Technical Instruction Manual Translation

Instruction Manuals

The translation of technical manuals is vital for the correct use of devices, machines, and software. The most commonly translated technical manuals are instruction manuals. These manuals indicate how to use the devices, machines, and applications they accompany, and these translation have to accurate and precise.

Translation of technical manuals

It’s obvious that to avoid problems, we need to know, for example, what the little yellow light flashing on the injection mold we have just added to our production line indicates. It’s also important to know that the red indicator on the washing machine means that we cannot open the door until the washing program has finished. And, of course, we have to know how to use the filter that has been sent to us from our company headquarters in Japan, China, or elsewhere.

The translation of technical instruction manuals, like all other variants of technical translation, has a number of characteristics that are important to bear in mind. Here are a few of them that are important to consider in your translation projects:

Accurate and clear translation. The translation must accurately and precisely reflect the indications of the original text. It is also important that the instructions are clear and intelligible.

Appropriate vocabulary. Technical translation requires a precise and appropriate vocabulary for the field to which the translation corresponds. Translating the manual for a toaster is not the same as translating the manual for an industrial machine.

Internal consistency. It is important to always use the same term for the same concept. It is also interesting that the syntactic structures are similar. For example: if we give instructions with the verb forms corresponding to tú, we must be consistent and use them throughout the text.

Consistency with previous projects. If translations on this topic have been done before, use the same glossary and write the new translation in a similar style to the previous one. In addition, material that has already been translated should be reproduced as it was.

Repetitions and similar phrases. Manuals often contain repeated phrases, which must be translated in exactly the same way. Similar sentences also appear, which must be translated in a consistent manner.

Linguistic variants. Certain languages have very different variants. If, for example, you want to translate a technical manual into Chinese, you have to consider whether it should be into traditional or simplified Chinese. Another example is English: is the manual for the United Kingdom or for the United States?

Other aspects of technical manual translation

There are other aspects, less related to linguistics and of a more technical nature, which are also worth assessing. Here are some of them:

  • Format of the document – is it a Microsoft Word file? Perhaps it was provided to you in InDesign? Or was it sent to you in a language tagged XML or XLIFF? No problem. At ABC Translations we can process them and we can return the translation in the same format.
  • Images with text. In the instructions there are often images and graphics that contain information that needs to be translated. We take this into account and provide you with the corresponding translation. It must be assessed on a case-by-case basis whether the translated text can be inserted into the graphic or whether it must be delivered in a separate document (in the case of images that cannot be edited).
  • Delivery time. We assess the client’s needs in order to establish a realistic deadline to guarantee a quality translation.

As you can see, the list of requirements and features for the translation of technical manuals is long, and this list is not exhaustive! At ABC Translations we take them into account and offer you a professional quality service.

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Our Approach to Instruction Manual Translation

Instruction manuals are those technical documents that accompany a given device and teach users how to use it. These publications, which vary in length from a few pages to a whole book, have their origins in the notes that engineers wrote on the product they had developed and which were intended for other colleagues at the same level. The latter, for their part, had to consult this entire book of notes to find out how to perform a given function. With the passage of time came an era of prosperity and the democratization of consumption. At the same time, competition between different manufacturers and the technical complexity of a number of everyday items increased. The technology reaches ordinary citizens who are unfamiliar with the mechanisms that allow the operation of the good they have purchased. Hence, they need a user manual that explains how to operate it. EU legislation considers that user guides are an integral part of the product and, as such, must always accompany it.

The purpose of an instruction manual is not only to explain to the user how the purchased device works, but also:

  1. How to get the most out of it and how to solve possible problems in handling it. At ABC Translations we add that correct use ensures that the product’s service life is long and this translates into greater customer satisfaction.
  2. To warn of risks and accidents that could occur during installation or use in order to avoid both breakdowns and personal injury; All works consulted and EU legislation underline that user safety is a key issue. In addition, clear warnings protect the company from claims, complaints and lawsuits.
  3. Constitute an advertising element by positively valuing the article and the company. This confirms that a good purchase has been made and motivates to buy other products of the same brand or to recommend them. In this regard, a survey commissioned by the Japanese company Mitsubishi has shown that consumers who have clear and well-written instructions are more loyal to the brand, less likely to discard the product in question and more likely to buy another product from the same manufacturer; we add a fourth reason: in the years that concern us, the law in some countries required that this type of device be accompanied by its corresponding technical documentation.

Linguistic elements cannot be separated from the extra-linguistic ones (mainly of a commercial and legal nature). The term user-friendly, with which the manufacturer advertises its products, also extends to the accompanying documentation. If it should be easy to use the purchased item, it should also be easy to consult its instructions.

The term user-friendliness has many definitions. One general approach is to define user-friendliness as the ease with which users can achieve specific tasks with documentation in an effective, efficient and safe manner. Terms such as usability and approachability are often used to indicate the same property. In essence the key is to create documentation that helps users achieve their goals, without placing undue demands upon them.

Numerous authors qualify instruction manuals as a genre. The former argue that each of the different types of texts covered by technical writing has a number of features that are unique to it, differentiate it from other writings and enable it to function as a prototype representing the infinite number of documents that are written on a daily basis. All of us know how to recognize the most frequent ones and detect when they do not conform to the idea; we have of them because we assimilate them as we learn the language. However, only a few of us have mastered their wording. We can distinguish between passive and active competence. These, in turn, will have different levels depending on how relevant a type of text is for the reader or on the professional ability of the technical writer. Thus, it is no problem for us to distinguish an informative journalistic article from a technical description intended for a company, but most of us do not know how to write a labor standard or a technical regulation.

When it comes to classifying professional texts by typology, English-speaking countries prefer to use the concept of genre, which includes both written and oral texts, instead of the term textual type. This has led to a broader communicative methodology in which we speak of a communicative event that is manifested orally or on paper. Therefore, depending on the methodology adopted, the genre will be either a textual type or a communicative event. These two visions are not incompatible but complementary. Now, as a starting point, genre, and also textual type, is understood as the set of texts, written or oral, from the professional and academic world that conform to a series of formal and stylistic conventions, among which the following stand out:

  1. The same communicative function;
  2. A similar organizational scheme called macrostructure;
  3. As a development of the previous macrostructure, a similar discursive modality and comparable discursive techniques that serve as a guide for the receiver of the message to expect a certain discursive experience;
  4. An analogous lexical-syntactic level, consisting of functional units and features and equivalent forms; and
  5. Common sociopragmatic conventions, i.e., use by professionals and academics in similar sociocultural contexts. At the same time, we can consider that this concept had not yet been precisely defined either by translatology or by studies on languages for specific purposes.

Some have offered integrative proposals, which offered a conciliatory vision between the intratextual and extratextual approaches: A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some sets of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. Communicative purpose is both a privileged criterion and one that operates to keep the scope of a genre as here conceived narrowly focused on comparable rhetorical action. In addition to purpose, exemplars of a genre exhibit various patterns of similarity in terms of structure, style, content and intended audience. If all high probability expectations are realized, the exemplar will be viewed as prototypical by the parent discourse community.

At ABC Translations, conventions are textual features sanctioned by the speakers of a language as the most suitable ones to be used in certain situations despite the fact that there are other linguistically correct options for expression. We argue that, given that all possibilities allow the communicative function to be successfully fulfilled, the mechanism that turns a given behavior into a convention is totally arbitrary. That is to say, within a genre, each language or culture unjustifiably selects a given quality among several and converts it into a convention. However, this does not cancel out the rest of the alternatives, since without them there would be no stylistic richness and the reading of the document would be, to say the least, monotonous. Let us imagine that in an instruction manual only the use of the imperative, passives or impersonal structures were authorized. The constant repetition of an element goes against the laws of legibility.

If manuals are classified according to the profile of the target audience, two large groups appear: some are aimed at a non-specialized general public, since they accompany consumer goods for personal use, and others are intended for experts in a certain technical area, are attached to machinery or complex installations and are used in a work environment. The communicative function of this type of document is exhortative with an alternative, since the aim is to provoke an action in the receiver: that he/she uses the acquired product correctly. However, this function does not monopolize the genre since it alternates with others that, in turn, dominate other sections of the instructions. For example, the guarantee has an exhortative character without alternative (since it is legally binding) and the product description, expository. The result is a manual divided into a series of parts that act as microtexts within the higher textual level to which they belong.

As far as the communicative situation is concerned, this is a formal situation in which communication is external, i.e., it originates from the manufacturing company that markets the product (sender) to reach the customer who has purchased it (receiver). The field is specific and always refers to an article of variable complexity and technology. The mode is usually written. The tone is formal, monologued and unmodalized, i.e., the sender does not adopt a position except when he introduces elements of an advertising nature that positively value his product. In the text, there are no linguistic marks that identify either the sender or the receiver, since the former is rarely identified with a single technical writer and the latter is a collective addressee.

In analyzing the manuals according to the technical complexity of the device, we observe a series of variants that, on the one hand, are characterized by presenting a superstructure and conventions that are specific to them and, on the other, by sharing a sufficient number of similarities that prevent them from separating themselves from the genre. The author distinguishes six: small appliances and household appliances; large household appliances; image and sound appliances; advanced telephony; information technology and complex systems. However, she also warns that the term instruction manual is a kind of label that is useful for referring to all these types of text as a whole, since this genre has neither clearly defined limits nor perfectly homogeneous content.

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