Tag Archives: translation

Don’t twist the prose

It’s never too early to plan for next year’s gardening. I just got a new pair of pruning shears, and on the back of the package I found these illustrations:

garden_shears

….accompanied by these instructions:

Don’t twist the scissors in use. If the scissors are in the city Figure C in the way the clock pointer, the two shear bodies will squeeze each otherDamage: if it is twisted to the look of the clock in the opposite of the A, the time of the clockWill produce a gap between the two sides of the plane, and can not ensure smooth trim. Correct useShould be shown in figure B.

Yeah. Wow.

I was tempted to laugh and roll my eyes, and I confess that maybe I did. A little.

But it’s also worth pausing to make a few points — because someone wrote this, honestly thinking they were conveying useful information. Nobody sets out to make their readers’ eyes roll. So what happened here? Let’s think about it.

Don’t overthink

First, I’m pretty certain that the writer, despite the best of intentions, overthought the whole thing. Here’s what they wanted to say: For a smooth cut, always cut straight on. Don’t rotate the shears to the right or left.

But, anxious to make sure no one would misunderstand, the writer inserted cross-references to the pictures and added the convoluted text about what happens if you turn (twist) the shears clockwise or counterclockwise. The added detail, rather than clarifying, only muddled things.

My copy often goes from simple to complex, just like this writer’s. Then, after setting it aside for a little while, I can come back and make it simple again.

Translation matters

Then, when you’re writing content for translation, be sure it’s translated by people who know both the source and target languages. It sure looks like this company cut corners when it came to translation. (Maybe they twisted their shears counterclockwise while cutting. Who knows?)

I’m certain that this copy looked a lot better in the source language than it does in English.

Also, when writing for translation, be sure the writer and the translator are working with the same authoring tool. It’s likely that those crashed-together words, like otherDamage and clockWill, resulted from a writer saving the copy in one tool and a translator opening it in another.

Verify, verify, verify

The manufacturer knew they’d be selling their product in a large English-speaking market. Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d usability-tested their instructions — or even if they’d simply verified them with one English speaker?

Perhaps it seemed like an unnecessary expense, or too much of an inconvenience, to verify the instructions. Or perhaps someone simply said We don’t care — just ship it.  Whether that decision will have negative consequences, in the form of damaged customer loyalty or decreased sales, I don’t know. (Very possibly it won’t, which is why someone said We don’t care.)

The decision certainly has resulted in embarrassment for the manufacturer. Can you put a cash value on that?

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Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.

Good writing adds value: here’s proof

We’ve all heard it. We all believe it in our hearts. Good writing adds value.

But maybe you still don’t have a ready answer when someone says Prove it!

this-weeks-challenge-question-marcia-riefer-johnstonHere’s something for you: Marcia Riefer Johnston’s weekly Tighten This! game. (If you’re not already playing , you should be. In fact, why don’t you go over there right now, and then come back. I’ll wait.)

Each week Marcia supplies a challenge sentence that’s bloated with hot air and/or gobbledygook. The sentences are real, coming from corporate or governmental communications. Many of them are contributed by the game’s participants; Marcia finds the rest herself.

Players are asked to “tighten” the challenge sentence into something less wordy and more lucid. After the judges — Marcia, her husband Ray Johnston, and me — select a winner, Marcia compares the winning entry with the original sentence and calculates a cost savings based on translating the content into 25 languages at 25 cents a word, times 10,000 sentences (about the length of a Harry Potter novel, or a set of hardware setup guides).

In half a year, using Marcia’s formula, the Tighten This! writers have cut bloat to the tune of $29,812,500.

Nearly $30 million in savings, just by turning bad writing into good. That’s value!

Last week’s game brought one of the most dramatic examples of adding value. The winning entry trimmed a sentence from 51 words to 6:

Before:
The line manager or a mentor should be allocated to each new employee to act as a guide and counsellor during the induction process so that new members of staff learn about the company and are given the necessary support and opportunity to put their learning into practice in the workplace.

After:
Assign each new employee a mentor.

That’s fine, you might be saying. But my stuff isn’t translated into 25 languages. In fact, it’s not translated at all.

That’s OK. There are other ways in which good writing adds value.

Sarah O’Keefe’s and Alan Pringle’s Content Strategy 101 contains several sample case studies that demonstrate how good content can support both sides of a business case — cost savings and revenue enhancement — through things like reduced support calls to increased sales. I encourage you to buy the book: you’ll find it to be good value for your money.

So, yes, you can prove that good writing adds value. And adding value is what technical communication is all about.

Cam you share other case studies — especially ones in which you were personally involved — to show that good writing adds value?

Easy translation: a double-edged sword?

Google Translate word lens feature

Image source: Google

Big news from Google Translate: you can now point your smartphone camera at French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish text — and immediately get an English translation. (Thanks to Danielle Villegas — @TechCommGeekMom — for pointing me to the original article by Pete Pachal on Mashable.)

As Pachal writes, “Star Trek‘s universal translator is here, and it’s on your phone.”

It’s very cool, and incredibly useful.

However, as someone who used a slide rule before pocket calculators came into vogue, I have a question.

Just as calculators (and then personal computers) eroded people’s skill at doing long division, will easy translation software make people less likely to learn foreign languages? If I can navigate around Lisbon or Moscow using my smartphone, will I bother to learn anything at all of Portuguese or Russian?

And if that’s true, won’t something be lost? After all, learning a language is more than just learning vocabulary and syntax. It’s gaining a bit of insight into the culture that produced the language, and it’s opening up a way for me to connect with people in that culture.

So, hooray for easy translation software. In the short run it’ll certainly make our lives easier. But will it prove to be a double-edged sword?

Tell me what you think in the comments.