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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 She only speaks Spanish–or at least her English is very outdated, so I knew it’d be better to write in Spanish.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.

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Is English an International Language? – Part 2

UK vs US peepsEarlier this year, I was asked by the STC-PMC to write a two-part article about the differences and similarities between American and British English.  Part 1 was published in February.  Today, I happily saw that the second part was published in the STC-PMC bi-monthly newsletter.

To find the original article, see the March/April 2013 edition of the STC-PMC Newsletter here.

The article itself is below.


Is English an International Language?
Part 2

David Crystal, author of English as a Global Language, has said that in the pursuit of a World Standard Spoken English (WSSE), American English seems to be the most influential in its development, as American grammar is now starting to influence contemporary British usage.  He also discusses at length how different dialects will allow national and international intelligibility to start developing. He said, “If WSSE emerges as the neutral global variety in due course, it will be make redundant the British/American distinction. British and American English will still exist, of course, but as varieties expressing national identity in the UK and the USA.

Edmund H. Weiss, the author of The Elements of International English Style, also points out that there is clash when trying to come up with a standard version of English, namely between “…globalization, producing a one-size-fits-all solution for a diverse world of English speakers, versus localization, adapting and modifying this universal model for particular readers in particular locales.”  Where English is a second language, Weiss demonstrates, the idioms and figures of speech end up resembling the language structure of the native language. Because of there are about 400 million native English speakers, and about a billion people who speak it as a second language or as a foreign language (for business or a profession), the importance of clear, unambiguous communication is undeniable.

There are many great resources available about this conundrum that can help put everything in perspective, especially in a world in which the Internet is starting to spread the use of English more and more all the time. Some good ones include:

Recent Articles:
Internet + English= Netglish
Learning English online: How the Internet is changing language
Tongue and Tech: the Many Emotions from Which English Has No Words

Books:
·         Do’s and Taboos of Using English Around the World by Roger E. Axtell
·         Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English by Christopher Davies
·         The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, and Internet Pages for a Global Audience by Edmond H. Weiss
·         English as a Global Language by David Crystal
·         Brit-Think, Ameri-Think by Jane Walmsley

Podcast:
·         International English by Danielle M. Villegas at https://soundcloud.com/techcommgeekmom/international-english

So, what’s a technical writer supposed to do? The best thing to do is to be exceedingly careful of using slang or idioms that relate to one’s native English, and be aware of local usage used on a global scale. This isn’t an easy task at all, yet it’s an important consideration when translating English into another language, let alone trying to write for English speakers globally.

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Do you speak the Queen’s English? It’s a Rhetorical Question.

William and Kate,
aka The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

I’ve been a big royalty follower for 30 years. It started the weekend before the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, and it hasn’t stopped since that time. Nor has my interest in royals been limited to just the Brits. I’ve always been fascinated by any royals, no matter the nationality, and keep up with the “royal gossip” reading Hello Magazine online.

So, what does this have to do with anything, especially something related to technical communications? A friend of mine found the following article in the Telegraph, which talks about how the received pronunciation of how the Duke of Cambridge’s elders speak is starting to change to a more modern pronunciation, with less crispness and precision than in the past–more like how the Duchess of Cambridge and many average Brits speak.

Prince William’s cut-glass accent is a little less polished than Kate Middleton’s

To me, this fact is of notable significance. English, like any other language, is a constantly evolving language. While the same base language is spoken among those claiming to speak English, there are significant differences not only in pronunciation, but also in how it’s used. Those speaking English in India, Australia, and New Zealand greatly differentiate from their fellow speakers in Canada, the U.S. or South Africa. Heck, just within my own state of New Jersey, there are different pronunciations of certain words! Different vocabularies and different expressions are used often, but the foundation of the language is the same. This also applies to other languages as well that are used globally like Spanish and French.

This is an important thing to note, as rhetoric is a good part of technical communications. How language is presented in spoken word, whether by a recording, audio file or video file, can make a difference as to whether the message being delivered is clear to the audience.  This also has an impact on the translation in technical communications. Recalling Val Swisher’s talk on Adobe Day, the choice of words when writing documentation that needs to be translated into other languages is critical. Using expressions or colloquialisms is frowned upon, as often these expressions cannot be translated directly.

However, I’ve also seen this happen within different English dialects. For the past two months, I’ve been teaching a virtual technical and business writing course to Asian-based employees of a very large global software company. Of all the students I had, only one was a native English speaker. Knowing that typically British English is used outside the Americas to learn English, I did my best to adapt my vocabulary accordingly. (Good thing I’m such an Anglophile and watch a lot of British television these days!) Even with that, I could hear from my students–who usually spoke English well–that certain nuances from their particular locales still came through their speech, and I don’t mean just accents.  Students from India and Singapore were much more formal with their words and phrase choices than their colleagues based in Korea or Kuala Lumpur. There’s nothing wrong with that, but merely an observation.  I also thought about how American English has changed. If one watches an American film made in the 1930s or 1940s, much of the rhetoric used was very different from today, much like the American equivalent of the Queen’s English described in the article above. There are still very good speakers in the U.S, but that crispness of speech is more relaxed and modern.

For me, I think my rhetoric holds up decently enough. I know that I will slide into some bad habits now and then, but not too often. I don’t have a pronounced “Jersey” accent that’s put forth on television shows, but I am a native Jersey Girl through and through. (You can judge for yourself on the home page of my e-portfolio, where I’m featured in a video for NJIT’s MSPTC program.) One of my younger sisters is an actress, and while she has had extensive elocution lessons, she doesn’t necessarily have a particular accent, especially a “Jersey” accent. So when a famous British actor met her years ago and spoke with her at a book signing, he swore she was from Sweden and not from New Jersey!

As we become more globally aware, thanks to Internet connectivity, we need to become more aware of how we communicate to each other rhetorically to make sure that we understand each other as clearly as possible. As technical communicators, we should be setting the standards and leading the way for others.

So as you speak to fellow English speakers that you know locally and globally, how does your rhetoric stand up to the rest?