Catriona Mc Hale, Student

On the 7th and 8th of November 2011, I found myself wandering in the beautiful city of Prague in company of Marie-Louise Flacke, my teacher of technical writing and speaker at the 7th Content Management Strategies/DITA Europe 2011 Conference. The conference, organised by CIDM and the only DITA conference in all of Europe, was held at the Marriott Hotel, fifteen minutes walk from where we were staying, giving us plenty of time to admire the architecture of the old city on our way to attend the conference. One evening we even had time to visit one of the monuments. As we reached the top of the astronomical clock tower, I stopped, bewildered by the sight of an icon which, I assumed, represented an old man with a walking stick and which, I thought, was forbidding the elderly the access to the watchtower. Lucky me, Marie-Louise, the icon expert1, was there to warn me on the dangers of misinterpreting icons. “Dear friend, she said, although it is commonly admitted that a picture is worth a thousand words, it has often been proved that, most of the time, pictures need words to enlighten their addressee on their meaning.” Sure, the sign became more explicit once I had read its legend: “Do not lean over the window ledge. Danger of falling”. Still wondering, though, how those tourists who speak neither Czech nor English manage to get the message.

So does that mean images, icons, and pictures are forever banned from the technical writing field? Well according to Erika Webb and Ultan Ó Broin2, images, especially comics, can be very useful to present DITA concepts. Their presentation was very interesting. I liked it a lot. Mostly for the sake of contradiction for, not being a comics reader and probably also influenced by my educational background, I honestly couldn’t tell whether I agreed or not with their theory. Yet, back to France, sharing this theory with Kevin Lestang, a fellow student who holds a master’s degree in translation and technical writing and who is also a comics designer, I started to grasp the potential of comics. Since then, I have been eagerly waiting for Kevin to show us the first draft of the comics presenting DITA concepts he is working on!

Imagination, this could be a motto for technical writers as some of them write comics when others create fictional characters they call “Persona”. Kristina Brink3> presented these personas as a means to “add value to the task analysis”. Well, while listening to her, I couldn’t help thinking how close the tasks of the translator and the technical writer were. Indeed, the translator and the technical writer are both communicators trying to convey a message from one person, let’s call it the expert, to another one, the persona. The translator and the writer share the same need to know their audiences in depth in order to find the right words to address them. The more I think about the function of the technical writer, the more I realize that humanities are at its core.

Yes, translators and technical writers do work on the same side. My conviction was strengthened by Eef Bloomart and Luc Mastelink’s4 presentation. During a work placement as a trainee translator, I experienced some of the frustrations they talked about. Indeed, the documents I was to translate, whose style and format required some adjustment, had to be rewritten first before they could be translated. My work placement then turned to be a placement as a technical writer. Although, from a professional point of view, it was time consuming and frustrating, for the student that I was, it was a perfect case study and it allowed me to learn more about DITA. So, when Eef and Luc concluded that “translation optimization starts with the writer … and successful writing ends with the translator”, I couldn’t agree more.

But the DITA Europe 2011 Conference was not simply attending a conference, it was also a place of encounter: the conference gathered more than 100 people. I appreciated, for instance, the time the Oxygen team took to explain the potential of authoring tools. I also appreciated the conversations at coffee break and lunch time with technical writers from Sweden, Finland or Germany. There in Prague, I also had the chance to meet French Breton DITA experts, giving me a wider view of the job as technical writer at home, in France.

Prague 2011 was indeed a rich and unforgettable experience, I highly recommend it to any student interested in technical writing.

About the Author
Catriona Mc Hale is a former student of UBO, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest, France. After a degree in English, she studied linguistics and translation. Then, in September 2011, she obtained a master’s degree in translation and technical writing.

Catriona McHale (Center) in Prague with Nolwenn Kerzreho (left) and Marie-Louise Flacke (right)

1 Iconmania: Don’t ruin the benefits of your DITA implementation! Marie-Louise Flacke

2 Using Comics to Present DITA Concepts Erika Webb & Ultan Ó Broin

3 The Expert, the Persona and I Create the Perfect Unit Kristina Brinck

4 DITA Based Technical Writing and Translation: Evil combination or match made in heaven? Eef Blommaart, Luc Mastelinck