Although accurate technical documentation translation is imperative to convey the intended message of a source document, it’s not just about translating words—effective technical translation also requires good formatting skills.

Correctly formatting a technical document for translation means accurately replicating the original source document. Let’s take a look at what makes for effective technical documentation.

How to Create Technical Documentation: Account for Source Type

Technical translation between languages inevitably involves text expansion or contraction. As a result, the translated document will include fewer or more characters, words, and whitespace.

This can present certain challenges for graphic designers, website developers, and marketers—how does a web designer deal with lots of whitespace? Or a typesetter account for more words or special characters than he or she has space for?

At ILS, our production team is experienced in formatting multilingual documents of any size and complexity and in popular applications such as InDesign, Quark, and FrameMaker, as well as tagged formats like HTML, SGML, and XML.

There are many variables that can impact text length. Some of these variables include:

  1. Type of language
  2. Type of text (technical, legal, literary)
  3. Translator word choices

Generally speaking, most languages take up more space in translation than the original English source text. For example, when translating English into Spanish or French, the translation will be about 15 to 30 percent longer than the original. For Dutch or German, the translated text can be up to 35 percent longer.

How to Create Technical Documentation: Account for Word Length

When it comes to translation, the differences aren’t just seen in sentence or phrase length—but also in the length of individual words. Some languages, such as German, Finnish, and Dutch, create single compound words to replace a sequence of individual words. For example, the word “grocery” in German is “Lebensmittelgeschäft.”

Taking this into consideration, it’s easy to see how a one-page English source document can quickly become two pages in German.

Whereas English text can be easily written into two lines with restricted width available (e.g. a series of tabs, a form entry field, or narrow columns), a German translation may not be as separable and can present considerable format and layout challenges.

It’s also important to consider abbreviations. While they may make sense in the source language, they may not translate effectively. Hence, abbreviations in the source text may need to be spelled out in full length in the translated document.

How to Create Technical Documentation: Account for Language Format

Formatting challenges can occur if characters of another language take up more space than their Latin alphabet counterparts. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, along with other Asian languages, are scripts that usually consist of more complex characters than Latin script.

So even if the resulting translated characters remain the same (or decrease), the horizontal space required for these languages may still be more substantial. For example, the word “desktop” in Japanese is “デスクトップ.”

Even though the Japanese translation has one less character, it still takes up more horizontal space than the same word in English. For most languages, it is generally safe to prepare for as much as 25 to 35 percent expansion (or contraction if you are translating from another language into English, for example).

Without the proper buffers, technical translation text in these languages can become so crowded that it’s difficult to read and offputting to consumers. Investing in quality, full service technical document translation services will help ensure you receive the most clear and accurate translation possible, with formatting taken into consideration as part of the process.


The Manufacturers Guide to Technical Translation

Learn all you need to know about technical document translation, key questions to ask, and critical pitfalls to avoid.