Found in Translation
by Mark Anthony, Senior Technical Writer
At Kenzan and its parent company Amdocs, I work every day with cloud architects, software developers, and other technology experts who specialize in digital transformation. As a technical writer, my job is to make sure the amazing solutions our team members design come across clearly to our clients and with full impact.
More and more these days, our teams and clients are globally distributed. So I often find myself working with both readers and writers for whom English is a Second Language (ESL). I also have to think about making sure the documents we create can be easily translated into other languages. To stay effective in my role, I knew I needed to sharpen my skills in writing for ESL readers. I also needed to be able to write with translation in mind. What I didn’t realize is how working on these skills would help me become a better writer in my own primary language.
Keeping it Simple
Above all, you don’t want your writing to be unclear.
Wait, did you just stumble on that line? Imagine what this sentence might be like for an ESL reader, let alone a machine translation program just trying to make it the end of its algorithm. Double negatives can be difficult to parse and cause confusion for your ESL (or computer) audience. Instead, let’s keep it positive and say: Above all, you want your writing to be clear.
Great! So what are some other ways to ensure that?
Well, for one, you can avoid vague pronoun references like the one in the preceding sentence. What does the word that refer to? ESL readers might find it difficult to go back and find the right noun that the pronoun references. Let’s ask instead: What are some other ways to ensure clear writing? Replacing a pronoun with a noun might make you feel like you’re repeating the obvious. But in technical writing, there’s no such thing as being too obvious.
Finally, try to keep your sentences as short as possible. (20 words or less is a great goal, though longer is fine if your structure is clear.) Short sentences give readers more chances to take a breath and process what they’ve read. You’ll also accelerate any translation work. That’s because simple, grammatical sentences are easier for both machine and human translators to process. Recently, we were able to save a client thousands of dollars on the cost of translating document deliverables into Japanese. We achieved these savings just by applying the simple techniques outlined above.
Many Authors, One Voice
For another recent project, we took content composed by multiple writers in the United States, Israel, India, and Mexico, and collated it into a single report. Naturally, these authors represented an array of backgrounds and writing styles. However, for clarity, the document needed to look like the work of one author. What’s more, the final report was to be presented in Hebrew!
As humans, we all like to put our mark on things (graffiti on buildings, flags on moons). When it comes to writing for ESL audiences, though, it’s better to be a bit more humble. Are you tempted to use erudite terminology to elucidate a particular hypothesis? You’re better off choosing the smallest word that will make your point. You might feel like you’re losing some of your personal flair. But the fact is, virtually all of your stylistic efforts will be lost in the process of translation anyway. So it’s better to write simply and focus on getting your message across. (You can save the fancy prose for that novel you’ve got in a drawer.)
By applying our simple writing techniques, we removed style variability and eased the translation effort. As a result, we were able to meet the challenge and present our client with a clear, cohesive report that spoke in two languages but one voice.
ESL Writing is Just Good Writing
As I practiced my new ESL writing skills, I started to realize there was more going on than just bridging language gaps. When we communicate the design for a cloud-native solution to a client, we’re also bridging gaps in technical experience, business perspective, and corporate culture.
We encounter these same types of gaps with just about any client, whether they’re down the street or across the globe. Using consistent terminology, avoiding jargon and slang, breaking up long sentences, and choosing simple words isn’t just good when writing for translation. It’s good writing, period.
For many of our clients, taking the leap into digital transformation or cloud migration is a lot like learning a new language. I started out looking for ways to make our documents easier for ESL readers and translators to understand. Along the way I learned that clear, simple writing makes technical content easier for anyone to read and grasp.