Getting the Source Text Right

John Kohl’s Global English Style Guide

John KohlWhat central problem does your book, The Global English Style Guide, address?

The need to communicate clearly to a global audience-an audience that includes non-native speakers of English, translators, and perhaps also machine-translation software, as well as native speakers. The Global English guidelines are based on empirical research, and the book provides much more detailed explanations of these guidelines than can be found in any other single source.

What made you decide to publish these guidelines?

I’ve been collecting and analyzing examples of different types of ambiguity and of readability problems for a long time, starting when I was doing graduate school research in the early 1990s. As a technical writer and editor at SAS for the past 16 years, I’ve had access to a very large corpus of software documentation from which I have drawn most of my examples. A few years ago, several attendees at a Localization World conference convinced me that I knew as much about the subject of writing for a global audience as anyone else, and they convinced me to publish these guidelines, which I had initially developed for internal use at SAS. Somewhat to my surprise, SAS Press agreed to publish the guidelines (even though the book does not pertain to SAS software), and I’m happy to say that the book ended up being much more detailed and specific than the guidelines with which I started.

What is your most significant finding?

I think my most substantial contribution has been my research into syntactic cues-the little function words (usually “closed class” words such as pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and so on) that many writers and editors have been taught to eliminate, but which are often essential for eliminating ambiguities and for improving readability. I’ve done a very thorough job of identifying contexts in which these syntactic cues add clarity and improve translatability.

In the mainstream buy-by-the-word business model, doesn’t the use of syntactic cues increase the word count?

Not necessarily. In my book I emphasize that authors and editors should think about content reduction at the same time that they are applying the Global English guidelines. In my own writing and editing, I find that I eliminate at least as many words as I insert, even when I am focusing only on sentences and paragraphs and not looking for entire topics that could be eliminated. So in the end, there is an overall decrease in localizable content. Even if that were not the case, clarity and disambiguation are essential for producing quality translation, even if this increases the cost. If you sacrifice clarity, you might increase localization costs by forcing translators to seek clarification on unclear phrases and terminology. Or you run the risk of having incorrectly translated information in your deliverables, with potentially disastrous and expensive consequences.

What role does language technology play in this process?

As I was writing the book, acrocheck was an invaluable research tool for collecting and analyzing examples of linguistic patterns, and we are using it at SAS to help our writers and editors follow our terminology guidelines and style guidelines, including many of the Global English guidelines. I’m an absolute believer that this type of technology should be used more widely. No writer or editor can keep extensive writing guidelines and preferred terminology lists in mind while working on a document. Authoring technology is far more efficient for this. Our writers and editors follow our guidelines much more consistently than they could if they had to look up rules or terminology lists online or on paper.

What kind of metrics have you used to quantify the benefits of using language technology or of following the Global English guidelines?

We have not found a need to try to measure the benefits of using acrocheck or of following the Global English guidelines. For anyone who uses this type of language technology and who reads the guidelines and examples in my book, the benefits are intuitively obvious. Management at SAS has not asked for metrics, in part because everyone in our Documentation Division recognizes the importance of our guidelines, and our writers and editors are happy to have a tool that helps them follow those guidelines. The documentation process is more efficient because writers fix many of the errors in their documents before turning those documents over to editors. Editors can focus more on content reduction and on other issues that decrease costs and that add greater value to our documentation.

Are there other pain points in source management?

The big problem that we have at SAS is finding a suitable terminology management system. I think that, in general, current terminology management systems do not take into account the needs of large corporations. They have been developed to support localization, not to provide true enterprise-wide terminology management.

For example, at SAS we are not just interested in managing approved terms and translations, but also in identifying and managing terms that may be errors. We would like to see such features as color coding to help writers and editors see the status of terms (whether they are approved, deprecated, or still under review) right away, in the browse pane. Not everything in a given term base is necessarily an OK term in a given context.

We also find that some tools on the market do not generate glossaries in publishable form, and we have had to develop this functionality ourselves. There is also a lack of end-user control over certain aspects of the term base. With our current system, I can’t quickly view a subset of all terms that have been approved in the last thirty days. I have to ask the administrator to create a filter and export those terms for me. This is too cumbersome a process for the kind of processes and workflows that we require. I think a lot of people are looking for terminology management products that meet the needs of an enterprise rather than just the needs of localization staff.

John Kohl has a B.A. in German and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language. He has been working at SAS Institute as a technical writer, technical editor, and linguistic engineer since 1992. His book, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market, is available from SAS Press and from many online booksellers.