Multilingual Quality and Topic-based Authoring: A Survey of Common Practices

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Tatiana Batova, Arizona State University

A key Return on Investment (ROI) calculation for topic-based authoring is that it can save us time and cost to produce multilingual technical information. As topic-based authoring becomes more widespread, how do we use it to improve multilingual quality?

Why is multilingual quality important? Because it matters. High-quality information products encourage purchase decisions and product recommendations (Melville, 2014). At the same time, a survey1 conducted in 2014 by the Common Sense Advisory showed that 75 percent of consumers prefer to buy products in their native language and 60 percent rarely or never buy from English-only web sites.

To gain a better understanding of multilingual quality practices when content is authored, managed, and published in topic-based authoring environments, CIDM sponsored a survey in May-June 2014 as part of a larger project to develop best practices for multilingual quality. Supported by the powerful capabilities of the Qualtrics platform, the survey collected rich data from 185 participants. The results of the survey provided insights into

  • beliefs and practices associated with multilingual quality
  • advantages and downsides of topic-based authoring for multilingual quality
  • user satisfaction with multilingual quality

Survey Findings

The summary of findings focuses on the key points the survey revealed and relies on information obtained from 98 participants. These 98 participants fully completed the survey and noted that they were experienced with translation/localization.

Participants and Their Organizations

The 98 participants represent a strong cross-section of industries, corporate sizes, organizational roles, and types of information products. The top five industries were enterprise software, enterprise hardware, consumer software, consumer hardware, and medical devices, with participants working for major enterprises and smaller businesses. The overwhelming majority of participants took on multiple roles within their organizations (author, manager, IA, translation/localization manager, editor, content strategist, instructional designer, software engineer, graphic designer, web editor, and technologist) and created a wide variety of information products (see Figures 1 and 2 for industry and information product distribution).

Misalignment of Translation/Localization Beliefs and Practices

Seventy one percent of participants believed that information products need to respond to local cultures and practices and thus should be adapted for use; twenty percent stated that the need for adaptation is stronger for certain information products. This result confirms what we already know about adapting information products for global users2—it is an important user-centered approach to information quality that helps overcome product resistance (Hoft, 1995), saves money by decreasing the need for user support (McCool, 2006), and increases sales and customer satisfaction (Ledet & Bailie, 2005).

Consequently, it was quite surprising to find that only thirty five percent of participants engaged in adaptation; with some overlap between the two groups, twenty nine percent practiced localization3 and ten percent practiced transcreation4 (see Figure 3 for a complete list of linguistic practices of global technical communication).

The issues of regulation, liability, and market-defined competition did not shift the balance or explain the low proportion of participants who believed in adaptation and engaged in it. When looking at the top six industries by the overall number of participants, quite unexpectedly there was no direct correlation between industry, belief in adaptation, and actual engagement in adaptation (see Figure 4).

While the overwhelming belief in adaptation can be attributed to the sampling bias5, the imbalance between beliefs and practices clearly indicates that with adaptation, there is a misalignment between what we think we should do and what we do.

Advantages and Downsides of Topic-based Authoring for Multilingual Quality

The participants saw more advantages of topic-based authoring for multilingual quality than downsides. The top advantages were consistency and re-use; the top disadvantages had to do with human resources/training and small units of text in highly inflected languages (Figure 5).

This result has an overall very positive significance for topic-based authoring in global technical communication, but it also provides some interesting points for consideration.

First, topic-based authoring has controversial implications for adaptation. On the one hand, topic-based authoring creates better opportunities for adaptation because it provides mechanisms for assembling information products differently for different locales and adding local-specific content through reuse mechanisms. On the other hand, topic-based authoring offers capabilities to improve consistency, reducing the incentive to engage in adaptation.

Second, out of eighty nine participants who believe in adaptation, at least for some information products, only fourteen6 mentioned adaptation when it comes to topic-based authoring. Twelve believed that topic-based authoring provides better opportunities for adaptation, while three noted that topic-based authoring makes it harder to decide to adapt.

Third, over 50 percent of the participants believed in consistency, forming two largely overlapping groups: consistency within each language and consistency between languages. Fifty participants from both groups believed that information products should be adapted, and thirty did adapt. Why is this last point controversial? Consistency within a language is not related to adaptation, while consistency between languages is the opposite of adaptation, as it focuses on keeping things the same in information products across all languages.

Ultimately, what these results suggest is that adaptation is often getting lost in the equation of how we perceive the advantages and downsides of topic-based authoring for multilingual quality. The good news is that it doesn’t have to: Seven participants who believed that topic-based authoring provides better opportunities for adaption also engaged in adaptation. So, what we need are better strategies to use the capabilities of topic-based authoring to promote adaptation, as well as more precise terminology when we talk about consistency.

User Satisfaction with Multilingual Quality

Since adaptation is a user-centered approach to multilingual quality, the survey asked the participants about user satisfaction with multilingual quality measured through user complaints. Forty eight percent of the participants received complaints, from several times every month to several times a year, depending on the publication cycle for a particular information product (Figure 6). Top categories of complaints included text inappropriate for a specific region, language style and fluency, unnatural sounding text, no “tuning” to local users, confusing text, low findability, technical inaccuracy, problems with terminology, mismatched text and interface items, and inconsistency.

When asked about ways of handling complaints, approximately half of the participants described pro-active approaches, such as focusing on the source language and communication with language services vendors and representatives in the target countries. The other half of the participants complained of insufficient ways to resolve complaints.

The result reveals the need to invest more time into multilingual quality to reduce user complaints and to develop better approaches to working with complaints. While additional research is necessary, the top categories of complaints suggest that current multilingual quality practices can be improved by a more intense focus on adaptation.

Towards Best Practices

Thirteen participants stated that they never receive user complaints about multilingual quality. When these participants were combined with the ones who reported actively soliciting feedback from international users7, these groups had an overlap of only two participants.

These two relied on customer surveys, individual follow up, automated responses using online documentation, and social media to solicit user feedback. They attributed the absence of complaints to close work with sales personnel in the respective countries, great working relationship with translation vendors, quality of source material, and testing information products in target languages.

The similarities between the two went beyond the self-reported strategies. Both had more than ten years of experience with translation/localization, spoke at least two languages, believed in adaptation, and did adapt. Both also put special emphasis on saving time and money through processes and technology, so they could re-invest both in quality practices. When asked about their strategies for ensuring multilingual quality, as prime areas both chose

  • source content improvement (minimalism, translatability criteria, style guides)
  • better communication with language providers and employees in their organizations (marketing specialists, for instance)
  • leveraging multilingual content with translation memory software and/or a CMS
  • re-evaluating goals and resources and adjusting practices
  • providing separate contracts for each translation/localization project with specific requirements

The similarities between these two participants point to the importance of actively considering multilingual quality as a key to reducing user complaints. These similarities, of course, are based on just two survey participants, but they are a starting point for building best practices for multilingual quality with topic-based authoring.

Next Steps

To develop best practices for multilingual quality with topic-based authoring, we need to go beyond the small sample size and the closed feedback loop of a survey. That is why I hope to continue this important research to answer the following questions:

  • How does adaptation influence the number and type of international user complaints?
  • What are the best ways to use topic-based authoring for adaptation?
  • How can we best collect, analyze, and address complaints about multilingual information products?
  • How can we measure the ROI of the multilingual quality endeavors?

The next stage of the project involves a survey of the members of the American Translators’ Association and interviews with participants who volunteered during the initial surveys. If you haven’t taken part in the survey but would like to participate in shaping the best practices and volunteer for an interview, email me at I look forward to filling this important gap in our knowledge and best practices together.

1 Survey included 3000 consumers from ten non-English speaking nations (Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Turkey).

2 Customizing based on linguistic, cultural, market, and legal differences.

3 Adapting information products to make them more meaningful, appropriate, and effective for a particular culture, locale, or market.

4 Hiring authors who are speakers of foreign languages to produce new texts in these languages based on the message of the source text, their technical expertise, and the cultural, market, and legal knowledge of the target locale.

5 Participants who are more interested in global technical communication and potentially adaptation are more likely to take part in the survey than those who are not.

6 One participant picked both adaptation options.

7 To eliminate the cases where the absence of complaints was the result of not having contact with global users.

TCWorld News
“Can’t Read, Won’t Buy”
retrieved May 2014

Nancy L. Hoft
International Technical Communication: How to Export Information about High Technology
1995, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0471037435

Denise Ledet and Rahel Anne Bailie
“Following the Road Untraveled: From Source Language to Translation to Localization,”
Proceedings of the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, pp. 32-39.
July 2005

Matthew McCool
“Information Architecture: Intercultural Human Factors,”
Technical Communication, 53(2), pp. 167-183

Melville, Corinna
A business case for technical communication—facts and figures
retrieved June, 2014