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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 She only speaks Spanish–or at least her English is very outdated, so I knew it’d be better to write in Spanish.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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Adobe Day at LavaCon 2012 Roundup!

This post is just a quick summary of the Adobe Day at LavaCon 2012 series from this past week. As you see, there was so much information that it took six posts to try to summarize the event!

Being in Portland, Oregon was great. It was my first trip there, and being a native Easterner, my thoughts pushed me to that pioneer spirit of moving westward in this country. Once there, I saw a hip, young, modern city, continuing to look towards the future.  The information I gathered at Adobe Day was general information that was endorsement-free, and practical information that I can use going forward as a technical communicator, and that by sharing it, I hope that others in the field will equally take on that pioneering spirit to advance what technical communications is all about, and bring the field to the next level.

To roundup the series, please go to these posts to get the full story of this great event. I hope to go to more events like this in the future!

As I said, I really enjoyed the event, and learned so much, and enjoyed not only listening to all the speakers, but also enjoyed so many people who are renowned enthusiasts and specialists in the technical communications field and talking “shop”. I rarely get to do that at home (although it does help to have an e-learning developer in the house who understands me), so this was a chance for me to learn from those who have been doing this for a while and not only have seen the changes, but are part of the movement to make changes going forward.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of blog posts. I still have many more to come–at least one more that is inspired by my trip out to Portland, and I look forward to bringing more curated content and commentary to you!

The autograph from my copy of
Sarah O’Keefe’s book,
Content Strategy 101.
Awesome!
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Adobe Day Presentations: Part IV – Val Swisher asks, “Are You Global Ready?”

Val Swisher
of Content Rules, Inc.

Following a short break after Joe Welinske’s talk about Multi-screen Help Authoring, Val Swisher took to the stage.

Val is the founder of Content Rules, Inc., and she spoke about eight simple rules for technical communicators to follow to make content global-ready–now! Her specialty is doing translation work, so she knows a thing or two about making content ready for a global market. As she went through each rule, she would explain the impact of the rules and why the rules were in place, although some were self-explanatory.

The rule she listed were as follows:

Rule 1: Not all errors are created equal. Some can cost you thousands of dollars!
This is one of those obvious rules. Taking the time to write content carefully as well as making sure proper editing is done is a necessity. Even one small typo can make a difference.

Rule 2: Creative Writing is a myth. Standardize.
Val’s point with this rule is that superfluous writing is not necessary. Keeping content clear, concise, cogent and correct is especially important in translation, and allows for better reuse of content.

Rule 3: Real copy editors don’t do it without a terminology manager. 
It is vital to use the same terms for certain words, especially for translation purposes. For example, the words “puppy”, “dog”, and “canine” all refer to the same animal, but are clearly different words, even though they essentially mean the same thing. In translation, there are times that this much word variation for a single item isn’t available in a different language, so choosing one word as the referential term is recommended. It keeps terminology within the content–especially if reusing content–consistent.  Style guides are, unfortunately, not followed as often as they can be. A system is needed to manage terminology and help prevent problems like this example from occurring.

Rule 4: Have you got translation memory (a translation database)? Your vendors do. Use it. It keeps content standardized and saves money.
This is another fairly self-explanatory rule. I was not aware, since I’m not in the translation business, that there are such things as translation databases. From what I could understand how it works (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong), a translation database has features that when a specific turn-of-phrase is used on one language, there is a specific translation for that combination of words into another language. When a translation is done, the database looks for that word combination and translates it accordingly. This, again, allows for consistency in translations between the different language editions of content.  As a technical communicator who does translations, Val is saying that if you don’t have such a database in place, you should have one because in the long run, it will standardized content and save money.

Rule 5: Don’t complain about quality of your tech writers. You agreed to outsource docs to ___ in the 1st place.
Val pointed out that while there are good outsource resources for writing and translation out there, sometimes the quality is not as good as keeping it in house or closer to home, especially if the content is written by someone whose first language is not English. Good quality source material is key! Having good quality source material helps control costs, especially with translation!

Rule 6: If you write flabby copy, even the nicest vendors will email you a bill for localization that will astound you.
Again, this comes back to having quality content in place. Val’s point was that if you do write weak content that is difficult to translate because it is not quality content, even one’s best clients will send you a bill for the translation for localization purposes, and the bill will be VERY HIGH. Again, having quality content saves money!

Rule 7: Get rid of extra adjectives and superlative words! Delay this product launch, and there’s no next product launch.
This rule is a strong recommendation related again to how content should be written. The use of extra adjectives, adverbs and other superlative words do not enhance the content. Using such words that have to be rewritten or translated can delay a product going out, and for a client, that can be a deal-breaking move. By delaying the product due to not meeting a deadline due to overdue time for translation, and there will be no next time being able to help with a product launch. Obviously, that would be bad business.

Rule 8: Translation is a team sport. You want to work alone? Become an accountant.
While this rule elicited a laugh from the audience, it was a point well taken. Teamwork is KEY! A better source of English content will result between source writers and translators if they work together.

Val was asked the question at the end of her presentation, “What alternative tools for style guides are on the market?” She responded that there are lots of software tools out there, but to be careful about push technology within those software items.

More information can be found at Val’s website, http://www.contentrules.com  and her free e-book is available by e-mailing her at vals@contentrules.com.

I found this presentation rather fascinating, especially since Val presented it with a sense of humor. But her point was clear. Content needs to be as precise as possible when it will be reused and especially when used in translation for consistency. By following her basic rules, costs can be controlled, and the quality of the content can only get better.

I thought about what it takes to do translation, searching my own memory banks from when I almost minored in French during my undergrad years and had to do translations, to the present day watching my husband translate literature written in German to Spanish for a group he’s been involved with for years, to my own struggles to translate what I want to say to my in-laws into my broken Spanish. Translation is not an easy task, but when thinking about translating my English thoughts into another language, it can get tricky because of the turn of phrase or colloquialisms used from area to area. Even in talking to my husband about the topic, he will say that there are different idioms used between Spanish speaking countries, although Spanish will still be relatively “standard.” Being from Ecuador, he can still understand someone from Spain, Mexico or Argentina as much as an American can understand someone from the UK, Canada, or the Australia. But I’ve even found in my own teaching of a business and technical writing course to a corporate group in Asia is that English taught globally is not consistent due to the source English being from different countries, so I have to go and set the record straight.  I can certainly appreciate where consistency and choice of words can lead to better quality content and communication in the long term.

The next presentation, and the last in this series: Adobe Day Presentations: Part V – Mark Lewis and DITA Metrics.