Technical Manual Translation

How to Translate Your Technical Manual

Read this before localising your operating & instruction manual!

Operating and instruction manuals provide guidance either to employees in an organization or individuals for safety or to perform various tasks as intended and efficiently. Such manuals may at times be translated from one language to another for various reasons needless to mention here. However, it’s important to emphasize the need for accuracy when translating such documents. Accuracy is imperative because any mistake can be misleading and make the translator, or the company offering such manuals liable for damages if people follow guidance that are flawed. This article offers some of the best practices a technical translator needs to know when undertaking a technical manual translation project.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that besides from being fluent in both languages, the source language and the target language, a  technical translator should also have  knowledge of the subject. For instance, if you are translating a manual about heavy machinery, it’s essential to have adequate knowledge in the particular field. Sunderland Translations provides French technical translation services and has experts with knowledge in various fields able to clearly understand and accurately translate all types of technical manuals.

What to consider when undertaking a technical translation project

If you have already translated a technical manual, one thing that might have gotten your attention is the large amount of specific terminologies depending on the field area or topic of the technical manual. Technical translations are often field-specific. A good translator will have years of experience in the required field, professional training in technical translation and acuity in the specific language pair.

Technical manuals may have a certain level of complexity. It is always best to translate such manuals by maintaining  the level of complexity. For example, if the purpose of the manual is to provide an explanation of a technical concept in layman terms, you should aim at translating such manual in a simple language. If, on the contrary, the language used in the technical manual is oriented to technical professionals, you do not want to provide a translation that is too simplistic or sound patronising. Below are a few useful tips for the successful translation of technical documents.

  • Understand the subject – The translator needs to familiarize himself or herself with the subject area. Apart from knowledge, it is also necessary to read completely the manual and conduct some research if necessary to broaden your understanding. In lots of circumstances, technical translator undertakes projects in the fields they are not experts. It is not an issue if you can conduct research on the subject.
  • Know your audience – Technical manuals are usually intended for a particular audience. For example, occupational safety guidelines for employees, a manual giving instruction how to build something, etc. It’s important to know your audience to provide a translation tailored for their use. Is the audience a general one that requires use of easily understandable terms? Or are they industry insiders and professionals in the field?
  • Stay in touch with the client – It’s important to be in contact with the client or the project manager to obtain insight when necessary. Some discretion is needed here, though. While some clients are available 24/7 to provide clarification on ambiguous expressions or to approve my straightening out of mistakes in the source text, others aren’t and would rather not be disturbed. It’s usually helpful to set out communication expectations with the client as early on as possible, even as part of the contract.
  • The use of CAT tools – It is better to undertake the translation of a document manually, using CAT tools to streamline workflows and possibly manage terminology databases.

Technical documents are some of the most difficult to translate. Technical translators are often hired by international manufacturing companies. These translators need to demonstrate high levels of competence. The desired skills a technical translator should have include:

  • A professional qualification, preferably at master’s level in a particular field of study and/or a degree in translation.
  • It is preferable that the technical translator be a native speaker of the target language and fluent in the source language at professional level.
  • Have years of experience as a translator and familiar with contemporary terminologies

Technical translation achieving accuracy

There is a difference between technical translation and conventional translation. For the former, fluency on its own in the target language is not sufficient. Unlike the translation of literary documents, in technical translations there are no subtexts or cultural undertones to maintain. There are also no intricate literary techniques to convert. The translation of a technical document only requires the translator to preserve the technical content. It doesn’t mean ignoring style in the translation. The translator should use devices available in the target language to provide the reader a clear idea of the content.

The translator should provide a precise translation. He/she should use the appropriate vocabulary and conventional text formatting. While translating, it’s necessary to put in evidence the element of intertextuality meaning that the translated document should include similar text type and features as shown in the source document.

A technical translator should apply the same stylistic principles as a technical writer. With regards to style, the technical translator should place emphasis on clarity, concision and correctness.  For the sake of clarity, it’s essential to recast a target language when the syntactic and lexical features differ between the source and target language. Clarity may require the use of terminologies with different degrees of specificity than that in the original text.

When starting a translation, usually the first draft is often quite wordy to ensure that all the information from the original text is included. The translator should then proceed in a pruning exercise. The translator can make the text concise by improving it sentence by sentence and replacing the lengthy wording with single words as long as it provide the same meaning and information relayed in the sentence.

The third element that deserve close attention in a translation is correct. By correcting it implies two things. 1) the accurate re-creation of information and technical terms from the source document. This can only be possible if the technical translator is knowledgeable with the subject matter. Accuracy also means the suppression of typographical and grammatical errors from the original text if these do not impede comprehension. A simple example is when using English construction in a French text contrary to the rules of French grammar. 2) Accuracy also means producing an accurate translation despite mistakes in the original text.

Best practice when translating technical manuals

Technical translation is not fancy like literary translation. The primary aim is to provide information to the end user. Therefore, simplicity and clarity are essential. Best practice when undertaking a technical translation is to seek and avoid ambiguity. This can be achieved by undertaking several steps:

  • Keep sentences short, whenever possible. When translating from the source language to the target language. Seek to make sentences concise. Simple phrase are better than long ones.
  • It is better to use active voice instead of passive to avoid misunderstanding. Avoid using strings of nouns. Usually they bring confusion when reading.
  • As noted, this is not meant to be a fancy translation where you seek to demonstrate your language knowledge. It is perfectly fine and even recommended to use the same phrases, terms, and parallel constructions either in a sentence or in consecutive sentences. The use of parallel construction makes the text predictable thus improves the understanding.
  • Consistency is a must. The terminology used when translating should remain consistent. Use the same spelling, semantic structure and grammar.
  • Avoid using redundant expression, meaningless modifiers, multi-word expressions or pompous writing.
  • Avoid ambiguity by using syntactic cues such as punctuation marks to improve readability
  • Develop a glossary of terms for the related project before starting. It is essential to read the entire or part of the project. It’s important to have a glossary because most often with technical translation some terms are used frequently throughout the text.
  • Visual concept should not be neglected. If the source document has graphics and pictures, they must be reproduced accordingly.
  • Read, revise your translation for quality and consistency and fluency. Style is not the main issue when it comes to technical translation, but it does matter. It is important that your translation sounds natural and not like a translation regardless of its technical aspect.
  • When localizing the technical translation,  focus on your content strings. When localizing much of the content  revolves on strings. These are words and phrases that the user will find across the document. You should also aim to develop a localizing platform if you are using translation software.
  • As a translator being part of a translator community also help to solve many issues that at times you might encounter in the language pair you are translating.  Peers can provide suggestions when you are stuck. The internet is also a very useful tool for research.

Thus, a technical translation can be considered as high-quality and the translation experienced when the following elements are taken into consideration – the translation is clear, concise with short sentences. 2) there is no ambiguity 3) There are no cultural references 4) There are no idiomatic expressions, no humour, and no slang 5) there is no fluff. These five elements are most essential when undertaking technical translation, but  all the other points note above should not be neglected also.

The Use of CAT Tools

When undertaking a technical translation project, it is not recommended the use of CAT tools, but it can often be beneficial. The advancement of technology means that software exists that can undertake a computerized translation of texts. One of the advantages of these systems is that you can often obtain a similar layout of the final document similar to the source document.

Technical translations often have unique words for the specific field. For example, when translating a manufacturing manual, lots of words will be related to manufacturing terms. CAT tools most important functionality is the creation and management of memory (TM). This allows the translator to reuse strings of text that have been previously translated. It also helps to keep a similar passage consistent and prevent the translator to repeat himself in different passages or write the same information in a different manner which might result in confusion. The CAT tools also can either provide a glossary for the translated text depending on the field being translated or allow the translator to build a glossary unique for the content being translated. Some of the benefits of using CAT tools include:

  • Consistency – This is a very crucial element that needs to be taken seriously into consideration regardless of the type of translation you’re undertaking. CAT tool, reuse element lets you achieve consistency by showing phrases and terms that are similar and have already been used. It’s important, especially for technical translation since it allows you to use the same technical terms and phrases.
  • Quality assurance check – Many CAT tools have a built-in quality assurance check such as auto-correct, flagging grammatical or formatting errors, missing tags et. It saves time and helps translators in case they were not aware of some of these errors.

There are also other benefits in using CAT tools such as the reduction of time and cost. However helpful it should be used sparingly.  Manual translation still remains preferred, especially when you’re a very experienced translator. The use of CAT tools will just help by providing you with a glossary, especially when you translate frequently similar subjects. It’s always necessary to read your translation for fluency regardless whether you’ve translated manually or used a CAT tool.

Other things to consider as a technical translator

When it comes to translating any type of content, even technical, there is no one theory that specifically applies. All the theories found in the literature can as well be applied for technical translation, however, it remains to the translators judgement which best to use and in what circumstances. When translating technical documents key areas that needs to be considered include:

  • It is essential for the translator to concentrate on the need of the target audience. Ultimately they are the judges of the translation.
  • It is also imperative for the translator to understand the needs and wants of the target audience.
  • It’s important to know the technical communication of the target audience
  • The translator also needs to be aware that he/she should  add, remove information as part of the translation process to achieve effective communication with the technical text.

There are various types of technical document, for exampl,e instruction manuals, reports, software documentation, product documentation, etc.


It is important to point out here some misconceptions regarding technical translation. The notion of technical translation include law, business, economics, etc. Technical means exactly that. Not all text is technical just because they have some specialised terminologies. Another misconception is that technical translation is all about terminologies. What is important in technical translation is knowing how to write the texts. It’s important that the translator reproduces text that are similar to the original content. Failing to comply with the original text conventions can undermine the credibility of the translation. To achieve this, it’s necessary to look at technical writing. In fact, if you’re a good technical writer, you’re also a good technical translator. It’s important for translators develop their skills in technical writing. A technical translator should have the following skills – subject knowledge, writing skills, research skill, the knowledge of genre and text types and pedagogical skills.

Sunderland translation experts translate technical documents from French to English and vice-versa. Years of experience result in the application of best practice to achieve success with all types of projects. The French language like all the others have particularities. There is no need for cultural knowledge when it comes to technical translation, however a good command of the source and the target language is essential.

There are often various challenges, for instance achieving quality when localizing technical content. Localizing often makes the translation more familiar with the specific region or location the translation is oriented. This is important because of cultural sensitivity to some types of content.

Another important matter to consider is the use of translation tools, especially when multiple translators are working on the same project. Translation tools are often just for support. When multiple technical translators are working on the same project. Sunderland translation has in place a rigorous quality process to ensure that all translators use the same glossary. Regardless, a translator can achieve a good technical translation only by adhering to steps outlined in this article.

Technical translation is very important and is in increasing demand worldwide. The large number of businesses and organization throughout the world indicate the extent to which such translation is needed. With globalization, many companies have factories abroad. They put in place their processes, thus need to have their manual translated in the local language for better comprehension of the employees. To become a good technical translator, knowledge of the source and target language and expertise in the subject area are must-haves.