When you export products – of almost any kind – you’re likely to need the translation of technical manuals or user instructions. In many cases, providing these documents will be a legal requirement of the country you’re going to be exporting to.

But even if it’s not the law, do you really want to make things difficult for your overseas partner by sending them an instruction manual that’s not in their native language?

At best you risk that only the small segment of their team which speaks your language fluently will be able to understand your manual. Is their understanding of it perfect? Might the whole company start using your product incorrectly, and then decide it’s inferior?

And at worst you risk insulting a potentially lucrative partner by insisting that the only language you’ll do business in is your own.

So whether from a legal, business or good practice standpoint, translating technical documents is vital. In this article, we’ll look at some of the basics you’ll need to consider.

technical manuals

1) Accurate, logical, clear and readability

Possibly the most important thing to remember about translating a technical manual is that this isn’t a bit of prose. The most important qualities a translated text will possess in this instance are being accurate, logical, clear and readable. How well this has been achieved can generally be judged on:

  • How accurate the translation of the technical terms involved is
  • How accurately those words are related to each other
  • Accuracy when relating clause and sentence structure
  • Whether the linguist has used sentence structure, layout or format to increase clearness

As an example of the last point, in English, it’s relatively easy to change the layout or format to increase readability. In Chinese, changing sentence structures might achieve the same goal.

2) Technical terms can be divided into four types

Translated technical terms are divided into the following four camps in European Commission translations:

  • Known + undoubted
  • Known + doubted
  • Unknown + existing
  • Unknown + not existing

Working backwards, the steps that are followed when translating technical terms tends to be:

  • Guess
  • Search
  • Determine
  • Express

Having a “guess” as the starting point of a translation might sound unscientific. But because of the experience and skills of the linguist (more on that in Number 6 below) and the nature of technical documents, terms can usually be guessed from the context they’re placed in before additional work is needed to verify them. This is especially the case when a project involves the translation of only part of a manual, or individual instructions for a similar product.

3) If your product is listed in the EMD, translation is mandatory

The EMD is the European Machinery Directive. Since 2009, compliance with this has been a requirement for all companies which manufacture machines or machine parts or distribute them in Europe.

The directive lays out a long list of sensible health and safety rules. Complying with it is mandatory if you’re in the EEA (the European Economic Area, which includes Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland as well as the countries of the EU – and in the Netherlands, where the directive is included in domestic legislation).

Once you’ve been rated as compliant, you’ll be able to add the “CE” label to your products and get a certificate of conformity (CE stands for “Conformité Européen“).

The important translation-related part of this requirement is that the machine should be accompanied by a user manual in the language of the country where it is to be used or sold. That’s as well as an operating manual in its original language. Any failure to do this leaves you liable in the event that the operator of a machine has any sort of incident.

4) Ensure you have sufficient reference material

As mentioned above, the first step in most technical translation is for a linguist with extensive relevant experience to make a translation based on context and their own knowledge. To make this as swift and accurate as possible, it’s always best to provide as much reference material as you can.

You might like to provide the following to your Language Service Provider:

  • Any glossaries or term dictionaries which are relevant
  • Anything which explains key jargon used
  • Photos of your or your competitors’ multilingual website or materials
  • A visit to your own facility so that a linguist can see for themselves exactly what’s involved

It’s likely that your translator will be familiar with the terminology, but why leave any potential space for misunderstanding?

5) A translated document often takes up more space

It’s important to bear in mind that the amount of space which a translated document may take up might be less, but will often be more than the original. A good example of this is when translating from English to German, where the resultant text will be on average thirty percent longer than the original.

Here are some other approximate figures to bear mind:

  • English to Arabic translations can take as much as 25% more space
  • English to Spanish translations can take as much as 30% more space
  • Japanese to English translations can take as much as 60% more space!

Of course, there are also examples of languages which require less space in English. When the original documents are in Arabic, French, Italian or Hindi there’s good chance this will end up being the case.

6) You need translators with industry-specific experience

This is perhaps the most critical determining factor in whether a translated technical manual is going to be accurate, logical, readable and clear (see Number One above).

While you can find skilled linguists who can turn their hands to a variety of subjects, for best results it’s always best to employ a translator with industry-specific experience. For instance at Asian Absolute, we look to hire translators for specific jobs who:

  • Have at least five years of experience in the relevant industry
  • Are qualified in the field to at least Masters Degree level

It’s also important to bear in mind that your current team is not the ideal place to source language expertise. It might be tempting – from a cost-effectiveness standpoint – to call in a member of your current team who, for example, speaks fluent French for the technical translation of your document. But there’s a big difference between a fluent or even native speaker of a language and a professional translator. By not using a professional you risk:

a) Mistranslations caused by a lack of experience

A professional linguist will have years of experience of translating documents of all kinds and may even have translated a manual just like yours before. The best will also have the same familiarity with your field as your team member, so you’re not losing anything there.

b) Not having the translation software a professional agency uses

Professional agencies use Computer Aided Translation (CAT) tools which, amongst other things, provide functionality such as remembering sections of text which have previously been accurately translated and suggesting them when they occur again. This makes for a far more cost-effective project.

Changes to the document are also far easier to implement.

c) Having a slower or distracted execution of the final piece

Your team member also has to complete their regular work, or at best to stop doing their normal work entirely while they focus on the document. It’s a poor trade-off for what will likely be, with all the goodwill in the world, a substandard final document.

A professional translator with specialist industry experience is a must then.

Because, while there are many humorous (from the outside) examples of big brands who lost millions of dollars from translation mistakes of their marketing materials, there are far fewer examples of a technical translation error which had anything resembling a comedic outcome.

Just about to have your first technical document translated? Or have you been making sure that your company gets the most accurate technical translations for many years?

Join the discussion below and share your two cents with the rest of the community!