Wednesday, March 23, 2011


By Barbara Jungwirth

Gary Smith's Oct. 4, 2010 post in this blog, "Translation and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" noted that consumers generally don't consult help files or the documentation for their devices. They simply give up if a device doesn't work the way they think it should.

On the other hand, how often have you and I attempted to decipher badly written, badly organized and/or badly translated documentation for some device we bought? Small wonder that customers don’t even try to consult documentation after they have encountered a few such texts written in programmer speak, containing factual errors or translated into garbled English. If customers are to get into the habit of consulting help files or booklets, they must consistently encounter files or booklets that actually help them to solve problems with the devices they handle.

This, in turn, means that the documentation -- in whatever form -- must not only be accurate and well written, but also well-organized, with a device's particular audience in mind. A cell phone intended for senior citizens, for example, needs to be accompanied by an extensive printed booklet illustrating each step with large screen shots. A software developer kit that lets programmers write code for a certain computer platform, on the other hand, requires only very specific online information and can include acronyms and IT terminology.

While technical writers need to keep their audience in mind when writing the source text, we translators all too often forget -- or never know -- who might be reading our document. Just as the original writer's word choices depend on the target audience, so do ours. Sometimes we can glean from the source document who the likely readers might be, as in the examples cited above. If that is not obvious and if the client didn't tell us, we should ask. No need for extensive audience analysis, the answer to "Will this document be provided to the consumer or to the technician servicing the device?" or a similar question should provide enough information so that we can gear our choice of vocabulary and sentence structure towards the target audience.

Barbara Jungwirth provides German-English technical translation services through her company, reliable translations. Before becoming a translator, she wrote software documentation. This article is based on one of the posts on her blog, On Language and Translation (

1 comment:

  1. I often ask clients "What is the purpose of the translation?". The response is too often "I'll get back to you".


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