Can you take ownership of your technical translations? Turn a verbose, unclear wall of block text into an effective document? Here’s how to pull in some key technical writing techniques to make your documents clean and concise.
Superb writing skills are not the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a technical translator’s skill set. We usually focus on subject-matter expertise or terminology research methods. Although those are crucial, good technical writing is a third skill that makes a substantial difference to translation quality.
I hope to persuade you that technical writing is a skill that can be learned and a fundamental part of the technical translator’s skill set. Though many of the principles here apply to texts in any language, my native language is English, so all the examples I give are for effective English technical writing. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that my premise is to discuss documents translated for information or publication, where our customer wants us to produce as effective a text as possible.
Technical writing conveys information with an objective tone. The author’s opinion is unimportant; the focus remains on the technical content. This writing style can be used in any technical field. Technical writers explain technology and related ideas to either a technical or a non-technical audience. Knowing the intended audience is important for maintaining the appropriate register as we translate.
Technical writing transmits technical information accurately. Accuracy is so important that (Shock! Horror! Watch translators’ eyes pop out!) numbers may be more critical than words. I’d even go so far as to say that the data is often much more important to people reading these documents than the words. That’s obvious when we consider how poorly written many technical texts are. Authors may not think much about telling a great story. Readers focus on measurable results and predictions. For the same reason, random web searches rarely provide reliable answers to technical style queries. Too much scientific and technical writing is not written by native English speakers, and a great deal is written by people who seemingly don’t know or care much about the written word. We need to use a style guide as our reference, not the Internet.
I am emphasizing writing precise, concise, and clear texts. That’s what effective technical writing takes. “Precise” is usually covered by the terms we choose, so this article focuses on how to produce clear and concise writing. Concise and brief are often used interchangably in this context. By “concise” I mean keeping it as short as possible while including all the important information—the point is not brevity for brevity’s sake. The following concepts, even when applied in part, will improve technical writing.
Plain Language and Structure
Use plain, everyday words, not fancy words or jargon. Avoid long sentences (anything with more than 21 words in English). Split up, recast, and reorder thoughts for logical coherence. Take ownership where you can. Can you turn a paragraph into six bullet points? None of us read a wall of block text as effectively as a well-designed document.
As a general rule, use the active voice in English, even when the source is passive. The exceptions are rare: when the subject is unknown, or you would prefer not to specify the subject. In the past, scientific writing required the use of the passive voice, but there is a movement among scientific writing authorities to reduce this, so the passive is now preferred only in a methods section.
Active voice requires the use of strong action verbs. English users like to know what the item does. That means they are looking for a verb, ideally a punchy one. This style choice helps with clarity. Here are a few very simple examples, with the least preferable English crossed out.
Tras la aprobación de este informe
After approval of this report
- After this report is approved
Préparation de la solution A
Preparation of solution A
- Preparing solution A
- To prepare solution A
Example from editing a résumé
Maintenance and restocking of inventory
- Maintained and restocked inventory
Verbs that convey passive voice include: are, is, was, were, be, being, been. Try searching target texts for “was done” and see how many you have to remove.
This next sentence will probably make you wince: “The addition of lemon juice was done after 15 minutes.” But replace “lemon juice” with a chemical name, and I see this kind of sentence all the time. In fact, I edited this exact sentence once, except with a solvent as a subject noun.
My experience as an editor shows that when people are outside of their comfort zones, they sometimes slip into mindless translation. They focus on the terminology because they know they have to get that right, and the writing goes downhill. There may be other reasons for a literal translation that produces clunky English, but that’s an obvious one. I would have written “The lemon juice was added after 15 minutes.” If the context allowed, it would be even better to write “Wait 15 minutes and then add the lemon juice.”
“Omit Needless Words”
Strunk and White’s famous phrase says it all; you should be as brief as possible. But sometimes the translator says, “I’m paid by the target word!” If you struggle with this principle, remember “user focus.” Who wants a user manual or an operating procedure to be longer than necessary? Wordiness obscures meaning and annoys readers.
Many have written books on techniques for writing English more economically and concisely. (I’ve included some at the end of this article.) If your subconscious (or your conscious) can’t handle this, then you should negotiate hourly rates or charge by the source word at all times. A useful practical tip for English is to review your texts for “of” and recast to remove as many as possible (e.g., replace with possessives or noun pairs). Of course, when we have set phrases such as “Department of Motor Vehicles,” we’re not going to turn it into “Motor Vehicles Department,” but for many other instances we can rephrase.
If you still need convincing, just take a look at this very wordy sentence taken from a human resources procedural manual:
Original French: La présente procédure s’applique à tous les membres du personnel et à toutes les formations.
Before (pretty literal translation): This procedure applies to all members of personnel and to all training.
After (much better): This procedure applies to all personnel and training.
Here’s a great example from www.plainlanguage.gov that combines several principles of effective technical writing to improve clarity dramatically.
Before: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.
After: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.
Less than optimal technical writing is hardly rare, and source-language interference makes it even worse. When editing French>English translations, I often see noun-heavy texts and too many definite articles. That may work fine or even be optimal in some languages, but in English it makes for a turgid read. What should you watch for? Does your source language omit the subject, use participles differently, or have a prepositional case? Make sure your texts aren’t filled with clues that they are translations.
Order of Events
Reorder for chronology. When steps in a procedure are not listed in the order in which they are completed, the procedure is less clear.
Original French: Un lavage à l’ethanol a été réalisé à 0°C après filtration du gâteau afin de déterminer l’impact de ce solvant en terme de purification du principe actif.
Fairly literal translation: A wash with ethanol was done at 0°C after filtration of the cake to determine the impact of this solvent in terms of purification of the active ingredient.
Much better: The cake was filtered and then washed with ethanol at 0°C to determine this solvent’s impact on active ingredient purity.
Using a suitable style guide aids consistency and answers many questions. From how to format units of measure to whether to hyphenate a term of the art, we all need an up-to-date, authoritative reference. Preferred style changes from decade to decade—even faster in new fields—so we must keep up with changes in the areas in which we work. For all those jobs where the customer lets you set the style, pick a guide that you like and use it. It becomes second nature very quickly. The “Instructions for Authors” sections of publishers’ websites are sometimes helpful for academic writing, but more often than not all they say is “Use either U.S. English or U.K. English consistently” and go no further. Again, this is where we return to our preferred guide. Many technical fields have an authority that produces a guide. (See the references at the end of this article.)
For all but very short jobs, consider creating a document-specific style sheet. Skim the source text, spotting oddities or pet peeves. Enter them into a template and post the sheet within eyesight or keep it in a prominent place on the screen. (See the basic example provided in the table below.)
This is particularly useful when a customer requires a style that doesn’t match my preference or normal style guide (e.g., “Annex” versus “Appendix”). I also flag my personal quirks in style sheets. For example, I have to watch out for U.K./U.S. punctuation style differences since I work in both dialects. I won’t necessarily get them right automatically.
Small Changes, Big Results
With only small changes in attitude and style, technical translators can improve their texts dramatically. Efforts to train ourselves, such as taking writing and editing courses, produce results. One of my favorite compliments came about six months after I made substantial efforts in this area. I had returned a set of pharmaceutical laboratory procedures to a new customer. “Your writing is so clear I can understand these documents,” he said. What great confirmation!
We should invest in ourselves. Let’s not leave great writing to literary translators and those who work in marketing communications. Let’s stand up for good writing in technical translation. We’ll all thank each other the next time we read an effective user manual.
*I’d like to acknowledge input from Joan Wallace in preparing this article.
General Writing Sources
Blake, Gary, and Robert W. Bly. The Elements of Technical Writing (Longman, 2000).
(U.S. English; short and helpful)
Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999). (U.S. English; short, dry, and prescriptive)
Kohl, John R. The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market (SAS Publishing, 2008).
(Useful source for how to write English for translation)
Subject-Specific Style Guides
Microsoft Manual of Style, 4th Edition (Microsoft Corporation, 2012).
Read Me First, A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, 3rd Edition (Sun Technical Publications, 2009).
American Medical Association Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2007).
(This is also available by online subscription www.amamanualofstyle.com)
IEEE Computer Society Style Guide (IEEE Computer Society, 2014), http://bit.ly/IEEE-style.
Society of Petroleum Engineers Style Guide: 2014–2015, http://bit.ly/SPE-guide.
Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 8th Edition (Council of Science Editors, 2014), www.scientificstyleandformat.org.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition (American Psychological Association, 2009).
American Chemical Society Style Guide, 3rd Edition (Edited by Anne Coghill and Lorrin Garison). (My personal preference for a style guide)
European Union Pharmaceutical Style Guide, http://bit.ly/EU-pharmaceutical-style. (Download it as a pdf called “Compilation of QRD decisions on stylistic matters in product information.” The “Compilation of QRD decisions on the use of terms” is at the same place.)
Style Guide for NASA History Authors and Editors, http://bit.ly/NASA-style. (NASA has a strong body of reference material for technical writers)
Karen Tkaczyk is the administrator of ATA’s Science and Technology Division and the chair of the Association’s Divisions Committee. She is an ATA-certified French>English freelance translator. Her translation work is entirely focused on chemistry and its industrial applications. She has an MChem in chemistry with French from the University of Manchester, a diploma in French, and a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge. Initially, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry in Europe. After relocating to the U.S. in 1999, she worked in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. She established her translation practice in 2005. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.