Translation and Localization


February 2001

Translation and Localization

CIDMIconNewsletter Nancy King, Consultant

Many information-development managers not only find the localization and translation process confusing but also find it difficult to keep abreast of the ever-changing terminology. Many managers have only recently been challenged with translation responsibilities as their companies increased sales to countries without strong skills in reading and understanding English. In my years of experience in the translation industry, I noted that a great many misconceptions exist regarding the terminology of localization and translation and the translator’s role.

Involvement with localization and translation offers a unique opportunity for information-development departments. The translation process provides a way to measure how well a document has been written and provides incentives to improve documentation quality. Not only do quality measurements affect documents, they are equally important in judging the efficacy of online documentation and help screens as well.

Before looking into the details of localization and translation, we need to review terminology and find out why one company refers to localization and another to translation, when it appears that they may mean the same thing.

Terminology for the Common Communicator

Translation is a generic term for converting a written document from one language to another. (If the conversion applies to spoken language, we speak of interpreting, which is carried out by interpreters, who receive special training for this difficult task.) Some refer to translation as the second oldest profession, because it has been a necessary part of intercultural transactions since ancient times. Even the Tower of Babel could have profited from a few discrete translators.

Translators are the professionals who carry out this language conversion. A translator always works into his or her native language, called the target language. Most translators work from one or two source languages, the languages of the document to be translated.

Localization (localisation is the British spelling; the word is borrowed from the French) is a related term now being used in two ways.

  • Localization has at least partially replaced an older term in the translation industry, adaptation. A document can be adapted to fit a certain target market, which means that all necessary conversions are made. This conversion takes into account local customs, currency, phone numbers, icons, preferences, and so forth. Localization of a manual for Mexico would be different than one for Spain, for instance, even though both would be translated into Spanish. Localization is most important for marketing literature and for technical documents that include measurements or specifications that need to be converted.
  • Within the computer industry, the term localization often refers to the translation of what appears on the computer screen and, by extension, translation of the manuals accompanying the software. The term is used for translation of online help, Web pages, and so on. The implication is that such translation must be a type of market adaptation. For presentation on-screen, additional conversion is often needed. When English is translated into French, for instance, the text requires more room on the screen because a comparable passage is longer. Graphics may have to be adapted as well.

CIDM members who work in the computer industry primarily refer to the activities they manage as localization. This term is used even for manuals in which very little real adaptation takes place. In other software-oriented areas, such as telephony, the term is not used as frequently. Some managers are firmly staying with the term translation even in areas where localization might be properly used.

A third term needs to be mentioned here as well: globalization. Globalization means that the software user interface and accompanying documentation are created in such a generic way that they could apply to any country or situation. This generic communication can be translated into other languages without being localized, since it avoids any country-specific elements. Globalization is the opposite of localization. The term internationalization is also sometimes used in the same way as globalization. For instance, in a globalized product, you would find no references to time or date or anything that would restrict the software to one locale.

Most Common Ways to Handle Translation

Among our CIDM member companies, we identify several ways of handling translation work (I am using the word translation here in a general way, to include localization as well).

Some organizations have established an in-house translation capability. Others find it best to work with outside vendors.

In-house translation builds consistency and expertise
The advantages of an in-house translation organization are many:

  • Quality. Over time, you can develop an excellent terminology bank specific to your company and industry. You can also control editing and quality checking. As translators continue to work with a family of related products, they increase their understanding of the products and begin to function with some of the expertise of technical communicators.
  • Speed. You waste no time in handoffs to outside vendors, which smoothes the workflow and avoids unfortunate process breakdowns. Your team members are thoroughly involved in planning and coordination. You can calculate exactly how many people you need on staff to release your translated documentation in a timely manner.
  • Cost. Large companies with large translation organizations believe they save a great deal in costs to the company, considering the fast delivery times they provide.

On the other hand, in-house translation organizations have problems to grapple with. Their initial set-up time is long. Creating a component translation organization requires a significant effort to find people with fresh language skills (some companies bring them directly from the target countries) and to keep the translators’ language knowledge up-to-date in new areas. The Web may help translators remain current in their native language and aware of changes in the specialized terminology in their technical field.

Customized tools aid timeliness and increase production capabilities, but they are costly and take time to develop. At some time, a manager may be faced with a fluctuating work schedule for the department. He then has to look for creative solutions to keep everyone busy during down times.

Outsourcing relies on a partner’s expertise
A second approach many high-tech departments take in handling translation is to outsource the translation work to one or more of the large translation/localization vendors. If you choose this option, you usually keep a small staff at your own company to coordinate with the vendors. If there is enough work, this staff may even include two or three translators. All other translation work is sent to the translation vendors you have selected. If you choose to do so, you can work very closely with the translation companies.

The advantages to this method are also considerable:

  • Responsibility. By relying on the expertise of experienced vendors, you no longer need to find and hire translators. The vendor you select should have access to many translators with expertise in your technical area. The number of translators working on your projects can grow and shrink as needed.
  • Flexibility. The vending agency can put together a large team quickly. It can provide expertise you may not have in project management, scheduling, editing, and quality control. The agency can often cover almost all languages you may need.
  • Quality. The vendor takes responsibility for the quality of the translation. They provide a terminology bank, may build a translation memory database, and have technical capabilities that allow them to handle the complexities of software localization.
  • Expertise. The translators employed by the translation vendors often work in their own countries. They have constant exposure to changes in language and culture. They are aware of nuances in the terminology of their specialized fields of technical expertise.

Translation vendors frequently have offices in major cities around the world and the ability to draw on hundreds of translators in many countries. They often maintain a few translators in house to coordinate large projects, perform quality checking, and so forth, but they basically contract with freelance translators. Freelance labor is the most common way translation is handled around the world. Because the cost of outsource vendors includes project coordination, quality control, and technical capabilities, the cost may be more than you might pay for in-house translation, especially if you have very large volumes of translation work.

Remember that, unlike technical writing, translation work is measured and billed per word. The more words that need to be translated, the higher the overall costs whether the work is done in-house by a dedicated team or outsourced to a managed group of freelancers.

What a Translator Really Does

The translator tends to be the most misunderstood part of the localization and translation puzzle. Many of our technical colleagues and penny-pinching corporate managers believe that anyone who knows a language can be a translator (including the boss’s cousin Luigi).

Fortunately for the quality of the work, translators are highly-skilled language professionals. They are often members of a professional association. Here in the United States, many belong to the American Translators Association (ATA). The ATA Web site has a listing of freelance translators with their languages and specialties. As I mentioned earlier, translators have expertise in usually no more than two source languages and translate into one target language, which is the translator’s native language.

Translators also specialize in subject matter. For instance, I recently talked to a freelance translator who specializes in patents in French and German, which he translates into English. He also does a great deal of computer software translation into English. Another may specialize in telephony and transportation. In-house translators may specialize even more.

How does the translator translate? A translator first must understand the sentence to be translated and then recreate it in that target language. If the terminology is difficult, the translator may have to research the terms.

It becomes abundantly clear that the translator is greatly affected by the quality and clarity of the original language. If technical writers write a vague passage in English because they do not understand what was going on technically, the translator pays the price in the end. It is often impossible to recreate the same vagueness in another language. The translator must write something more concrete than what was in the original document. He may be able to make a decision based on his technical understanding of the product, or he may need to go back and query the writer.

The challenge for information-development managers is to concentrate on the quality and consistency of the original writing. Remember that the translator is an essential part of the target audience of the information products that leave your organization.

Another choice offered to the translators is the style or tone in which they write the translation. Most translators try to find a tone that matches the original. But a translation can also be an improvement over the original document in clarity and readability.

For a summary of how a translator works, see the figure below.


How a Translator Works

Our translator receives an assignment in the source language. She may work from both a soft and hard copy. Relying on her language skills, translation expertise, and subject knowledge, she begins the translation. She may have to research the subject further, and she will rely on certain tools to aid her. Most translators use memory software, which presents on the screen the previous translation of a word or phrase in the same document or a suite of similar documents, as well as offering other aids. Some companies have customized memory tools.

The translator has access to terminology lists and language databases. The Web offers even more resources, especially for freelance translators. Freelance translators usually work in Microsoft Word or FrameMaker, and the agencies will do any further conversion (to SGML, for instance). When the translation into the target language is completed, the translator submits it for review. Whether the translation is done in-house or through an agency, a senior translator or editor usually checks the translation before sending it on. Ideally, the translation is also checked in the target country by subject-matter experts. These experts are often staff members of the product organization.

Machine Translation, Tools, and Controlled Language

About twenty years ago, several companies were promoting large, expensive software programs for translation. This process is known as machine translation. It was not very successful then and seems to have made only limited inroads even today. The syntax of a language requires something like artificial intelligence to be translated effectively, and so far no one has been totally successful at analyzing and recreating language. One translation agency head referred to the output of machine translation as “garbage.” The government is reported to use machine translation to get enough of an idea about the content of a document to decide to proceed with a human translation or not. A few companies are trying with a very limited controlled vocabulary and grammar to make this software usable and cost-effective.

Translation memory tools are very popular and aid translations in both speed and consistency. Companies are also looking at tools that will improve the technical writing quality so that translation is facilitated.

One approach to maintaining consistency in the source language is to employ controlled language. Information developers take a broad view of what controlled language means. For some, it implies what used to be accomplished with a good editor and a terminology list. For others, controlled language is more complex and includes strict grammar rules in addition to controlled terminology. Many who have tried to regulate grammar have given up on that aspect of standardization and are concentrating on using consistent terminology.

Working Together

There are many reasons for information-development managers to be interested in translation. If you are not now involved with the translation process, someday you may be. I have recently encountered more than one company that brings in translators together with the developers and technical communicators at the beginning of a project. This group initiative emphasizes the need for clear technical communication. The information developer is responsible for giving the translator a good, clear text to work from.

The tools being developed are interesting, too. The memory tool could help information developers if a version could be developed that keyed on only one language.

As companies grow and expand their markets to many new countries, so translation will grow. And the cost in terms of translation of one badly written paragraph in a software manual will multiply over the target languages. There will be an emphasis on cost-cutting, and information-development managers will need to be aware of the relationship to translation costs. The future is becoming more interesting and challenging all the time. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author