.

  • Avoid gender-specific words. Avoid 'he', 'she', 'his' and 'her', and use 'they' and 'their' instead. (Be sure to make the corresponding noun plural, to avoid creating a grammatical error.)

  • Don't clutter your text with redundant expressions such as 'as is well known' and 'it is generally accepted that'.

  • Don't waste words telling readers what the text is going to say, or reminding them what it said earlier. Just say it once. The credibility of a document is not determined by the length. Shorter documents tend to have more impact, as do shorter sentences.

Design tips

  • If providing electronic documents, pages' sizes should match standards where printing will take place. Documents to be printed and distributed in America, for example, should be designed for 8.5 X 11 paper rather than A4 paper.

  • Make sure your design and word processing software supports the languages you will be localising.

  • Separate text from graphics on the page. Do not include words in your graphic elements. Text embedded in graphics must be translated and localised separately, triggering a complete recreation of the graphic.

  • Be aware of language expansion and leave appropriate white space. The general rule of thumb has traditionally been to leave an extra 30 per cent of space to account for the differences in languages. However, actual text expansion can exceed 50 per cent, for some languages. Romance languages are usually longer; Asian languages, on the other hand, tend to be shorter since individual characters may contain several words.

  • If developing software, design as much extra character space as possible in the display, software prompts and error messages. Otherwise, the translator will have to use abbreviations, which make the interface difficult to understand.

  • Avoid constrictive framed, boxed or columnar copy; in tabular column headings, include extra vertical space.

  • Try to keep your text outside the graphics or in text boxes to allow for easy editing and translation.

  • Provide all artwork, including illustrations, photos and other graphic components of your to-be-translated document, even if the art does not contain text. Artwork provides the translator with a critical visual reference.

  • Standard punctuation in foreign languages differs from that used in English. Do not inadvertently make changes to punctuation in a translation without consulting your translator. For example, French uses spaces before and after colon marks.

Ready to go local?

While these tips can help you start with improved localisation processes, an experienced language services company can help you take it further. Translation and language consulting companies can proactively identify solutions and suggest approaches to save you money while improving results. It's always a good idea to involve your vendor early in the process -- experienced professionals can spot potential issues early on, which may mitigate or eliminate barriers later, when changes can be expensive.

Most importantly, work in partnership with your vendor to provide resources and reference materials, work through solutions and review your processes. The more you communicate with your vendor, the better job they can do for you.


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