Translation Theory

Lead Writer: Alison Pickering | Peer Reviewer/s: Kieran Morgan| Expert Reviewer/s: Stephanie Riches Harries | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter explores the concepts of translation and localization in technical writing projects. We emphasize how crucial it is to grasp language subtleties and cultural differences. This understanding is vital for accurately translating technical documents for a worldwide audience. By examining these theories, this chapter equips you with the expertise needed to make sure your documentation is linguistically precise and culturally appropriate. This theoretical foundation is necessary for the practical application discussed in the following chapter, Chapter 25: Translation Practice.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Technical writers, professionals, and project managers who are responsible for overseeing the translation and localization of technical documentation.
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 21: Validate and Test InformationNext: Chapter 23: Translation Practice

1. Introduction

This chapter explores the concepts of translation and localization in technical writing. Understanding these is crucial for anyone involved in producing technical documentation that resonates with a global audience. In this chapter, we explore the intricacies of language and culture, and how they influence the translation process. We’ll examine the importance of cultural sensitivity and accuracy in translation, as well as how these elements contribute to the internationalization of technical documents.

This theoretical framework sets the stage for practical application discussed in Chapter 25: Translation Practice, where these theories are put into action. Whether you’re a technical writer or a project manager, or are involved in any capacity with translating technical content, this chapter will equip you with the essential theoretical knowledge to navigate the complexities of translation and localization.

Note Icon Note
In-House and External Translation Providers
Our translation chapters are written from the perspective that your organization will use an external translation service provider. If your organization has an in-house translation team, speak to the translation manager to find out which processes are in place and which tools are used.

1.1. The Importance of Translation

Over the last few decades, we have seen the globalization of markets, making the need for translation of product documentation greater than ever before. Translation and localization provide your business with access to the global marketplace.

Legal requirements vary between industries, and it is your responsibility (or the translation manager’s) to learn the legal obligations related to your products or services for your target markets. For example, for technical products that fall under the EU Machinery Directive,1 user documentation must be delivered in the language of the country where it is being sold.

Good-quality translations may also have a positive impact on the overall customer experience. Where several companies offer similar products at similar prices, the localized product documentation can be seen as a differentiating factor.

If customers do not understand how to use a product due to poorly translated instructions, they will contact customer support more often, which in turn increases costs for the organization. Taking it one step further, actual errors in translated product documentation can lead to serious consequences for manufacturers, distributors, and the entire business, especially if the errors relate to safety issues. Errors in translations can also cause the reader amusement—and not in a good way. Customers will stop reading a poor translation. You’ve lost your audience, and their opinion of the product can suffer as a result. Therefore, it is essential to use professional technical translation services rather than just getting your local sales company or distribution agent to translate for you.

When translating technical documents, there are certain tips that can help you achieve the highest possible quality of translation. Remember that this is a process where the quality of the final output depends on the quality of the input, so it’s important to get that right. The next section highlights the main points to consider when writing for translation.

2. [Theory] Translation, Localization, Internationalization

2.1. What Is Translation?

Translation is the process of converting the text of a written document from one language into another while maintaining the original message and communication. For the best results, the translator should be a native speaker of the target language and have an excellent command of both languages involved. This is, of course, necessary for any type of translation, but it is especially crucial when instruction manuals are technical and must be precise and clear. Translation is not necessarily a word-for-word conversion, but it must preserve the original meaning and respect syntax and grammar rules.

For translations of specialized content, such as in engineering or manufacturing, the translator must have specific knowledge. Specialist fields often have their own jargon, and it is these specific terms that make translating in specialist fields more complex; therefore, expertise is essential.

The importance of high-quality translations should not be underestimated. Using cheap and fast services usually results in poor-quality translations, which can alienate the target audience and may also result in higher costs in the long run.

2.2. What Is Localization?

One of the most common questions asked is whether documents should be translated or localized. They are closely related, so it isn’t surprising that sometimes the distinctions between them are unclear.

Localization is just as important to a business as translation. Whereas translation refers to the process of changing text from one language to another and achieving an equivalent meaning, localization takes the process one step further. It focuses on making text both linguistically and culturally accurate to a specific region, allowing your company to cross cultural barriers and really connect with your audience.

Localization encompasses several areas, such as:

  • Spelling (e.g., US English = specialized, UK English = specialised)
  • Vocabulary (e.g., US English = elevator, UK English = lift)
  • Imperial vs. metric measurements (e.g., US English = inches, UK English = centimetres)
  • Currency units (e.g., US English = $, UK English = £)
  • Date formats (e.g., US English = MM-DD-YYYY, UK English = DD-MM-YYYY)
  • Linked URLs that are country- or region-specific
  • Country- or region-specific content (often for legal or regulatory requirements that vary)

2.3. What is Internationalization?

Internationalization is the process of generalizing a product, software, or documentation so that it can handle multiple languages and cultural conventions without the need for redesign or rework. Internationalization practices save time and money, as the localization of a product or communication takes twice as long and costs twice as much if not properly internationalized.2

Although the technical writer would not normally be involved in creating or approving product and feature names, it may be worth checking with the stakeholders (usually the marketing department) to ask if a new name to be used in a technical document has been vetted with regional offices where Languages Other Than English (LOTE) are spoken. This strategy, when used early in the process, can prevent the painful renaming and need to rework documentation containing the new brand, product, or feature name. Failure to include this step has caused companies serious blunders over the decades because they didn’t check outside of their source language bubble.


German luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz decided to introduce its cars to the Chinese market under the shortened name “Bensi.” However, this word means “rush to die” in Chinese, which is not the image Mercedes-Benz wanted to promote. The company quickly rebranded to “Benchi,” which means “run quickly as if flying.”3

3. [Theory] Writing for Translation

In order to get a reliable translation of your technical documentation, you need to provide high-quality and simple source text and apply the principles below, as well as the general best-practice principles detailed in Part 6: Write. This will guarantee a smooth flow of the text, regardless of the language.

  • Use Active Tense and Simple Language
    • Prefer active tense, such as “Connect the brake,” not “The brake must be connected.”
    • Keep sentences short and straightforward, splitting longer sentences into shorter ones or bullet points for clarity.
  • Consistency in Terminology
    • Maintain consistent terminology throughout the text. Avoid using multiple terms for the same concept to prevent confusion.
    • Eliminate ambiguity by using explicit language, ensuring clarity in translation.
  • Avoid Complex Constructions
    • Steer clear of abbreviations, acronyms, and Latin terms unless they are widely recognized in the industry.
    • If abbreviations or acronyms are necessary, introduce them with their full wording initially, followed by the abbreviation in brackets.
  • Streamline Text for Efficiency
    • Reuse content wherever possible for uniformity and cost efficiency.
    • Reduce the number of words to lower translation costs and simplify the translator’s task.
    • Avoid forward slashes, preferring explicit connectors like “and” or “or.”

You should be thinking about translation, localization, and internationalization as you create and format the source content. Having good-quality input will lower your translation costs, reduce turnaround time, and improve the translation quality.

To help you apply these principles, we’ve prepared a handy checklist of dos and don’ts: Translation Best Practices Checklist for Text and Graphics.

4. [Theory] Setting Up Images for Translation

When preparing images for translation in technical documentation, it’s important to consider how they will be interpreted and altered in different languages. This involves not only the textual content within the images but also their overall design and layout. Adhering to certain principles can significantly streamline the translation process, reduce costs, and maintain the integrity of the visual message across various languages.

  • Minimizing Text in Graphics: Design graphics to be as language-neutral as possible. Avoid embedding text in images, as this necessitates creating multiple versions for different languages and increases desktop publishing work. Instead, use callouts linked to a separate legend or key.
  • Editable Text in Graphics: If text in graphics is necessary, ensure it’s easily editable. For example, by placing text in layers in Adobe Illustrator, direct alteration in the graphic file is facilitated, smoothing the translation process without the need to recreate the image.
  • Accommodating Text Expansion: Allow for text expansion in graphics. Translated text can be longer than its English counterpart, so designing with extra space prevents overcrowding and preserves readability in all language.
Example of a Language-Neutral Image for Translation
Example of a Language-Neutral Image for Translation

For a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts when setting up images for translation, refer to the checklist, Translation Best Practices Checklist for Text and Graphics.

5. [Theory] Scope of Translation Services

The scope of translation services varies, so it’s important to decide what best suits your requirements. It is not generally the responsibility of the technical writer to define the scope of translation services required, but it’s good to be aware of the process.

Usually, it is the translation manager/translation responsible who decides on the scope while liaising with internal stakeholders, such as sales and product management, where required. It is vital to be specific about the requirements when requesting a quote to avoid unexpected costs later.

More details can be found at Chapter 25: Translation Practice | 2.3. Defining the Scope of Translation.

5.1. Translation, Editing, and Proofreading

Translation should be done by qualified translators who are native speakers and subject matter experts.

Editing involves reviewing a translation and making changes to improve its quality. This improves the flow and results in a more cohesive translation. It usually focuses on style and content.

Proofreading is the process of reviewing the final draft to verify that translations are accurate and complete, and it primarily focuses on ensuring the translation is grammatically correct (four-eye principle). A proofreader checks the following:

  • Overall readability.
  • Grammatical errors and typos.
  • Accuracy of the translation compared to the source content.
  • Style, formatting, and layout are according to the customer brief.

If you use a professional translation service provider to translate your content, they will usually also undertake the editing and proofreading process unless otherwise instructed. Therefore, when ordering translations, remember to define the scope.

5.2. Machine Translation (MT) and Post-Editing

Machine translation (MT) is a cost-effective and time-saving method; however, it can lack the fluency and specialist knowledge of a human linguist. As its name suggests, it uses machines to translate from one language to another. Although it was initially used as a quick and low-cost method for information translations for internal use, its use in more technical areas and for external documents such as product documentation is increasing thanks to advances in technology and reliability.

While the advantages of MT are cost savings, time, and scalability, there are also some disadvantages you need to consider. In terms of accuracy, machine translation will never match the accuracy and reliability of a human translator’s expertise, experience, or industry knowledge. Machine translation doesn’t account for local cultures or customs and cannot handle figures of speech, which risks some meaning getting lost in translation. Machine translation is supported by translation memories, so it may be more suitable further down the line when the translation service provider has completed several translations for you, which are then saved in the translation memory.

Post-editing is used following machine translation, and it is a vital step that should not be overlooked. This is the manual human editing and revising of the raw output from a machine translation engine, combining the speed of machine translation with the accuracy and expertise of human translators. During the post-editing step, an experienced linguist will identify and correct words or phrases that the machine translation engine has produced that don’t make sense in the context of your text. They may also notice that the text needs to be localized to be acceptable in the target culture.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
Translation Memory
A database used by translation service providers to store completed translations. It is utilized in subsequent translation tasks to identify and automatically translate repeated text, ensuring consistency and reducing the need to retranslate identical content, thereby saving time and costs. Translation memories can be shared between different service providers, facilitating efficiency when multiple vendors are used.

5.3. Validation, In-Country Review, Client Review

Validation, also known as in-country review or client review, is a process to check the correctness of translations for the specified (or target) country or region. Once the translation is completed, it is passed to a designated validator who reviews the translation and suggests improvements. This may be an employee of your local sales company or a product manager who is a native speaker of the target language and also a subject matter expert. You should define primary and backup validators for each country and product, and communicate this to the translation service provider.

Validation can be done on both human and machine translations. Most translation service providers have a software tool for this purpose, and validators should be offered training in using it.

During validation, the validator should be given clear instructions about their task and the deadline. They should be informed about what they should check for and flag, and what they should ignore. Some SMEs are so passionate about their area of work or product that they go beyond what is requested and even start making changes to content that are not in the source text, such as adding sentences or changing technical data. An example of what a validator should check includes:

  • Accuracy of the translation.
  • Correct localization of the text.
  • Consistency with approved terminology for their language.

Regardless of whether the validation stage is handled internally or by the translation service provider, the validators should always be given access to the full set of approved terminology—the terminology database (or termbase)—to support them in their task. Furthermore, they should be given any relevant contextual information, such as source files and graphics.

Se e Chapter 25: Translation Practice | 2.7. Validation for further information on validation.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
Terminology Database (Termbase)
A collection of standardized terms, often specific to a particular product or industry, used by translators. When these standard terms are encountered in text, their pre-translated versions are automatically inserted by the computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool, ensuring consistent and high-quality translations. Termbases are essential for maintaining term consistency across various translations and are regularly updated and validated for accuracy.

5.4. Layout Work

Desktop publishing (DTP) can be a significant cost, so ensure you consider this when deciding on the scope of your translation task. Request that the translation service provider to include this in the quote to avoid any unpleasant surprises later on (see Chapter 25: Translation Practice | 2.8. Layout Work (DTP – Desktop Publishing)).

6. [Theory] Roles and Responsibilities in the Translation Process

The following table gives an overview of the roles and responsibilities of the main stakeholders in the translation process. These can vary slightly, so the responsibilities defined serve as examples and can be amended to suit your organization.

Technical Writer• Be mindful of the guidelines on writing for translation when creating content and remember to use internationalization principles.
• Ensure all source files (text and graphics) are available for translation.
• Act upon any feedback about errors in the source files spotted by translators or validators.
Translation Manager / Translation Responsible• Decide on translation requirements and scope, and communicate these to the translation partner.
• Coordinate product training for translators as required.
• Approve or reject quotes from the translation partner.
• Process and release the translated documents.
• Act on quality issues in cooperation with the translation partner.
• Pass on feedback relating to errors in the source text to the technical writer.
Translation Service Provider / Translation Partner• Prepare quotes for the translation orders.
• Manage the translation and validation process.
• Give validators advance warning when a validation task is coming.
• Follow up with validators on deadlines.
• Ensure the use of company-specific terminology.
• Coordinate training of translators as required.
• Apply the four-eyes principle to every translation.
• Host the company-specific translation memory.
• Implement all relevant comments and changes from the validators and ensure they are included in the translation memory.
• Deliver the translations by the agreed deadline.
• Offer validators training in the use of the validation tool.
Validators• Check translations.
• Check consistency with approved terminology for their language.
• Complete the task within the given timeframe.
• Use the tool provided by the translation partner to complete the validation task.
Roles and Responsibilities in the Translation Process
Note Icon Note
Important Consideration for Validators
Validators should not rewrite content that deviates from the source file or check technical data. Instead, the validators’ questions or comments concerning translated content should be communicated to the technical writer via the translation manager.
  1. Also known as Directive 2006/42/EC. ↩︎
  2. The Globalization Industry Primer. (2007). Romainmótier, Switzerland: Localization Industry Standards Association—LISA. ↩︎
  3. Business News Daily: Small business solutions & inspiration – BusinessNewsDaily.com. (n.d.). Business News Daily. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/. ↩︎
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