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Do we take our technical abilities for granted?

Princess Leia is thinking, "Geez, I hope these guys understand how to update my laptop."
Princess Leia is thinking, “Geez, I hope these guys understand how to update my laptop.”

Last week, my son celebrated his 14th birthday. He only wanted one present to mark the occasion, namely a gaming computer. Now, this is something that he’s been pining for months now. Originally, he wanted something in the $3000 range. Um, no. I wouldn’t even spend that much on myself, if I had the funds or the need. He only uses his computer for entertainment, whereas his dad and I use ours for both entertainment and business. Over the months, we told him that he had to get the price significantly down on the parts for the gaming machine he wanted to build, and eventually he figured out that he didn’t need the Bugatti (one of the fastest street cars out there) version of a machine, but a Ford Mustang level of speed was fine.  Thanks to Ed Marsh of ContentContent, we found a place called MicroCenter that sold parts so that my son could build his new computer, and the sales guy helped us not only find all the parts, but also helped us find parts that were better and cheaper than some of the parts my son had chosen. As a result, before tax, my son’s new system cost $8 less than his budget. He was pleased.

RedSpeed15 (his own moniker) looking over the goods before assembly.
RedSpeed15 (his own moniker) looking over the goods before assembly.

My son and husband spent the weekend building the machine, and setting up the system. It’s still not perfect, as some of the components won’t work until he can upgrade his OS to Windows 10 next month, but it’s still an improvement over the machine he had. He’s thrilled with his new machine at this point. My husband and I felt that there were some good lessons learned with this birthday gift, which was that he learned to work within a budget, he learned teamwork as he built it with his dad’s help, he learned some patience (not much–he was anxious about it for a few months) in receiving it, and he gained some confidence that he actually knew what he was talking about when he’d talk to the sales guy. Perhaps this it the start to some career skills that will serve him later (he’s only in 8th grade right now).

Coincidentally, I got a new laptop myself. Unlike my son, I spent more money on it because I do use mine for business purposes quite heavily.  Since I’m trying to move data from a Windows 7 machine to a Windows 8.1 machine…well, the transition hasn’t been so smooth. I’m doing it little bit by little bit. The Windows Easy Transfer was not cooperating in any way, no matter how I tried. Some things have ended up working out more easily, like having the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription to download programs to the new computer. Other ones…not so much. I’m still moving my own documents and content over as well, and there will need to be some tweaking done as well. It gives me a chance to clean up some of the data on my old computer so as not to mess up the new one too much.

During the process, I kept thinking, “Gee, what would someone who doesn’t have a lot of know-how about these systems do this process, if it’s like this for me?” Between my husband and I, who aren’t hardware/software experts, we still have a better clue than most people on how different software and systems work on a Windows computer, at least. Between us, we’ve been in the IT business in one form or another for 35+ years, so you’d think that we’d have some idea of how this stuff works.

This all lead to me thinking about the technical abilities of my family. My paternal grandfather, who lacked a formal education, was someone who should have been an electrical engineer based on his work and hobbies. He was a natural at that stuff. My brother inherited that mind too, as he is an architect. I was the other “tech” in the family. My father in law is a mechanical engineer, and my husband’s undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering, even though he is a computer and web developer now. So I supposed it was inevitable that it would be part of my son’s genetic code (get it, code?). 😉

Luke, use your technical abilities for your technical communications. I mean, USE THE FORCE!
Luke, use your technical abilities for your technical communications. I mean, USE THE FORCE!

I started thinking about it more deeply in terms of how this technical ability has helped my own career, and how it has related to technical writing and technical communication. After all, “technical” is the big modifier when describing these professions. How many of us are actually “technical” in what we do? We probably need to better define “technical” first. Do we mean that we understand the finer details or writing or related work (like web design, etc.) that we can be more “technical” than the average person? Or do we mean that we understand and work with technical content, which requires a higher level of knowledge on less than average topics? In my mind, it’s both. You could be one or the other easily, but probably the best technical communicators are a bit of both.

Don't listen to Vader and become a Sith!
Don’t listen to Vader and become a Sith!

Is this something we take for granted? Perhaps we do. That’s something that we should change, and I think there’s been a movement within the technical communications field to embrace that. We have a special set of skills that many people don’t have. Many can write, and many can be technical, but not many can be both.  You have been gifted with “The Force”, so to speak, so it’s your responsibility to use it for good like a Jedi Knight, and not turn to the Dark Side.

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Uhura and Translation Software–Still not there yet

star-trek-uhura NNMy husband’s first language is Spanish. As a result, naturally, most of his relatives speak Spanish exclusively. I, however, do not speak Spanish.  I took two beginner courses, but I know little Spanish in comparison.  I have had more French in my background, and with the similarities between French and Spanish, I can sometimes understand enough written Spanish to get by.

Recently, my husband’s aunt was celebrating her birthday, and I wanted to send her a brief line or two on Facebook to acknowledge the day. She only speaks Spanish–or at least her English is very outdated, so I knew it’d be better to write in Spanish. I used the Bing Translator to help me write a note to our “Tia”, and I had enough of a Spanish background to know it was correct. I think.

I started thinking about how translation is advancing with technological changes, and how writing for translation in tech comm is becoming increasingly important. It occurred to me that we are certainly not at the stage that we can each have a Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer from Star Trek, at our disposal.  Even in the 23rd century, she still had to learn several languages and would depend on her software–and even the occasional book–to help her get through a difficult translation. This scene from the film, Star Trek VI, came to mind when I thought about it:

So, things aren’t perfect even when we do have universal translators.

Back in the present,  two people who have spoken about translation in tech comm came to mind. The first person I thought of was one of my favorite content management speakers, Val Swisher. Val and her company, Content Rules, specialize in translation and how it fits into using content management wisely. I always love hearing her presentations about the importance of translation editing, and writing content for reuse that can easily be used for translation.  One of the examples that Val uses often is a scenario involving a pet care website. In curating content, one author may use the word, “pooch,” another might use, “puppy,” and yet another might use the term, “canine.” All are different terms to describe a dog, but that doesn’t mean that translation software–or even a human translator–necessarily understands the differences. The same occurs with expressions. There are several expressions or slang that can be used in English that don’t have an equivalent translation in another language, and vice versa. Heck, sometimes slang used between different dialects of English alone need translation!  Since translation is often lacking for many parts of the world for things as simple as instructions on how to use everyday, life-saving products, I know Val is very involved with a volunteer group called, Translators Without Borders, for this very reason–to help smooth out that process of getting technical communication out to ALL parts of the world, especially in areas that actually might need it more than one would think.

The other person that came to mind was Ray Gallon. On a panel at the Adobe Day during the 2013 STC Summit, Ray stated very clearly that as technical communicators, we should all know at least two languages other than our own, as it lends to our global credibility.  Tying it into what Val has talked about, his statement made sense.  Over the years, I have studied five languages other than English, although I’ve mastered none of them. I got up to an intermediate to advanced level in one language (French), but I don’t remember as much as I should. And as mentioned, my Spanish hasn’t been that good despite two separate years of classroom Spanish and 17 years of hearing it from my husband and his family. Nonetheless, learning another language–or several other languages, for that matter–can help an English-speaking writer understand how other languages are structured. During my freshman year of undergraduate school, my roommate and I were taking 300-level classes in foreign languages; she was taking Spanish while I was taking French. When each of us had essay assignments, we’d consult each other, and we actually would have some fun figuring out how to change our wording in English to fit the language architecture of the respective languages we were studying.  Even now, while some of my in-laws do speak English, it’s not strong, so I find I have to restructure my sentences in such a way that they can translate or understand the English better.  It truly helps to put translation into perspective. 

Uhura can't translate as well as C3-PO and doesn't have the gift of the TARDIS to help her, but she's definitely the epitome of translation and localization to us in the present.
Uhura can’t translate as well as C3-PO and doesn’t have the gift of the TARDIS to help her, but she’s definitely the epitome of translation and localization to us in the present.

So, imagine poor Uhura. She’s no C3-PO who can translate a million languages or so. Nor does she have the gift of the TARDIS to do her translating for her. Uhura probably had to learn not only how to use universal translation hardware and software for all the human languages, but alien languages as well. So, in that respect, I’m sure that Uhura took Ray Gallon’s advice to make her life easier and allow her to stand out.

I recommend that you also read the following post that I discovered while doing a little research myself, as it covers almost the same topic here from another perspective. It’s very good.

Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?

Having an understanding about localization and globalization in language will help all of us be better technical communicators.  Translation software is getting better, but it’s not flawless. I know enough of the languages I have learned to know when a translation is wrong, which can often be the case as well. We live in a time that we may see something close to a true universal translator available, but in the meantime, we need to be more aware of how we write for a global audience.

How do you approach your audience? Do you write for a single language or for a global audience–or for that matter, a universal audience? I know I’m not perfect when it comes to writing this blog for a global audience, but I do try when I think about it.

(Val and Ray, please feel free to chime in or correct anything here in the comments!)

Feel free to add any insights to the comments below. I’m definitely curious about how technical communicators approach this subject in their work on a daily or frequent basis.