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Think Globally, Write Locally

by Kristen Giovanis

Companies operating in a global marketplace know they need to translate documents for their audiences. But some documents actually need more than translation – they need document localization. Although a document’s words can be translated perfectly, the document can still be ineffective in another market, due to differences in the way local businesses operate and in the way people think. Using a process called localization, language professionals translate the source document’s words and adapt its content to the needs and norms of the target country or market. Because language professionals can work only with what they are given, the document’s creator is partly responsible for ensuring the localization process is effective. After all, poorly written English cannot be turned into good Japanese.

Going to the Source: Technical Writers

Often, technical writers generate the source documents and thus become an important part of the document localization process. Their job is already pretty tough, as 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
  • Meet deadlines that are sometimes unrealistic
It’s no wonder that localization requirements are rarely at the top of their lists. Some essential tips can make a big difference in how well writers can produce documents that reduce global communication challenges.

Plan for Document Localization Success

There is no substitute for a good plan. From the moment a company, a department, or a writer knows that documentation needs translation and localization, individuals involved can build a plan that helps the process run smoothly and generates a positive outcome.

Create a Standard Workflow That Eases Localization

Create a workflow or standard operating procedure that addresses documentation localization needs. For example, if your organization has international offices that will be reviewing and validating documents following translation and prior to release, incorporate that step and required time into the workflow. If desktop publishing is required, determine if it will be completed internally or outsourced. Other workflow elements include:
  • Consistency
  • Document streamlining
If several individuals or departments will be creating source documents, be sure they are all working in tandem, using the same style guide and glossaries. Recently, a client submitted a project consisting of technical documents created by several writers-–none of which conformed to a template or style guide. Later, using a modular system, the company revised its procedures, created a style guide, and updated all its documents. As a result, the company was able to reduce the word count of their source documents by 41%, resulting in significant savings in translation and localization costs.

Budget Document Localization Time and Costs Realistically

Translation and localization projects require adequate time, which is usually calculated based on document length. Other variables that might impact the time frame include technical difficulty, review and validation processes in your workflow, and formatting or production of the final text in the appropriate format(s). Localizing can be expensive, especially for projects with multiple target markets. Keep in mind that localization may be different, even when the target language is the same. For example, a document will need to be localized separately for Chile and Argentina, even though Latin American Spanish is the target language for both countries. Also, remember that words are money when it comes to translation and localization. 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, localization, validation, and production, it comes to $9.72 per word!

Invest In Your Resources

Although standard operating procedures, template documents, and style guides take time and resources to develop, they ultimately serve to reduce your costs and improve your results. A specialized term glossary can also be a worthwhile investment, since a major challenge in localizing documents is how to handle industry- or company-specific terminology, abbreviations, and product nomenclature. By investing in glossary development, you improve the accuracy and consistency of your documentation while reducing costs.

Writing for Document Localization

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 localization, 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 outside 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. For example, “800” telephone numbers, hours of operation for support services, U.S. local offices, U.S.-specific warranties and regulatory information will all cause issues in localization.
  • 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 the first occurrence, provide the full phrase, followed by the abbreviation or acronym in parentheses.
  • Before using acronyms, first create an acronym definition list. You can use the list while localizing, or include it as a separate appendix to your document.

Writing Style Tips

  • Use symbols whenever possible. Many industries have standardized symbols which are globally recognized and accepted.
  • Avoid passive voice. Use a direct, simple writing style and short sentences.
  • Do not use upper-case letters to emphasize a particular action, especially in noun phrases. In German, all nouns are capitalized, 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 specialized 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 smaller pieces.
  • 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 “utilize.”
  • 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 nominalizations. 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, her” and use “they/ their” instead. (Be sure to make the corresponding noun plural, to avoid creating a grammatical error.)
  • Don’t clutter your text with redundant expressions. Example: “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 document’s credibility is not determined by its length. Shorter documents tend to have more impact, as do shorter sentences.

Design Tips

  • If providing electronic documents, page sizes should match standards where printing will take place. For example, documents to be printed and distributed in Europe should be designed for A4 paper rather than 8.5 X 11.
  • Make sure your design application supports the languages you will be localizing.
  • Separate text from graphics on the page. Do not include words in your graphic elements. Text embedded in graphics must be translated and localized separately, triggering a complete recreation of the graphic.
  • Be aware of language expansion and leave appropriate white space. Traditionally, the general rule of thumb is to leave an extra 30 percent of space to account for the differences in languages; however, actual text expansion can exceed 50 percent for some languages. Romantic languages (e.g., French, Spanish, Italian) 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.
  • 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 tool.
  • Standard punctuation in foreign languages differs from that used in US-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 get you started with improved localization 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, and work through solutions and review your processes. The more you communicate with your vendor, the better job they can do for you.

About the Author

Kristen Giovanis is co-founder and managing director of KJ International. She has been a trailblazer in the use of technology to meet business goals and manage translation costs. Her client list includes leading companies in medical-device manufacturing and other regulated industries. She successfully manages accounts throughout the world and is particularly attuned to the market, language, and regulatory challenges of the global market. Her articles on emerging trends and challenges for EU-regulated industries have appeared in top international journals and web sites, and she is a regularly featured speaker at international conferences, focusing on the business, cultural, political, and technological challenges of language and translation. Kristen holds a JD from the William Mitchell College of Law and has completed additional international regulatory and legal studies in Brussels and London. More Articles on Translation and Localization Document Translation and Localization Services