Producing Multilingual Documentation


December 2006

Producing Multilingual Documentation

CIDMIconNewsletter Ed Clark, Freescale Semiconductor, Inc.

As hardware manufacturers and software developers in the large economies seek new markets in emerging economies, localization of products and their documentation has become a necessity to reach those new markets. A critical issue in localization is providing product documentation that will meet the needs of international audiences that often have very different information cultures. Even two countries like the United States and Mexico which share history, geographical proximity, and close economic ties—can still be different in terms of culture. Understanding the culture and the related regulatory issues in different countries is important for a product to be successful in an international markets. Reaching the international audience via properly localized product documentation is a condition for this success.

What Is Documentation Localization?

Localization is not just language translation; it is the process of adapting documentation (often written in English and targeted for the US market) for use in other countries, considering cultural influence, standards, regulations, and technological conditions.

Cultural Influence. This influence includes the values, customs, conventions, and language usage, among other things. From the point of view of localization, the cultural aspects to consider include

  • sorting order (accented characters, double-consonants, phonetic for non-alphabetic characters, etc.) For example, in English, o sorts after n and m after l. In Spanish, ñ sorts after n and ll after l.
  • format to display date and time (“month, day, year” versus “day, month, year”)
  • currency (unit, symbol, use of the symbol before or after the amount, separator for cents, etc.)
  • units of measurement (Imperial system: US and Liberia, metric: rest of the world)
  • color meanings (red: stop/love, danger, green: go/environment, etc.)
  • capitalization (nouns, accented letters, etc.)
  • quotation symbols (“quotation”, <>, etc.)

Standards. National standards include accepted conventions for measuring quantitative attributes such as weight, mass, speed; as well as qualitative attributes such as quality, safety, and performance. The standards also specify means for transmitting and using electrical energy, formats and protocols for exchanging and retrieving electronic information, and so on.

Regulations. The regulatory aspects include product compliance with local environmental, electrical, and other applicable ordinances. Normally, the documentation must reflect that the product complies with all applicable regulations, industry norms, and standards. Software is subject to intellectual property claims and hardware to warranty terms. The documentation must also spell out the intellectual property claims and the corresponding licensing terms and conditions plus the warranty terms and limitations.

Technology. Even though technological development is not dictated by geographical location that is, the state-of the-art in technology is basically global the dissemination and availability of technology differs geographically. For example, computer resources are more widely available in developed countries than in developing countries. When localizing documentation, it is important to consider that users in advanced nations are more likely to be receptive to online documentation than users in other parts of the world. Local environments can be important when deciding to use online versus hardcopy documentation.

What Is I18N?

Internationalization, or I18N for short, is the business process of modifying or creating a product free of cultural considerations and ready for localization.

In the case of product documentation, I18N refers to the process of developing documentation in simplified English, devoid of colloquialisms, idiomatic expressions, and cultural biases, and which can be readily localized by translation. I18N also reflects adapting a product to applicable regulations, standards, and technological conditions in a given locale.

What Is a Locale?

A locale is the combination of the culture, standards, and regulations for a specific geographical area. For example, Spain and Mexico share much culture, yet they are different locales. A product for sale in Spain must be documented in Castillian Spanish, designed for 220-volt operation, and be compliant with European Community regulations. The same product for sale in Mexico must be documented in Latin-American Spanish, designed for 110-volt operation, and be compliant with the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What Is G11N?

Globalization, or G11N for short, is the business process of developing a product that can be successful in any target market of the world, without major modification.

The automakers pioneered the concept of a global product. Since the 1980s, they have been trying to develop an automobile that meets safety, quality, and regulatory standards worldwide and can be sold with almost no modification in any locale. In the 1990s, software developers discovered that global software sells better than English-only software, and they actively pursued the global market.

Why Use Contractors for Translation?

When it comes to localization, only the largest corporations can afford to have dedicated translation teams. Usually, translators are hired on a contract basis and paid by the word. Additionally, management and formatting fees are quite usual and are levied on a per page or per hour basis. In many cases, formatting fees are also paid to port the information into a specific authoring software and to give it the “look and feel” of the original.

Small, start-up companies can seldom afford to have a translation team of their own, with cost being the major consideration. Hiring outside resources is usually a less expensive and more flexible option.

Localizing English Documentation for Spanish-Speaking Audiences

When approaching a localization service provider for a Spanish translation, you will likely be asked which Spanish you want: Latin-American or Castillian for Spain. The differences between these two Spanish modalities are equivalent to those between British and American English. Some nouns are used differently; for example, the word for computer in Spain is ordenador (similar to the French word ordinateur) while in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world the word is computadora. Additionally, in Spain they use second-person plural addressing, which is almost never used in Mexico and is used differently in the rest of Latin America. However, it is possible to use a simplified set of Spanish words that are generally accepted.

Avoiding colloquialisms is a must to ensure a translation suitable for the Spanish-speaking world. Many words in Mexico’s Spanish come from the language of the Aztecs (Nahuatl), and they are virtually unknown in the rest of the Spanish world. A few words, like chocolate, have become universal, but it is better to avoid others like tlapaleria (hardware store) and papalote (kite), which are understood almost exclusively in Mexico.

The following are cultural issues to consider when localizing documentation for Spain and Latin America:

  • date format—It can be “dd, mm, yyyy” or “mm, dd, yyyy” as in the US. In Mexico, Roman numerals are used sometimes to indicate month and differentiate it from the day, regardless of the order.
  • time format—Differences are not great, at least for Mexico, which uses both the 24 hr (US military) format and the AM/PM format. Mexico recently adopted daylight savings time, which simplifies communication, travel, and commerce.
  • form of addressing readers—It is usually more formal in Spanish than in English.
  • alphabet sorting order—Spain no longer considers double consonants (ch, ll, rr) as single letters. However, other countries in Latin America still do. Additionally, the ñ is a letter that does not exist in English, and it sorts after n in the Spanish alphabet.
  • colors—Colors generally have the same meaning in Spanish-speaking cultures as they have in the US. For example, red, for stop/danger, green for go/clean environment, etc.
  • same word, different meanings—Some Spanish words have the same spelling as English words, yet they have different meanings (for example: actual, means present or current in Spanish, not real, as in English).
  • surnames are used differently—It is not the last name that counts for sorting lists or for addressing a Spanish-speaking person. Also, honorific and professional titles are more widely used in Spanish-speaking countries: Don, Doña, Lic., and C. (which stands for Ciudadano, or citizen, and is only used in official government communications—an inheritance from the French revolution), have no exact equivalent in the English language. Also, the “just call me Bill” approach is not appropriate for formal, first-time contact between people of high rank in Spanish cultures. In Mexico, Bill Clinton is referred to as William Clinton in the newspapers. Bill is just not considered appropriate for the president of a country.
  • numbers—The decimal number scheme is the same in Spanish, except for the billion entity. In Mexico, a billion is a million of millions or 10 and not 10.
  • units of measurement—The US and Liberia seem to be the only countries still attached to the Imperial system. The rest of the world has gone metric, including all Spanish-speaking countries. Units like miles per gallon are particularly meaningless to Spanish speakers. The unit feet still seems to be universally used for altitude and the yard for football, which is known as American Football in other countries where soccer is the football they play and watch more frequently.
  • do or else attitude—Spanish-speaking countries are mostly high-context cultures in which personal or business relationships evolve progressively and not immediately, regardless of the business opportunities. The no-nonsense, money-centered approach to business can be perceived as rude in these countries. Trust is not automatically conferred and needs to be earned in high-context cultures. A good business deal can be meaningless if the person offering it is not a trusted party. And, strangers are, by default, not to be trusted just like we now teach children in the US.
  • technical terms—In general, Spanish is a rich language for everyday communication but not for technical communication. Simple words like hardware and software are not directly translatable. They are either used in English or translated into several other words. In general, a Spanish version of a computer application will require larger text fields on the computer screen and 25-50 percent more pages on the hardcopy documentation.

How Do I Choose a Localization Service Provider?

Localization Service Providers (ISPs) have proliferated in recent years, and many of these companies have merged with other translation companies in different parts of the world, resulting in multinational translation conglomerates. The emergence of the European Union and the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement have fueled this proliferation, which probably started with the Nixon Administration’s opening to China. Most of these ISPs are reputable and professional, but some are not. The translation business is not regulated, and practically anybody can work as a translator. Some translators are certified by translation associations, like the American Translator’s Association, but translators do not have to meet state or federal licensing requirements or be certified to practice.

A reputable ISP usually offers its clients the following resources:

  • a glossary of industry- and company-specific terminology and acronyms to be translated into the targeted languages. Professional translators do not work without a glossary.
  • an automated method to count words and the means to leverage previously translated words for the client.
  • an FTP or web site to upload and download electronic files to and from the translator with separate password-controlled areas for the different clients.
  • native-speaker translators proficient in the target language and fluent in the source language. The best companies offer in-country translators or at least native speakers that have lived recently in the country where the target language is spoken.
  • translators with technical expertise. Ideally, the translator should be conversant in the subject matter of the translation, but this is a qualification seldom found because technically proficient people tend to work in their fields of expertise and not in the lower-paid translation field.
  • expertise in commonly used authoring packages for both online and hardcopy documentation. Also, the translator should be able to deliver camera-ready copy on film, electronic format, or whatever the client requires with a similar “look and feel” as the source.
  • archival resources to deliver the translated materials in a suitable format for the client’s archival and future reuse.
  • native language operating systems for computer-based material. If the localized application is supposed to run and display correctly in, for example, Windows in French, the translator should have expertise on this platform.
  • assistance and guidelines on how to develop I18N-ready source documentation for later localization.

Even after choosing a competent translator to the job, it is important to have an independent party validate and proof the translation. Distributors and international sales representatives proficient in the target language are normally good choices to do this validation. They are usually familiar with the target locale and with the product’s technology and terminology. Many times, they might do it as a favor without creating additional expense, because they will likely benefit from having localized documentation. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author

Ed Clark

Ed Clark
Senior Technical Writer
Freescale Semiconductor, Inc.

Ed Clark has a bachelor’s degree in Engineering, a master’s degree in Public Administration, and has been a professional communicator for over fifteen years. He currently works for Freescale Semiconductor, Inc. as a senior staff member of the publications team in the Wireless and Mobile Systems Group. He is responsible for baseband processor IC documentation development. He has been involved in developing internationalized and localized publications for many years. He is fluent in Spanish and has basic knowledge of French, Portuguese, and Japanese. He has translated numerous technical documents from English into Spanish and co-authored the English-to-Spanish Computer and Internet Dictionary, Universal Publishers, 2004 (ISBN 1581124996). Ed is a senior member of the IEEE and immediate past-president of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.