Shape Up to Ship Out – How to Clean Up Your Source Documentation for Effective Localization

Creating good technical documentation requires the ability to apply structure and clarity to complex information. Even when various quality checks have been performed, the act of translating the documentation often uncovers a variety of problems. Content that is poorly prepared for localization into one or even more languages typically ends up costing more time and money.

Let’s have a look at two possible scenarios and see which one produces the best results.

Reactive: The documentation has been written, product shipment is imminent.

Writer: Hey, can you translate this manual for me?
Translator: Sure, when do you need it by?
Writer: Uhm, yesterday, but if you can do it by Friday that would be great.
Translator: How long is it?
Writer: Not long, 45 pages. Here’s the printout.
Translator: Uhm, do you have an electronic copy?
Writer: Sure, I’ll send you the PDF.
Translator: Uhm, what program was it created with? Do you have the original files?
Writer: Oh, I’m not normally allowed to give you those!
Translator: Well, I’m kind of busy, I can find someone on trans-it (an online translator marketplace) to translate it and I can look over it if I have time.

The following Friday at 5:30 pm …
Translator: Well, here you go, straight from India.
Writer: Great, thanks! I was beginning to wonder if you’d make the deadline. Err … the interface terms in the manual don’t seem to match the interface. Hmm … and that’s strange. This part of the text is a lot different from the online help that the developers had translated last month.
Translator: You created an online help, too, …

What went wrong here?

  • No advance notice was given to the translator.
  • No terminology was agreed on.
  • The deadline was too short.
  • The translation estimate was based on a printout of just the manual.

Risks of this process include:

  • Complaints about poor quality
  • Improper translation of the interface
  • Incorrect formatting
  • Additional time for proofing the translation
  • No possibility of reuse for updates

How can this process be optimized to help make translation run as smoothly as possible?

Proactive: The documentation of a new product has just started.

Writer: Hey, we are working on a new product, and will probably need the documentation in English and maybe later in Finnish and Japanese.
Translator: Sure, when are you planning on shipping the product?
Writer: In approximately three months; I’ve just started work on the user interface.
Translator: Have you defined the terminology?
Writer: A lot of the terminology will be based on the interface. Actually, the developers are going to give me a demonstration of the tool on Wednesday. Would you also like to take part in the meeting?
Translator: I’d love to. Do you already know what output media you’re going to use: manual or an online help?
Writer: Both. We’re going to complete the online help first, and we will probably reuse about 40% of the content created for the online help in the manual.
Translator: Okay, then I need to what authoring tools you’re using … and which versions? If you could let me have the source files as soon as they’re ready, that’d be great …
Writer: Of course, I don’t know how you are going to do it otherwise! I’ll send you a mail with all the information I think you need to have. Just let me know if anything’s missing. Should we prepare the files for you in any special way?
Translator: Well, I can write you a list of points to consider. If you have any background information about the planned product, then I can read through it before the meeting on Wednesday and begin with the terminology research …

Three months later …
Translator: Now that the online help has been translated, can I start translating the manual?
Writer: We’ve made the last few changes so you can start any time. Any idea how long it will take?
Translator: Well, I’ve already analyzed the .mif files that were reviewed, and it seems that over half the text is a complete match with the online help. This will be much quicker and cheaper than we estimated for 45 pages.
Writer: What do you mean?
Translator: Well, the 45 pages turned out to be only 30 “translator” pages, meaning 30 pages of text to translate once the formatting and images were taken into consideration. Of these 30 pages, 12 pages in total were texts translated for the online help. In other words, only 18 pages need to be translated. You can have them by Friday at the latest.

The following Friday at noon …
Translator: Well, here you go, straight from my desk.
Writer: Hey, thanks! Wow, this reads just like the online help! Great work. And I’m so glad we got you to translate the interface, too. You can see by the screenshots that the product is now a lot more user-friendly than the developers’ raw version.
Translator: No problem, I’m glad you involved me in this project from the start.
Writer: So am I … I think we’ve both benefited from working together so closely.
Translator: Yes, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Have a great weekend, and see you on Monday at the wrap-up.

What went well?

  • The writer and the translator worked together from the start of the documentation process.
  • The terminology was defined early on.
  • The deadlines were generous and well planned.
  • The translation estimate was based on leveraging content.

Benefits of this process include:

  • Compliments on good quality and prompt delivery
  • Accurate translation of the interface
  • Correct formatting
  • Ongoing quality assurance
  • Possibility of leveraging content for new products and updates

Shaping up content

The dialogs demonstrate different approaches to localization processes. However, the best processes cannot totally compensate for content that was not written with localization in mind. Let’s see what happened in the wrap-up meeting.
Project manager: … congratulations on getting the localized documentation out on time. So, how have the past few months been?
Writer: Well, we started early with the developers and the user interface …
Translator: … and I was involved in the project from the start, which was an enormous help.
Writer: Yes, and once the online help was in translation, the translator noticed some of my inconsistencies and a couple of things I’d written which just didn’t make sense.
Translator: Actually, the inconsistencies were minor issues, but they would have slowed down the translation of the manual and caused even more problems for the third-language translations. It was good to catch these things early on, especially since so much of the online help was reused in the manual.
Writer: We used a controlled authoring tool for the source documentation. Without it, I’m sure that you would have discovered a great many more inconsistencies!
Translator: Yes, our tools also helped us a great deal. We used translation databases to ensure correct terminology and consistent wording. This is also why the translation of the manual went so quickly – we were able to recycle the online help translations.
Project manager: It seems the work processes and tools you used really paid off.
Translator: We learned quite a bit about processes and best practices that we will be able to apply to future projects.
Writer: Definitely. We can save a lot of time and resources by shaping up our documentation before we ship out.

Written for and presented at the tekom Annual Conference 2007 in Wiesbaden, Germany by DeAnn D. Cougler, Professional Linguistic Solutions, Munich and Helen Fawcett, Comet Computer GmbH, Munich


About Helen Fawcett:

In a nutshell, I optimize user interface text such as control labels and create on-screen instructions and help documentation for developers & customers. | Helen works as a user assistance lead at SAP SE.
More about me